“At 8 o’clock on the morning of July 21st. 1899 Ernest Miller Hemingway came to town wrapped in a light blue comforter. It was a very hot morning. The sun shone brightly and the Robins sang their sweetest songs to welcome the little stranger to this beautiful world.”
So begins the first of five lengthy scrapbooks that Grace Hall Hemingway used to document in meticulous detail the life of her son Ernest, from his birth until he turned 18.
On Sunday, to mark the 114th anniversary of Hemingway’s birth, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, which holds nearly all of the author’s manuscripts, will make digital versions of the scrapbooks available online for the first time, offering an unprecedented view of his childhood. The library’s website — www.jfklibrary.org — directs users to the Hemingway collection.
Mary Hemingway, the author’s fourth wife, promised his papers to the JFK Library in a letter to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1968. Though the writer and the president never met in person and Hemingway declined an invitation to Kennedy’s inauguration because of illness, they expressed mutual admiration. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book of short biographies, “Profiles in Courage,” Kennedy cited Hemingway’s definition of courage — “grace under pressure.”
The digitized scrapbooks, which were shown to the Globe in advance of their release, reveal how Hemingway’s “interest in hunting and fishing began at a very young age,” said Susan Wrynn, the library’s Hemingway curator. “And it continued to the next generations. His son Patrick and his grandsons hunt today.”
In fact, Hemingway’s attraction to the natural world seems to have started early. His childhood watercolors include depictions of a pine forest and a sea gull.
Some of his mother’s annotations hint at the author’s famous fixations on masculine pursuits.
On Christmas in 1902, his mother wrote: “Ernest Miller at 3 ½ had a lovely Christmas. Santa put a ‘lovely wild boar in his stocking’, and all other things were added into him in good measure. He was quite fearful before Christmas as to whether Santa Claus would know he was a boy, because he wore just the same kind of clothes as sister.”
But for the most part, the scrapbooks are evidence of an ordinary American childhood: going to school, going to Sunday school, hunting and fishing with his father, and playing with his siblings.
“Ernest Miller at 4 years 3 months old took a walk with Mama of 3 miles,” his mother wrote. “He admired the golden yellow trees and the sunset sky very much, and said ‘I wish Mrs. Crummer could see these trees and this sky, because she’s such an artist.’ Then he said, ‘Mama: I know why people die — it’s to keep God company. He gets lonesome.’ ”
When he grew older, Hemingway recorded “prophesies” about the future of his classmates. “Helen Sayels = a hair dresser, Josephine = prima dona, Caroline = President of a south American womens suffrage republic,” he wrote, misspellings and all.
Much of the popular attention that has been devoted toward Hemingway’s family history over the years has focused on the dark side: Later in life, he claimed to hate his mother, and his father and two of his siblings committed suicide. In 1961, Hemingway followed his father’s footsteps and shot himself in the head with his favorite shotgun.
The scrapbooks offer little of the darkness. Instead, they overflow with the everyday joys and sorrows of a boy growing up in Oak Park, Ill., the second oldest of five siblings, raised by a mother who was a musician and whose father was a physician.
“I think it’s nice to get a glimpse into Hemingway’s early life before thing got more complicated with his father,” said James Meredith, president of the Hemingway Society, an international group of Hemingway scholars and enthusiasts. “All this was done with meticulous care by his mother, who had no idea that he was going to be the famous man who he was. Hemingway was famous, and he was famous for being famous. It’s really good to see him as a normal person from a normal family.”
Seán Hemingway, one of the author’s grandsons and now a curator of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said he never knew his grandfather.
“But he was a big presence in our lives growing up,” he said. “I do hunt and fish, in Montana with my uncle. For me, it’s something I did with my dad as a kid — like my grandfather, as you can see in the scrapbooks.”
Because of their fragility, the scrapbooks themselves remain locked in the library’s high-security vault. Not even the library director has seen them. Hemingway scholars have looked at individual pages, and small excerpts have been published, but most of the material — which includes photographs, drawings, annotations, letters, and homework assignments — has not seen the light of day since the author’s death. Now they are available to the world.
“They’re very visually appealing, and textured with information,” said Wrynn. “Researchers have always had a great desire to see this material.”
Mary Hemingway’s bequeathal may have been inspired by a Kennedy-orchestrated exception to the Cuba travel ban and trade embargo his administration imposed in 1963. The administration allowed Hemingway’s widow to retrieve the papers from the residence outside Havana where the author lived and worked on and off for decades.
The Hemingway collection resides in a room overlooking Boston Harbor on the library’s fifth floor, open by appointment to researchers and the general public.
The space is designed to replicate the author’s Cuba residence.
During a recent morning visit, glimmering sea light bathed the shelves that house the author’s manuscripts. A real lion skin dominated the center of the room and a mounted impala head looked on, impassive, his long horns curved toward the ceiling.Benjamin Soloway can be reached at benjamin.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bsoloway.