The hidden history of Ernest Hemingway on Nantucket.
Whether fighting giant marlin off the coast of Key West or hunting U-Boats off Cuba, Ernest Hemingway’s swashbuckling adventures helped propel him to the stature of literary legend and American icon. He had a passion for island living, which he poured into his prose, most notably in his Pulitzer Prize-winning short novel The Old Man and The Sea. And yet despite his international acclaim, few know that Ernest Hemingway’s lifelong love of the islands didn’t begin on Key West or Cuba, but rather right here on Nantucket.
The salt that coursed through Hemingway’s veins came by way of his mother, Grace, who grew up summering on Nantucket. “Grace Hemingway remembered those childhood summers on Nantucket fondly,” wrote Susan F. Beegle, the preeminent Hemingway scholar on the island. In 1985, Beegle penned an exquisitely detailed account of the author’s trip to the island for the Nantucket Historical Association. “Each year that one of her children turned eleven, Grace and that child would travel east for a month alone together on Nantucket,” Beegle wrote. So it was that in September of 1910, a rambunctious young Ernest Hemingway boarded the ferry at Woods Hole bound for the Grey Lady.
“Nantucket was the first island Hemingway set foot on, Nantucket Sound the first salt water he sailed on, Nantucket sea bass and mackerel the first marine fish he caught,” wrote Beegle. “It was on Nantucket that Hemingway first met an old fisherman with a yarn about catching a swordfish, and his trip to Nantucket that inspired his very first short story.”
The JFK Presidential Library & Museum in Boston, which houses the lion’s share of Hemingway’s documents and correspondences, possesses a scrapbook that Grace Hemingway kept that includes their trip to the island. Pasted to the top left corner of one of the pages is a photo of mother and son standing hand in hand on the island. There’s a program from the First Congregational Church and the Old North Vestry, along with postcards between young Hemingway and his father and brothers. In the margins of the scrapbook, Grace Hemingway detailed their trip in beautiful, sweeping cursive. “Ernest had his first glimpse of the ocean and insists in bathing nearly every day,” she wrote next to the image of her and her son.
The Hemingways stayed in a guesthouse on India Street, what was then Pearl Street, and filled their days swimming, sailing, and fishing. “I went fishing by my self yesterday morning off the jettie,” Hemingway wrote to his father in a letter. “I caught 13 sea Trout. They are very gamy fish and fight like black bass. The four biggest ones supplied our table of six people.” When his rod and reel were stowed, young Hemingway toured Nantucket’s Fair Street Museum and was swept up by the island’s whaling history.
According to Beegle, Grace Hemingway was a reluctant sailor, having lost two young cousins off the coast of Nantucket during her youth when their sailboat capsized. Nevertheless, she mustered the courage for the sake of her son to charter a catamaran that sailed them through the chop to Great Point. Days later, when a storm rolled in, the mother and son walked Surfside Beach and watched the Atlantic churn mad and alive.
“Ernest must have been deeply interested to learn about the professional heroes of the Surfside Lifesaving Station,” wrote Beegle. “Throughout his life, Hemingway remained fascinated by men — bullfighters, boxers, soldiers — who risked their lives to earn their pay.”
And yet, alongside pondering the manly pursuits of the Surfside lifesavers, Hemingway was also exposed to strong feminists during his visit to Nantucket. Grace Hemingway was a suffragette and attended women’s rights meetings at the Atheneum during her many trips to the island. “Traditionally in the forefront of any movement involving women’s rights, Nantucket suited Grace Hall Hemingway, an intelligent, talented and dominating woman in her own right,” wrote Beegle. Years later, she returned to Nantucket and began writing a book about the island’s history, spending particular attention on the many strong willed women of that time.
As for her son, Ernest, when he returned home to Oak Park, Illinois after their month-long vacation, he used his experience on Nantucket as fodder for his first short story. Titled “My First Sea Vouge,” (spelling is his own), Hemingway wrote a fictional tale about being born on Martha’s Vineyard and going off on adventures on the high seas. This island theme defined many of his stories for the rest of his life. In fact, nine years after Ernest Hemingway committed suicide, his wife Mary discovered one of his unpublished manuscripts in a bank vault in Havana. Islands in the Stream told the story of Thomas Hudson, an artist-turned-adventurer whose tales take place on islands dotting the Gulf Stream. The novel, the first of Hemingway’s to be published posthumously, might not mention Nantucket directly, but traces of the Grey Lady’s influence can no doubt be read between its lines.
A debt of gratitude is owed to Susan F. Beegle, who originally published “The Young Boy and the Sea: Ernest Hemingway’s Visit to Nantucket Island” in the Historic Nantucket, Volume 32, No. 3 (January 1983), page 18-30, from which this article drew significantly. Additional thanks goes to Stacey Chandler and Connor Anderson, archivists at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, for sharing Grace Hemingway’s scrapbook, which this article references.