In Our Town: Ernest Hemingway in Toronto
How the legendary writer got his start in T.O.
Toronto in 1920 was nothing if not a clean, well-lighted place. In fact, the city’s puritan reputation rendered it so clean—at least in the spiritual sense—that it was near the point of sterility. Certainly, the church spires that dominated the city’s skyline did not inspire the type of exploration of the psyche’s darker elements typical of so many postwar novels. Yet it was in Toronto, in 1920, that one of the greatest of all modernist writers began his professional career.
Ernest Hemingway is the most prominent writer ever to have called Toronto home, however reluctant he was to recognize the city as such. He didn’t achieve fame until the 1926 publication of The Sun Also Rises, two years after he quit his post at the Toronto Daily Star and moved to Paris. Nevertheless, his life in Toronto and the journalistic work he produced here offer an interesting—if unflattering—glimpse at postwar Toronto in all its sanctimonious frigidity. Not only that, but Hemingway’s dispatches for the Star make evident the evolution of the writer’s signature terse, bold prose.
As the writer illuminates the city, so the city illuminates the writer.
In Another Country
It was, as you might expect, Hemingway’s proclivity for storytelling that landed him a job in Toronto. While cottaging with his family in Petoskey, Michigan, Hemingway was asked to deliver a speech at the local women’s club, sharing with the audience his experiences as a soldier with the Italian army during the First World War, from which he had recently returned.
Of course, Hemingway had never fought with the Italian forces. He had been a volunteer ambulance driver with the Red Cross. He was handing out chocolates and cigarettes to Italian soldiers when his leg was seriously wounded by mortar fire. After extensive surgery and a long period of convalescence, he was sent home to the United States, having served for two months. This, however, did not make for a good story. So Hemingway procured a custom-tailored Italian officer’s uniform and cape, and made up a better one instead.
Harriet Connable, a wealthy Torontonian who was vacationing in Petoskey with her husband, Ralph, was so moved by Hemingway’s speech at the women’s club that she asked if he would consider staying at the couple’s mansion in Toronto. Harriet believed that the courage and pluck Hemingway showed in recovering from his leg injury might serve as an inspiration to her invalid son, Ralph Jr., and so she offered him a position as the boy’s caretaker and mentor while she and Ralph Sr. travelled to Florida on holiday. Through the elder Ralph’s business connections, Hemingway was able to secure a job writing features for the Star Weekly.
Hemingway was excited by the prospect of working for the Star, but less enthusiastic about taking care of Ralph Jr., whom he regarded as an irredeemable bore. The Connables insisted that Hemingway, who was adept at nearly every sport he tried, should attempt to interest their sickly son in athletics. One such attempt entailed taking Ralph to watch the Toronto St. Patricks, who, seven years later, would be renamed the Maple Leafs. Although the St. Pats were not a particularly skilled team in 1920, they were an undoubtedly truculent one, and Hemingway admired their scrappy style of play. That’s right: Ernest Hemingway was a Leafs fan.
For the most part, Hemingway neglected his duties as Ralph’s mentor to focus on writing for the Star Weekly. His early work for the paper bears little resemblance to the minimalist prose that would eventually become his hallmark, perhaps in part because he was being paid less than a penny per word. His first piece, “Circulating Pictures,” published February 14, 1920, explains a peculiar trend that had emerged among the women of Toronto:
The principle under which the circulating gallery is operating is this: the young matrons select the pictures they wish from the rich, semi-starving or impecunious artists, depending upon the degree of the artist’s modernity and his facility with advertising, and pay ten percent of the picture’s assessed value. They then have possession of it for six months. The present scheme has been for each of the young women to have two pictures and after their kick—to use a slang phrase—has worn off, or after it has become so intensified as to make an exchange advisable, to trade with her nearest fellow member of the gallery.
The above passage, which rather long-windedly says that the women in question have devised a scheme whereby they may rent paintings from local artists and exchange them at will over a period of six months, is followed by a set of examples of how the scheme might play out in practice. Hardly vintage Hemingway.
The young writer would soon find his voice, however. In “Lieutenants’ Mustaches,” written for the Star just two months after his initial offering, an inchoate form of the “Hemingway style” begins to emerge. The piece, like so much of Hemingway’s later short fiction, is composed mainly of dialogue. Its terse-speaking characters—two returned veterans—are stoic and masculine. Little of what they think or feel is spoken of directly or addressed by the narrator—a narrative technique that Hemingway dubbed the “iceberg theory” of composition, and on which he would expatiate in 1932’s Death in the Afternoon. Themes and leitmotifs that appear in Hemingway’s early novels and short stories (a reluctance to speak of the war directly, contempt for those who did not fight, and reflections on the pointlessness of war generally) are present in the short piece. “We didn’t get nothing permanent good out of the war,” one of the veterans remarks, “except for the lieutenant’s mustaches. Plenty of them about.”
