KANSAS CITY — On Jan. 11, 1918, Capt. Lewis Whisler entered the U.S. Army Bank at Camp Funston (the future Fort Riley) in Junction City, Kan., where he proceeded to bind and gag five fellow soldiers. He butchered them with an ax, looted the safe of $65,000 and quietly returned to his room in the barracks of the Second Battalion, 364th Infantry.
By the next afternoon, Whisler learned that his ax-handling had not been totally successful. One soldier survived and could identify him. At 2 p.m. that day he shot himself (twice) with a rifle, and Army officials denied the intimation that Whisler had been given the chance to commit suicide as a way of "maintaining the honor of the Army."
There's no evidence that Ernest Hemingway, the future superstar of American literature, covered this blood-and-greed Page 1 story for The Kansas City Star. But, as a young reporter on the newspaper’s staff, he most certainly paid attention as dispatches and a large illustration of the crime scene made their way into print.
And as the story unfolded in The Star, one article in particular might have had significant influence on the budding writer and his understanding of how real life connects with literature. (More on this in a bit.)
Why bring this up now — 90 years after Hemingway's brief Kansas City apprenticeship in journalism?
Because for the next week or so, the world of Ernest Hemingway is almost literally moving to Kansas City.
Hemingway scholars, grad students, fans and aficionados — about 250 of them — have gathered for an international conference that began Monday and ends Saturday to deliver scholarly papers, absorb fresh insights, walk the places that Hemingway walked and generally celebrate the ever-expanding legacy of the outsized writer and his interpreters.
The Hemingway industry has had a rocky road in academia in the decades since the writer committed suicide in 1961. Long scorned by many as a macho writer of simplistic books, Hemingway has been revived. A pivotal moment occurred in 1986, when a posthumously published novel, The Garden of Eden, revealed Hemingway to be a far more complex individual and artist than most had imagined. That novel — involving bisexuality, madness and writing — arrived just as feminist and gender-oriented critics were staking larger claims on college campuses. The dissertation fire burned ever brighter.
But Hemingway, the writer, has a global following that spans languages, cultures and academic camps. Conference participants have come from China, Japan, Denmark, Israel, Spain, India, Canada, Cuba and other countries.
Ernest Miller Hemingway was just 18 years old and fresh out of high school when he stepped onto a Chicago train bound for Kansas City. It was Oct. 15, 1917. Hemingway had an uncle in Kansas City, whose connections led to a tryout at The Star.
Hemingway also had an older friend, Carl Edgar, whom he’d met that summer in his family’s Michigan stamping grounds and who worked in Kansas City for a fuel oil company. Not long after his arrival, Hemingway and Edgar got rooms together in a house that still stands, at 3516 Agnes Ave.
Like any beginning reporter, Hemingway wrote obits and crime news. His portfolio and his experience grew as the months and the winter went on. Among other things, he covered an ongoing hospital scandal. At a time of serious smallpox and meningitis outbreaks, city hospitals were woefully short of medicine, beds and ambulances that worked.
Of the friends he made here, Theodore B. Brumback, son of a prominent judge, was likely the most influential. Brumback had spent five months in the ambulance service in France, joining up in the spring of 1917, shortly after the U.S. announced its participation in the war.
After he returned to Kansas City in November 1917, Brumback helped to plant the idea of driving wartime ambulances in Hemingway’s head. By the next spring they headed for the Italian front.
Brumback was among those who kept Hemingway's family and readers of The Star informed about Ernest's wounding near the Piave River in Italy in July 1918. The experience of war and his long hospital recuperation in Milan fed Hemingway’s writing imagination for the rest of his life.
For a while after the war, Hemingway toyed with the idea of returning to Kansas City to work again at The Star. However, his work and writing path took other directions — Chicago, Toronto, then Paris and the world.
Hemingway did come back here intermittently. He and his second wife, Pauline, came to Kansas City to give birth to both his two younger sons. Hemingway thought he could trust the doctors here more than those in Pauline’s hometown of Piggott, Ark.
