Nature vs. Nurture: It’s a Messy Combination of Both, in Ernest Hemingway’s Childhood Home

Ernest Hemingway (b. 1899)

“I am trying to make, before I get through, a picture of the whole world – or as much of it as I have seen. Boiling it down always, rather than spreading it out thin.” Letter from Ernest Hemingway, to Mrs. Pauline Pfeiffer, “Selected Letters,” p. 397

What we see first is family. Is our vision clear? Not always.


Whether it happens by nature, all the way down to our genetic code, or as the result of the environment we are nurtured (or neglected) in, family shapes us. Early childhood influences have a way of determining where our interests lie (or do not). The occupations and recreations we are drawn to benefit or suffer from our exposure to this or that. Early childhood disappointments determine what we abhor, develop phobias about, or generally do our best to avoid.

It’s not out of the question for adult experiences, the random encounters, relationships and adventures, to cause our personalities to shift. Sometimes what results is a significant, and welcomed, shift. But the foundation is already in place, for better or for worse, and that foundation can be more or less difficult to overcome, if that’s what we are trying to do.

Alternatively, we might embrace that early foundation, pursue it passionately, and nurture it, drawing closer to our “clan,” and sharing experiences that further solidify how we see ourselves, who we are. As adults, we might find ourselves engaged in an uncomfortable interplay, rejecting some parts of our past and driven in our pursuit of others.



Ernest Hemingway is no exception, when it comes to the influences of family, as a child and throughout his later life. As he states above, in a letter to his wife, a fellow journalist, he is trying to “boil down” his experience of the world, to get at its core, to create a picture of the world as he has experienced it.

Hemingway may have ended up far from home, geographically and emotionally, but he got his start in the same 2nd story bedroom as 3 of his 5 siblings, who took their first breaths, and belted out their first newborn cries, just west of downtown Chicago, in Oak Park, IL.

The family home was built just after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, as the city was rebuilding. Although he only lived in the house as a young boy, those formative years influenced Ernest Hemingway’s ingrained personality traits.

The key characters in his upbringing would forge the man he would become: acclaimed journalist and novelist, husband to a string of four smart, accomplished wives, alcoholic and sufferer of suspected mental illness, ultimately ending his life in suicide. The private tour I received, of Hemingway’s birthplace, focused heavily on family influences, and the climate that Ernest grew up in.

Very few of the furnishings in the house are original, though a few have been donated to the museum from private collectors, having been passed down from relatives or family friends. Every effort was made to recreate what the home would have looked like when Ernest lived there. From the placement of period furniture to recreations from written accounts, a major restoration project required gutting the interior of the home, to convert it back to a single-family home, after having been turned into a duplex, with distinct entrances.


When original decorative and household items were unavailable, letters and other written documents were again consulted; this led to the display of items similar to what would have been used as part of the everyday lives of the family. This was often necessary during the restoration and recreation of the household, as original items were generally unavailable – as the story goes, Ernest’s mother, Grace (Hall) Hemingway, burned the items she didn’t plan on moving into the next, more contemporary, family residence. Imagine a backyard bonfire; out with the old, let’s move on to the new. (Literary Traveler website)

As the tour guide led us from room to room, there was ample evidence that this was a very talented, accomplished family. Hemingway spent his early years surrounded by his young siblings, his mother Grace and his father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway. The family lived together with maternal Grandfather Hall, who was a strong influence on young Hemingway and his siblings.

The maternal side of the family was full of artists, including musicians and painters, so the arts became a significant part of Hemingway’s upbringing. His mother taught music lessons, to supplement the income from her husband’s medical practice. Her six children were each expected to play two instruments; Ernest took up the piano and cello.

A Melodeon – a type of 19th-century reed organ – is one of the original pieces on display in the home. Small enough to be portable, it allowed Grace to teach lessons away from the home, or take it along to entertain at social gatherings.

The family always had a membership to the Art Institute, in downtown Chicago, and visited the collections regularly. “The Art Institute was founded as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in 1879. The name was changed in 1882, and shortly after, the institution was already in need of a new home for its expanding collection and growing student body” (Art Institute website). Hemingway was born in 1899, during these “Formative Years” of the museum.