Hemingway’s more descriptive narrative passages are notable for their use of conjunctions in place of punctuation. These passages, juxtaposed as they are with Hemingway’s typically brusque dialogue, achieve an impressionistic effect. This technique, too, is apparent in several of Hemingway’s features for the Star, including “The Blind Man’s Christmas Eve,” published in December 1923. From that piece:
He was feeling a strange tight feeling inside himself and he was seeing things. He saw broad fields sloping away and he smelt the odor of bacon being fried early in the morning. He heard the pounding that thoroughbred horses’ hoofs make as they sweep down in a pack toward a fence and he saw that glimpse of a pleasant country that a man gets as he is on rises over a fence full in a pounding gallop. He saw a big square bed with linen sheets and a small boy tucked in the bed listening while someone sat on the bed and stroked his head and talked to him. And he saw a small boy rising early in the morning and going downstairs to start out across the frost-rimmed fields with his dog and his gun.
Compare with Hemingway’s more pronounced use of the technique in the descriptive opening passage of 1929’s A Farewell to Arms,
In the late summer that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
In his later years, Hemingway would cringe to hear his early journalistic work mentioned alongside his novels. He believed that working as a reporter had the pernicious effect of eroding a writer’s memory, every day forcing him to forget and move on from all that he had written the day before. Still, it’s obvious that his career as a journalist had an appreciable effect on the pared-down style that typified his fiction.
Departure and Return
By May of 1920, Hemingway had fulfilled his duties as Ralph Connable Jr.’s nanny, and, free of his charge, he decided to go back to the cottage in Michigan. He continued to write features for the Star, including one entitled “The Hamilton Gag,” which offers a glimpse of what passed for humour in postwar Toronto. According to the article, every musical show in every theatre in the city would include what Hemingway calls the “Toronto-Hamilton gag”:
Sooner or later you know that you will hear it. Before the evening is over you are confident it will make its appearance. It always does. It is the thousand-time perpetrated Toronto-Hamilton gag. Usually it comes out like this. First Comedian: “Do you live in the city?” Second Comedian, hitting him across the face with a sausage so the audience will not forget that he is a comedian: “No, I live in Hamilton!”
Hemingway then proceeds to insult the intelligence of theatre-going Torontonians with the sarcastic assertion that any hackneyed dialogue coupled with comic violence may be considered a “comedy triumph” in Toronto:
Combining the principle of comic violence with some really snappy local dialogue, visiting comedians should be able to add the desired “hometown” stuff to their performance without employing the old Hamilton wheeze. These are offered as suggestions to any members of either voadveel [sic] or the legit who care to make use of them: This would be very funny: First Comedian: “Have you a mayor here?” Second Comedian: “Ha, Haw!” First comedian then hits second comedian with a chair, knocking him over the footlights into the audience. Cheer after cheer rocks the house.
Hemingway left cottage country a few months later, but, rather than returning to Toronto, he took up residence in an apartment in Chicago while still writing weekly features for the Star. In a piece dated November 6, 1920, Hemingway draws a number of comparisons between wild and bustling Chicago, and pious, soporific Toronto.
One such comparison, ostensibly in Toronto’s favour, maybe be shocking to Torontonians today: “Now the reason that Chicago is crime-ridden and Toronto is not lies in the police forces of the two cities. Toronto has a force that for organization, effectiveness and esprit de corps is excelled nowhere in the world.”
In Chicago, Hemingway would meet his first wife, Hadley Richardson. After marrying her in September 1921, he took a position as a foreign correspondent for the Star in Europe. He was enchanted by Paris, and his first literary work, Three Stories and Ten Poems, was well-received by the city’s expatriate artistic community, including one of the era’s greatest literary lights, Ezra Pound. But Hemingway was offered a position with the daily edition of the Star, and Hadley was pregnant with the couple’s first child. Toronto doctors had a reputation for delivering babies safely, and Hemingway was exhausted by his travel schedule as a foreign correspondent. Moving back to Toronto was the logical thing to do.
“The people are all merde.”
