A Year in the Life of an American Literary Genius

Steve Paul (photo by Jim Barcus)

Steve Paul’s “Hemingway at Eighteen” includes a vivid account of the fledging author’s formative time in KC.

Ernest Hemingway (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, The Ernest Hemingway Collection)

I have never been a huge fan of Ernest Hemingway’s style of prose: The rain fell hard. The suede of my boots sponged the puddles. My umbrella leaked slowly. The book I held in my other hand stayed dry against my chest. I entered the coffee shop and ordered a cup.

Although Hemingway’s style of short declarative linear sentences served as a useful vehicle for his unique form of storytelling at the dawn of modern American literature, I can’t help but look back with a heavy dose of skepticism at how his influence crept into American classrooms over the past century as the preferred and prescribed style. Indeed, the idea that modern humans ought to become creatures that think and speak in a short declarative linear manner perhaps finds its ultimate expression in the 144-character declarative Tweets regularly put out by the current leader of the free world.

But I digress. Back to the coffee shop . . .

I was there to meet award-winning journalist and longtime Kansas City resident Steve Paul to talk about his new biography of Ernest Hemingway’s brief but influential season in Kansas City. I sipped my coffee and watched the door. A bespectacled and spry man entered, shook off the rain like a Labrador, and walked over to join me. We talked for more than an hour about Hemingway, Kansas City, Paul’s half-century of engagement with Kansas City’s arts and culture scene and newspaper journalism. For more than four decades Paul worked as a critic, reporter and editor at “The Kansas City Star,” the newspaper that gave Hemingway his start.

“Hemingway at Eighteen — The Pivotal Year That Launched an American Legend” comes out this October from Chicago Review Press. Unlike many Hemingway biographies that deal with longer stretches of the writer’s prolific life, Paul chose to focus his book on a single year. Within that brief 12-month period, we watch the young Hemingway go from a recent high school graduate uncertain of his next steps, to a cub reporter at one of the country’s great newspapers, to a volunteer ambulance driver in the Italian front of the Great War. Paul proves that one year alone is worth volumes.

Perhaps it is cliché in a book review to use the phrase “offers a glimpse,” but when a biography focuses on a mere matter of months rather than years and is forced to fill in some gaps by means of the biographer’s imagination, it is tempting to play down the biography’s broader impact. And yet, Paul’s impressive research combined with his sense of wonder indeed “offers a glimpse” into the mind of a young man facing internal decisions over his future in ways that anyone who has lived through their 18th year in America can understand.

One hundred years ago this October, the 18-year-old Hemingway arrived in Kansas City from the suburbs of Chicago and stepped off a train at Union Station. His uncle Tyler had arranged a job for him at “The Kansas City Star” and a room at a boarding house near 38th and Warwick.

At a time when the world seemed to be torn apart by war, young Hemingway arrived in Kansas City feeling torn over his future. His father had just refused to grant him permission to join the army (at that time you had to be 19 to volunteer without parental approval), but he was determined to join the war effort one way or another, confiding to his sister Marcelline that he “couldn’t face any body after the war and not have been in it.”

Soon after his arrival, Hemingway walked two blocks from his boarding house to the corner of 39th and Main, entered the building housing the Missouri National Guard, and signed up to serve his country as much as he could on the home front.

Today you can stand at that corner and find no remains of the military. Just the Great American Bank, H&R Block, and the Church of Scientology. Bus lines have replaced the bustling streetcars that once ran the length of Main Street and would have delivered the young Hemingway to his downtown office at “The Kansas City Star.” After decades of decline and flight to the suburbs, it’s only recently that the word “bustling” can accurately describe Hemingway’s old neighborhood. Current residents have just voted to revive the old streetcar line in midtown by extending the new KC Streetcar from downtown to UMKC.

For a lifelong Kansas Citian, one of the book’s pleasures is gaining new understanding of our city through the eyes of a young writer passing through. Paul’s style of narrative journalism offers a vivid backdrop for the drama of Hemingway’s daily activities.

When Hemingway worked as a cub reporter for “The Star,” the city was ridden with crime, disease and vice to the point that the War Department sent several warnings to city officials that they might close the city off to visiting soldiers from nearby Fort Riley and elsewhere. This was only the beginning of the Pendergast era, when politics, power and organized crime managed to provide an environment for both the best of our young city’s emerging jazz scene and the worst of its abuses.

Hemingway focused much of his reporting energy on one of the city’s biggest stories that year: the corruption and incompetence among leaders of Kansas City’s General Hospital against the backdrop of small pox outbreaks, drug overdoses, and other public health problems. Months before he would drive his own ambulance in Italy, Hemingway rode in the back of Kansas City ambulances, where he got an up-close view of human suffering, caused in part by an inadequate number of ambulances on the street.

