Guest Opinions

New home, new mission for Hemingway’s house in Central Idaho

The bedroom where Ernest Hemingway stood at a tall desk to write has a view of the Boulder Mountains.
The bedroom where Ernest Hemingway stood at a tall desk to write has a view of the Boulder Mountains. Statesman file

Ernest Hemingway’s final home rests heavily on a sagebrush shelf just above the Big Wood River in Central Idaho. It is a square house, made of concrete molded to look like wood (fashioned after the Sun Valley Lodge). Each side is dominated by large, single-pane glass windows. The house wants to look outward.

For the past 30 years, the house and the surrounding 13.9 acres of land have been owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. Last week, the conservancy gifted it to The Community Library in Ketchum. We at the library embrace the house and property as part of a larger Hemingway Legacy Initiative grounded in the Idaho landscape.

Hemingway staked his final claim here in Idaho, a place that he loved and returned to for more than two decades. We have the opportunity to stake a claim, too – at the intersection of literary greatness and local history.

Here, we can grapple with questions about not only one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, but also about the relationships between rural Idaho and cosmopolitanism; about the connections and the ruptures between the past and the present; about how we remember and invent stories by which we define ourselves as individuals and as communities.

Hemingway first came to Idaho in the fall of 1939, invited by the Union Pacific public relations staff to visit the new Sun Valley Lodge. He kept returning for the rest of his life. In the library’s collection, we have photographs of Hemingway hunting chukars near Picabo, standing in front of the Dietrich post office and lingering by a campfire at the base of the Pioneer Mountains.

We have oral histories about Hemingway from people such as Clara Spiegel and Anita Gray (two women who helped found the library in 1955); the physician George Saviers; the Sun Valley line mechanic Andy Beck; and others who describe Hemingway’s code of personal behavior and friendships forged in the outdoors. They evoke a man who moved between high and humble circles with ease, and they describe a community that responded to him with similar ease, as well as respect.

We also hold letters that Hemingway wrote to his Idaho friends and books that he inscribed to them, revealing the small but meaningful gestures through which his Idaho relationships persisted. And now, by becoming the steward of the house and its associated materials, the library holds objects such as his leather hunting bags and suitcases that connect us to his habits of walking, traveling and seeking challenges, and that situate Central Idaho in a global network.

The Ketchum house that Hemingway purchased in 1959 was built by Bob Topping, the heir to a tin fortune and a high-flying socialite. Still in the house today are film canisters that once contained home movies of Topping’s travels around the world – labeled “Siam” and “Panama” and “Ceylon.” Now the canisters sit on a shelf, in a concrete house, in the middle of Idaho.

And sitting on the floor in the master bedroom are traveling trunks with “Hemingway” blazoned across them in giant red letters, and dings and scratches and worn-out labels that bear witness to the wide-ranging life of a mythic literary figure.

In July 1961, Hemingway shot himself in the Ketchum house, and he is buried in the nearby cemetery. His widow, Mary, kept the house until her own death in 1986. In her will, she expressed her desire for the house to be maintained as a “nature reference library.”

Still today, stories continue to float among locals and visitors about Hemingway artifacts – mementos from old friendships – that are held in cupboards and attics around the Wood River Valley. For decades, such stories have remained somewhat spectral.

Through the Hemingway Legacy Initiative, we aim to grapple with these ghosts through a concerted preservation effort and increased educational outreach. We will make more artifacts and stories accessible to the public through museum exhibits and digital resources. And we plan to initiate a writer-in-residence program in an apartment at the Hemingway house in 2018. The house will remain private, providing a contemplative space for contemporary writers to work. We do not envision it as a commercial space, but as a reverential one.

Ultimately, the concrete house can provide a center of gravity for significant creative and scholarly work – but the house itself is not the object. It is embedded in a range of compelling narratives.

The house wants to look outward, on both a physical and literary landscape. We at the library want to encourage more Idahoans to grapple with the views it frames, to consider how it might challenge and expand our notions of not only Hemingway, but also our home ground – a complicated terrain of freedom and reticence, grittiness and polish, of silence and rumors and closely held stories that deserve a broader audience.

Jenny Emery Davidson is the executive director of The Community Library in Ketchum. She grew up in Twin Falls and received her doctorate degree in American studies from the University of Utah.