On the Hemingway branch of the family tree, academics took the lead; the family had a background in science and medicine. Dr. Hemingway personally delivered each of his 6 children, and provided care to his future wife’s mother, in her final years. He lived just across the street from the Hall household, and made regular visit there, growing more and more fond of young Grace.

Dr. Hemingway was an avid outdoorsmen and hunter; his taxidermy is still on display throughout the house, and was used to educate his young children. Ernest’s paternal grandmother had 2 Master’s Degrees, in Botany and Astronomy, and passed her love of the natural world on to her son, and his children.

As our tour moved into the kitchen, which was quite modern and well-equipped for the time, we were told that Grace Hemingway had no place in the kitchen, in the Oak Park home. In fact, she performed no domestic chores, as there was always a cook and a maid on staff. In Queen Ann-style Victorian home, a special staircase from the kitchen to the second floor gave the cook direct access to the kitchen. The stove vented directly into the bedroom that the cook and maid shared, making cramped quarters even more stifling.


The family was extremely religions, participating in daily devotionals, which even the maid and the cook were required to attend. There was no dance, and no drink, no crude or lewd behavior permitted. Grace and her father were a bit more liberal when it came to the rules of the house, but Dr. Hemingway was extremely strict.

As a community, Oak Park was known, and revered, as extremely conservative. It was often declared, with pride, that you’d know you were in Oak Park when you found “the place where the saloons end and the churches begin.” (My Brother, Ernest Hemingway) There was a lot for young Ernest and his siblings to rebel against, and his behavior, into adulthood, was rather rebellious, reacting to (and rejecting) much of his upbringing.

Disappointing his parents, Ernest never went to college, but instead entered the workforce as a journalist in Kansas City, where he learned on the job, then worked overseas as a war correspondent. Returning from the war, but hanging about and not holding down a more academic job, his mother was subjected to the criticism of her book club, gathering together and condemning the published “garbage” her son was putting out into the world.

Interestingly, the collection Ernest Hemingway on Writing gathers up Hemingway’s reflections and guidelines on the use of slang, obscenity, and words meant to shock, in his advice to young writers. In general, such devices were to be avoided, when other means could achieve the same, or greater, effect.

In a letter to American book editor Maxwell Perkins, in 1936, Hemingway explains, “I took out 7 bloodies, one son of a bitch, and 4 or five shits voluntarily to see what difference it would make, to please them and Own Wister. A shame I couldn’t have removed a cocksucker as a special gift to Johnathan Cape Ltd.” (Ernest Hemingway on Writing)

Perhaps some of his family’s conservatism had rubbed off. Or maybe these are just the rules of good, true writing, honest writing that makes the reader feel something. In either case, there were strict rules in the Hall-Hemingway household.

Grandpa Hall had three standing rules, when his daughter married and started her family, living under his roof: (1) he ate alone, in a relatively formal setting, in peace and quiet, unless the children were invited in, to hear him tell stories, (2) his upstairs bedroom, the largest in the home, would remain his, and (3) the home library was his domain, in which to conduct himself however he pleased. (Hemingway Birthplace tour)

The library was where Grandpa Hall retired, to smoke, to think, and to read, to his content, and according to his own judgement. This was Ernest’s 1st library, and seems to have had a lasting impact. On the wall of the library hangs the military records of both of Hemingway’s grandfathers – Grandpa Hall and Grandpa Hemingway. Both served, but Hall did not speak much about it. Hemingway’s fascination with war, and hunting, seems to have come from the Hemingway side of the family.


Hemingway was attracted to danger, which drove him to cover the war, to hunting wild game, and to risk-taking behavior. He was a boxer, in and out of the ring. He was known to be a heavy drinker, and suspected to suffer from mental illness. He underwent electroshock therapy, to treat severe depression, after which he was devastated to find he was unable to write well, if at all. His ailing health, in part due to brain and spinal cord injuries suffered during a plane crash, was worsened by the treatments.

“But dark forces might also have been at work in Hemingway’s mind. Psychiatrist Christopher Martin theorized in 2006 that by the end of Hemingway’s life, he suffered from “bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, traumatic brain injury, and probably borderline and narcissistic personality traits.” Some of this was caused by his heavy drinking, others by numerous concussions he suffered (including two plane crashes in Africa).” (“Like Father, Like Son”)

In the end, Ernest Hemingway shot himself, in his final, suicidal act. Dr. Clarence Hemingway, Ernest father, also committed suicide, leaving his wife and six children behind. Ernest blamed his mother, worsening his longstanding hatred for her. His last visit to Oak Park was to make arrangements for his father’s funeral, and he never returned. In the end, two of Ernest’s 5 siblings also committed suicide, as did one of his grandchildren.