As his reporting efforts on the hospital’s abuses gained momentum, Hemingway at one point was blocked from the building. The Star’s coverage of the hospital’s problems resulted in the firing of a health commissioner that April. As Paul points out, “the young cub reporter would have the satisfaction of a hospital housecleaning” just a few months before his departure.

As Paul reveals in the book, it was the world changing right before Hemingway’s eyes that provided him with all of the higher education he needed, and the violent streets of Kansas City opened his eyes even wider. “This was Hemingway’s college education,” Paul tells me. “He was an eager reader. He wanted to write. So what was he paying attention to? What was happening here? Are there any dots to connect his future to that period?”

Paul discovered a significant moment for Hemingway just before he left for Italy. During one of Paul’s many trips to visit the Hemingway collection at the JFK Library in Boston, he came across a letter from one of Hemingway’s contemporaries at “The Star,” a young reporter named Tubby Williams. As Hemingway left his newspaper gig and headed for war, Williams wrote to him, “This is your chance — your opportunity of a lifetime . . . I’d give a million dollars in cold iron men if I possessed your originality.”

William went on to encourage Hemingway to travel to war with a typewriter and gather as many stories as he could. What he would gain during his time in Italy would be invaluable. “It will be the making of you. The beginning of a career.”

To a young man with the aspirations of being a great writer, this letter would have surely meant a great deal. Paul told me, “That’s the first sign I’d seen from any of his contemporaries, someone recognizing this kid had what it takes to be a writer.”

One of the book’s few frustrations had to do with something beyond Paul’s control: During Hemingway’s time at “The Kansas City Star,” the newspaper’s policy did not allow for individual reporter bylines. All news stories and articles were offered without author name. At the time, this gave an authoritative voice to each article and the paper as a whole. This may strike a 21st-century reader as odd, now that we inhabit a world of personal blogs, status updates and reporters with personal Twitter accounts. But in 1917, the local newspaper gained its reputation as an authoritative institution by restricting reader access to the individual identities of the reporters.

For a biographer scrolling through rolls and rolls of newspaper microfilm searching for any mark left by Hemingway in The Star’s pages, this posed a unique challenge. In the chapters focused on Hemingway’s reporting, Paul’s sense of wonder is forced into a form of speculation. Repeated phrases like “It’s not hard to imagine Hemingway . . .” or words like “surely” or “perhaps” keep reminding the reader that not all biography is concrete fact, that there are always gaps to fill in.

And yet, one is reminded of one of the hallmarks of Hemingway’s own approach to storytelling: the iceberg theory. The attentive reader knows that what you see on the surface of the prose is not all there is to the story. One must use imagination to discern what is not said plainly. Paul did his best to gather as much research as he could, and then offered it to the imagination of the reader to fill in the gaps.

As for Paul, this book has given him a new taste for biography as a form of storytelling. He shaped it chronologically to give the reader a sense of the possibilities and decisions facing the young Hemingway, and the daily events that continued to alter those possibilities. Paul approached this project not only with a journalist’s eye for detail and story, but with a journalist’s sense of purpose: to bring new research and insight to the public, to keep retelling a city’s history in fresh ways, and to reveal what one human with a pen and paper can achieve, even in the darkest of times. By way of these accomplishments, “Hemingway at Eighteen” proves that a mere glimpse into one year of Hemingway’s young life remains, in Paul’s own words, “surprisingly relevant to humans with a heart in a world shaped by war and anxiety.”

A whirlwind of public book events will accompany the release of Steve Paul’s “Hemingway at Eighteen — The Pivotal Year That Launched an American Legend.” An Oct. 3 talk and book-signing at 6 p.m. at the Kansas City Public Library Plaza Branch kicks off a national tour that includes stops in Wichita, Chicago and other cities, as well as appearances at a JFK Library Forum in Boston and the South Atlantic Modern Language Association conference in Atlanta. For a complete list of events, visit www.stevepaulkc.com/hemingway-at-eighteen

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson is the author of “On Earth As It Is,” forthcoming October 2017. His writing has appeared in “Crazyhorse,” “The Kansas City Star,” “Guernica Daily,” “Sonora Review,” “Killing the Buddha,” “Hobart,” and elsewhere. He received an M.F.A. from the University of Missouri - Kansas City and is the director of Pilgrim Center. He lives in midtown Kansas City, Missouri, with his wife and three children.

Leave a Reply