Most historians and biographers have glossed over Hemingway's Kansas City period with the capsule notion that he learned something about writing here. We at the newspaper are fond of touting the famous Style Sheet, which listed more than 100 writing rules. Much later in life Hemingway told George Plimpton of The Paris Review: “On The Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone.”
But there is much more to learn in the details, as scholars and students have been doing for decades and as I’ve discovered in the last 10 years of my own Hemingway immersion.
One example is the story of that Army ax murderer.
On Jan. 20, 1918, nine days after the killings, one of The Star’s more literary writers offered an essay.
It began like this:
"A man is born. For thirty-seven years he does nothing to make him conspicuous above or below his fellows. Then he kills, brutally, without provocation, almost without attempt at concealment, with a motive and in a manner which shut the door of escape. Why?
"Probably Capt. Lewis Whisler never heard of Dostoevsky; but the man who has been called the greatest of Russian writers knew Whisler — knew him as none knew him who called him by name; knew the murky, melancholic, introspective mental path he trod to the end.
" 'Long ago his present anguish had its beginnings; it had waxed and gathered strength, it had matured and concentrated, until it had taken the form of a fearful, frenzied, fantastic question, which tortured his heart and his mind, clamoring insistently for an answer.'
"Dostoevsky wrote that about Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. It might have been written about Whisler."
The essay went on to describe eerie parallels between Raskolnikov's crime and Whisler's.
Hemingway, the aspiring fiction writer, must have taken note. I’d also like to think that he absorbed the literary lesson delivered by the more experienced fellow writer in The Star’s newsroom. It was not long thereafter that Hemingway became an avowed admirer of the Russian writers.
Hemingway eagerly read Dostoyevsky during his Paris education, which began not quite four years after his Kansas City education. (Always a self-made man, Hemingway never went to college. Brumback once suggested that he’d do all right as a writer if he just read a psychology textbook.)
"Dostoevsky was made by being sent to Siberia," Hemingway once wrote. "Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged."
There's at least one "intertextual echo" (as scholars put it) worth noting in this discussion of Hemingway and Dostoevsky:
As he composed his first book in Paris in the early 1920s, Hemingway crafted a compact vignette about a police shooting of two cigar-store robbers in Kansas City. Hemingway clearly based the story on a verifiable news account of a similar incident from his period at The Star.
In draft manuscripts of the fictional version, Hemingway's working title was "Crime." One could assume that, in Hemingwayesque and modernist fashion, he meant for the "punishment" to be implied. In the end, Hemingway left the title off the published story, and it usually appears as Chapter VIII in the great story collection In Our Time.
As in journalism, Hemingway scholarship thrives on the facts and what you do with them.
Just doing the research can be rewarding, especially when rich new material turns up.
I've spent many hours in Hemingway archives here and there, especially at the mother-lode collection of manuscripts, letters and visual material at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.
A couple of years ago I nearly stood up and shouted in that hushed place when I found a letter that gave, to me, an astounding new perspective on the 18-year-old Hemingway's talent and potential.
Although we have long known that Hemingway's Kansas City Star journalism showed a certain level of story-telling achievement, it's never really been clear whether the finest stories were from Hemingway's hand or reflected the newspaper's skilled editors at work.
But there is eyewitness testimony from one of his friends at The Star, a tidbit which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been published. It comes from another young journalist, T. Norman Williams. Tubby, as Hemingway called him, had recently bolted to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
In May 1918, as Hemingway prepared to leave for the Red Cross ambulance service in Italy, Williams sent him a letter, now filed in an archival box in the Hemingway Collection:
"Hemmy, old scout, if you don't pack up a Baby Corona and shoot some feature stuff to the Great Longanbaum when you get on the front you're just a plain damn fool. This is your chance – the opportunity of your lifetime to make the limelight. You can do it. You can do it big. I don't want to flatter you, but I'd give a million dollars in cold iron men if I possessed your originality. You see things. You know things. You read human interest like a book. And above all you can tell it. All you need to do is to keep your confidence in the Great Hemingstein screwed up to the highest pitch."
I repeat: "Above all you can tell it." Within a mere decade of his Kansas City apprenticeship, Hemingway was cementing his legacy as one of the great literary voices of his times.
Reason enough for so many people to travel so far just to talk about him.