 “Clarence’s suicide would haunt Hemingway for the rest of his life. While the family stuck to the story that health and financial issues were behind his death, the unspoken worry was that insanity was responsible. Hemingway refused to discuss the possibility, although soon after admitted “I’ll probably go the same way.”” (“Like Father, Like Son”)

And so he did.


There’s no question that numerous aspects of his upbringing, his family history, and his childhood years in Oak Park shaped Hemingway’s character and personality. Perhaps he was as much like his mother, particularly strong headed and domineering, as he was like his father. However, he repeatedly rejected her. He wrote in 1948: “My mother is an all time all american bitch and she would make a pack mule shoot himself; let alone poor bloody father.” (Like Father, Like Son)

Feeling this way, I can understand why he never returned to Oak Pak, despite the family’s long history there. Instead, Hemingway sought adventure in his travels to Africa, and made a home in larger cities like Key West, Paris, and Havana, Cuba. He then took refuge, near the end of his life, in Idaho; he returned to the natural world he’d been exposed to, during childhood summers in Northern Michigan. Perhaps he was seeking a form of solace there. Perhaps his deep affection for cats, especially 6-toes cats, was another way of seeking solace.

He might appreciate the speculation that has been going on, as I try to piece together the early influences on a stray cat that recently found its way into my heart. He’s a lean, muscular tuxedo cat, black and white, with an oversized skull and wide cheeks, caused by excess testosterone surging through his body – he made it to 3 years old, before I stepped in and had him neutered.

Just prior to being brought indoors, out of the cold of an Ohio winter, Jeff had been living on the streets for at least 1 year. He supplemented his hunting efforts, targeted at neighborhood birds and rodents, by accepting generous amounts of commercially produced cat food, wet and dry, delivered on a regular schedule by a kind man from the neighborhood.

Jeff had to learn his “inside manners”, and made good progress, softening his playful bites and swipes with his sharp claws. I speculate about his history, and the conditions he came from. It’s my belief, based on the word around the neighborhood, he was left behind when a family at the other end of the block moved away. My heart breaks for the young children, who were a part of that family, on several counts.

Though it’s hard to know what goes on behind closed doors, the filth strewn around the exterior of the rental property would suggest that the children were raised in a state of disorder. My imagination runs wild, as I observe torn and stained bedsheets, perpetually blocking sunlight from shining through the broken windows of the two-story brick building.

It’s hard to guess how many residents occupied the space, when Jeff lived there, but I can’t imagine the conditions were spacious. I follow a line of thought that leads to thoughts that that the children were the subjects of neglect, at best, and psychological abuse and physical malnourishment, at worst. Perhaps the children grew up stronger for it; I suspect Jeff received love an affection from the children, as he now has great love an affection to share with us.



It might seem a bit contrived to compare the life of Hemingway, a great American writer, even if he was a disturbed man in the end, who took his life with a shotgun, to that of a street cat. But upbringing matters. We embrace it or we rebel against it. Perhaps Hemingway was a great American writer because he was a disturbed man – not just in the end, but from the start, all the way down to his genetic makeup.

“Do you suffer when you write? I don’t at all. Suffer like a bastard when don’t write, or just before, and I feel empty and fucked out afterwords. But never feel as good as while writing.” To Malcolm Crowley, 1945 “Selected Letters” pp. 604-605

Join me on my next adventure!

~ Kat

Related Links:

The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park:

Ernest Hemingway Birthplace and Museum, on TripAdvisor:

Literary Traveler:

Atlas Obscura:

Like Father, Like Son by Bill Peschel:

The Historical Society of Oak Park & River Forest:

My Brother, Ernest Hemingway, by Leicester Hemingway:

Ernest Hemingway on Writing (ed. Larry W. Phillips):

The Hemingways and Suicide:


One comment

  1. So fascinating and interconnected to your life. Growing up with a mom not comfortable in the kitchen..though no maid present…and a dad surrounded with books…to a precious cat(s). And travel!
    Such an interesting, driven man.
    BLOG ON!


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