Islands in the Big Wood River: Ernest Hemingway and Idaho

Big Wood River

There have been many great American authors over the years. One of the most influential American authors in this regard would be Ernest Hemingway, a 20th century writer who spent much of his life working as both a wartime journalist as well as a fiction writer. Daring, subtle, and undoubtedly intelligent, Hemingway had a unique association with Idaho and its natural beauty. Hemingway’s long flirtation with Idaho has remained an influential piece of Idaho history and will continue to do so for years to come.

Not actually an Idaho native, Hemingway was born in July 21, 1899 and raised in Oak Park, Illinois. He spent a brief amount of time as a reporter before enlisting as an ambulance driver for soldiers in World War I. It was after the war that he earned success as the author of works like The Sun Also Rises in 1926 and A Farewell to Arms in 1929, as well as several short stories and news reports. Hemingway was quickly rising to celebrity status, which was undoubtedly what got him access to Idaho in the first place.

In 1939, businessman and politician W. Averell Harriman invited Hollywood-ranked celebrities to his latest venture, the Sun Valley Ski Resort outside of Ketchum, Idaho. This move was in the hope that their endorsement would make the resort more popular, and the idea worked. These celebrities included big names like Marilyn Monroe, Gary Cooper, Lucille Ball, and Ernest Hemingway himself. It was during this initial trip to Sun Valley and a second one the year after that Hemingway finished one of his most famous novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Several classic photographs of Hemingway can be found of him working on that novel in Sun Valley, room 206.

In some way, that trip to Idaho must have been inspiring for Hemingway, because he kept coming back to Ketchum from his first trip until 1939. Hemingway spent his time migrating between his home in Cuba and his new found home in Ketchum, which he primarily stayed in during the late summer, autumn months. Hemingway was quite fond of Idaho’s autumn, and described it in a famous eulogy of a friend, which in turn would end up on Hemingway’s own memorial site:

“Best of all he loved the fall … the fall with the tawny and grey, the leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams and above the hills the high blue windless skies”

There are many reasons that Idaho appealed to Hemingway. For one, Hemingway was an avid hunter, who enjoyed the thrill of the sport. Idaho’s incredible hunting opportunities with its varied and rich wildlife provided Hemingway with interesting challenges that he was not accustomed to from his time in Cuba. One of his most famous stories while hunting was during a chase of pronghorn antelope, when he shot down a fleeing antelope buck from 275 yards away in a single shot.

Hemingway also found solace in the privacy that Ketchum offered him. While staying in Idaho, Hemingway never discussed his literary fame nor accolades, and was described as a quiet, reserved man who spent most of his time writing and enjoying Idaho’s incredible climate and terrain. In return, most of his friends in Ketchum would speak of him as the man he was rather than the celebrity.

Hemingway would not visit Idaho for ten years after leaving in 1948, instead choosing to live in Cuba. It was during this period of his life, however, that he and his fourth wife Mary Welsh experienced incredible health problems brought on by repeatedly unfortunate accidents - like two successive plane crashes. Hemingway began to accumulate an extensive list of health problems, including a deep, underlying depression that was spent in conjunction with an inability to write anything he found satisfactory. It was for these reasons, and Hemingway’s increased neurotic breaks, that Mary moved their lives back to Ketchum, Idaho.

Hemingway settled back into Ketchum, Idaho, as well as he could have given his trauma. Perhaps in response to the loss of his manuscripts, Hemingway made his new home a bit more protected. The structure, which still stands today as a museum to Hemingway, is constructed almost entirely of cinder blocks finished with a faux wood exterior. This provided a controlled environment for Hemingway’s fragile manuscripts, which he was becoming increasingly worried over losing the longer he couldn't finish them.

Though his time in Idaho undoubtedly helped him, as he continued to hunt and explore the natural terrain, Ernest Hemingway continued to suffer from neurosis during these years in Idaho. Despite submitting himself to therapy, Hemingway repeatedly tried to kill himself, until finally on the morning of July 2nd, 1961, he committed suicide with his preferred shotgun.

Today, Hemingway’s Ketchum home is owned by the Nature Conservancy, which attracts many Hemingway and literary fans every year, especially on the anniversaries of his birth and death. Hemingway’s life, while experiencing many incredible highs and lows, inspired entire generations with his personality and the personality he showed through his writing. His bibliography has often been cited for its reserved style, using broken and repetitive sentence structure to imply and enforce his overarching literary themes. These themes reflect all that he valued in Idaho - wilderness, skill, strength, and the ability to act alone with those qualities in mind. Though Hemingway’s time in Idaho was brief to how far he traveled, Hemingway’s ideals about the beauty of Idaho are as timeless as they were when he first visited in 1939.

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