Unfortunately, Hemingway regretted his decision to leave Paris in the summer of 1923 almost immediately. When his ship approached the St. Lawrence, he resisted the urge to disembark at Montreal, where he believed he would be able to experience some semblance of the French lifestyle he’d come to love. In a letter to Ezra Pound, written from his room at a Sherbourne Street hotel, he whinged, “It couldn’t be any worse. You can’t imagine it. I’m not going to describe it.[…] I have not had a drink in five days.” Of Torontonians he wrote, “We have come to the right place to have a baby because that is the specialite de ville. They don’t do anything else.”
Hemingway was bored, sober, and surrounded by Protestants. Worse still, he was despised by his new editor at the Daily Star. Harry Hindmarsh thought Hemingway an arrogant hothead, and was determined to crack him. Hemingway frequently worked 18-hour days, often embarking on out-of-town trips. He even missed the birth of his son, John Hadley, because he was on a train headed back to Toronto. This understandably vexed Hemingway, who wrote in a letter to Gertrude Stein:
Was on train at a smut session with correspondents and titled coal barons in the press car while baby was being born. Two o’clock in the morning. Heard about it ten miles out of Toronto and came in intending to kill City Editor, Hindmarsh. Compromised by telling him would never forgive him of course and that all work done by me from now on would be with the most utter contempt and hatred for him and all his bunch of masturbating mouthed associates.
By this time, Hemingway thought of Toronto as an odious puritanical burg, and perhaps unfairly extrapolated his opinion of the city to Canada as a whole. In another letter to Ezra Pound, Hemingway, annoyed that purchasing candy from the drugstore was prohibited on Sunday, wrote that Canada “is the fistulated asshole of the father of seven among Nations.” And Canadians, he claimed “are all merde [that is, shit].”
Hemingway’s contempt for Canada was, by late 1923, not limited to his private letters. On December 15 of that year, two short pieces written by Hemingway—one titled “I Like Americans,” the other “I Like Canadians”—appeared in the Star. The latter piece backhandedly says of Canadians, “They go home at night. Their cigarettes don’t smell bad. Their hats fit. They really believe they won the war. They don’t believe in Literature. They think Art has been exaggerated. But they are wonderful on skates. A few of them are very rich. But when they are rich they buy more horses than motorcars.”
(Interestingly, Hemingway’s perception of Canadians is generally consistent with your average Montrealer’s perception of Torontonians: artless, old-fashioned, and ruthlessly clean.)
A number of Hemingway’s observations about 1920s Toronto can be transposed onto the present day. In an article from December 1923 called “Young Communists,” he writes, “Now what are Communists? Most Toronto people lump Socialists, Syndicalists and Communists vaguely together as Reds and let it go at that.” He could be describing the views of some of today’s city councillors.
Of course, Hemingway’s prescience would prove limited, as evidenced by his statement that “No city in the world has a better-run and more comfortable streetcar system than Toronto.”
The End of Something
By late 1923, Hemingway was exhausted by the demands of his editor, Harry Hindmarsh, and had come to despise the Star, which he saw fit to use as paper towel. As he wrote in a letter to Ezra Pound, “[the cat] has moved her shitting place from the back of the bath tub and is taking example of this new Freedom. Later in the evening I will track down the piece of Merde by the smell and will carefully wipe it up with the aid of a copy of the Toronto Star.”
He found little time to write fiction, and Canada offered him no inspiration. In December, he resolved to leave. But before tendering his resignation, Hemingway decided to make his feelings known to Hindmarsh. According to newsroom legend, Hemingway typed out a long and scathing letter, taped the sheets of copy paper together, and posted it on the newsroom bulletin board for all to see. Farcically, Hindmarsh pretended not to notice the letter, which is reputed to have been 16 feet long.
Hemingway eventually wrote a more succinct letter of resignation, but he waited until December 27 to send it, so he would be assured his Christmas bonus. By early January 1924, he had returned to Paris.
It was in Paris, of course, that Hemingway forged his brilliant literary career and his larger-than-life image. He held his journalistic work for the Toronto Star in low esteem, and was loathe to speak of it publicly. It’s unlikely that Hemingway ever acknowledged, even to himself, the importance of this city to his artistic and professional development. But isn’t it pretty to think so?
Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story by Carlos Baker
Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917–1961 (edited by Carlos Baker)
Hemingway: The Toronto Years by William Burrill
Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers
“The Art of Fiction No. 21” from The Paris Review (interviewed by George Plimpton)
Dateline: Toronto (edited by William White)