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Following in Papa’s footsteps

By Staff | Mar 5, 2009

“There is never any ending to Paris, and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.”

– from “A Moveable Feast” by Ernest Hemingway

Back in 1986, writing instructor Robert Wheeler made an important decision in an effort to expand his knowledge of great American writers. He decided that in order to accomplish that goal, he needed to read more.

Currently a teacher at Southern New Hampshire University, Wheeler took his first step by visiting a book store and searched the shelves of the then-bestseller list. He happened upon “The Garden of Eden,” a posthumously published novel of literary legend Ernest Hemingway.

“I remember looking at the title and saying to myself, ‘That sounds like I place I’d like to visit,'” recalled Wheeler. “I felt a real connection to that book by the simplistic way that he wrote.”

Wheeler immersed himself in the novel, devising a discipline of reading only one chapter each night.

“But sometimes, I’d sneak a peek at the first line of the following chapter!” he added, laughing along with the folks gathered at the Sanibel Public Library on Feb. 27 to hear Wheeler’s lecture, “Hemingway In Paris.”

With “The Garden of Eden,” Wheeler began what has become almost an obsession with reading everything he can find written by or about Hemingway, a news journalist turned novelist. He said that he became caught up in the notorious stories about “Papa,” including his drunken tirades, experiences as a boxer, fisherman and hunter as well as the sometimes sweet, sometimes sour relationships he had with his four wives.

However, after two decades worth of studying Hemingway’s life, Wheeler decided to focus on the years he lived in Paris, between 1921 and 1927.

“For me, Paris is a character in his books,” said Wheeler, standing in front of a slideshow displaying images of the French capital. “That’s why I enjoy Paris so much – walking the same streets, seeing the same places, feeling the same things that he must’ve felt.”

Wheeler, a member of the Ernest Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Mass., has led several groups over the past few years through Hemingway’s Paris. He has also visited Key West, Cuba, Spain, London, Africa and Hemingway’s birthplace in Oak Park, Ill.

According to his Web site, www.rememberinghemingway.com, Wheeler’s tours of Paris requires that each participant read two Hemingway novels – “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Moveable Feast” – in order to enhance their visit through France.

“At times, it will feel like you are walking into the novels you have read,” Wheeler noted. “Even our Normandy day trip has its roots in Hemingway, as he landed in Normandy as a war correspondent and continued on to help liberate his beloved city.”

Wheeler fielded several questions and comments from the audience during the lecture, including one gentleman who said that after being enlisted in the military during World War II, he taught himself to read with Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Old Man and the Sea.” Another man said that he grew up in Piggott, Ark, where Hemingway lived while he was writing “A Farewell To Arms.”

“Hemingway was much more comfortable hauling in fishing nets with the locals in Cuba than hanging out with Spencer Tracy at the Floradita talking about his latest film,” said Wheeler, who departs for his next Paris trip on Friday. “I think that Paris was the most important influence in his writing. The city itself, not just the people he met along the way.”