Any time that anyone, of any academic background, wants to discuss Ernest Hemingway, grab Independence resident Dennis Okerstrom.
“I’m the guy, because I love him,” Okerstrom says of Hemingway. An English teacher at Park University for more than 25 years, Okerstrom is a member of the Hemingway Society. During the next three months, Okerstrom will lead the three-session book discussion group “Tracking Hemingway: A Literary Survey of an American Icon” at the North Independence Branch of Mid-Continent Public Library.
Okerstrom shared a few thoughts on his love for the author in an interview with The Examiner this week.
1 He chose Kansas City.
In 1917, at the age of 18, Hemingway had three options, Okerstrom says: He could go to college. He could enlist in World War I. Or, Hemingway could get a job.
He chose the last option, working briefly as a reporter for The Kansas City Star, before serving in World War I.
“I think probably my fascination with Hemingway started because many, many years ago, I was a reporter at The Star,” Okerstrom says. “The newsroom, it seemed, hadn’t changed at all since Hemingway was there. All of us young reporters ... we all thought we were Hemingway.”
2 He changed American literature.
The winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Nobel Prize in Literature, Hemingway changed American literature by writing tighter sentences and by describing his characters as a journalist would observe them. Again, Okerstrom says, it comes back to Hemingway’s connection to Kansas City.
“Hemingway’s whole writing career got started right here, simply because he had to,” Okerstrom says. “You go out on an assignment, and they’re already wanting the copy when you walk through the door. It’s like learning to write in a pressure cooker. Anybody who has ever been in the news business would understand what I’m talking about.”
3 He wrote for everyone.
Anyone – not just those who hold a Ph.D. – is invited to attend the “Tracking Hemingway” discussions, Okerstrom says. They are at 7 p.m. Sept. 25 (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”); 7 p.m. Oct. 23 (“A Moveable Feast”); and at 7 p.m. Nov. 13 (“A Farewell to Arms”).
Okerstrom says he is a real believer in reader response.
“One of the things that Hemingway did so well was to write not for the academics, but for a wider audience around the world,” he says. “Whatever the book means to you is exactly what that book is meant to mean exactly to you. I want to talk to real people, in real language, about what these books mean to them.”
4 A half century later, he still matters.
Hemingway died in 1961, but Okerstrom wants to know why the author still resonates and speaks to people with such power.
Page 2 of 2 - Married four times throughout his life, Hemingway’s work had a love-hate relationship with feminists. But, Okerstrom says, as readers become more exposed to Hemingway’s broader collection of work, they might find themselves surprised.
“I think he was probably protofeminist,” Okerstrom says. “When you look through some of his work, you’re going to see some very strong women characters.”
5 A death that spans generations.
Known as the Hemingway Code, certain motifs and images appeared in the author’s works time and time again. One of these, Okerstrom says, is that if stories are carried far enough, they all end in death.
“For him, the point is not that people die,” Okerstrom says, “but that you face the end with grace and dignity.”
At the time of Hemingway’s death by a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1961, he had just been released from an institution where he was treated for clinical depression. Okerstrom points out that little was known about the mental illness and effective treatment compared to today.
The Hemingway family has a history of suicide, with Ernest’s father and paternal grandfather taking their own lives, as well as his sister, brother and granddaughter. Some point to hereditary hemochromatosis, also known as iron overload, as the cause to Hemingway’s death, pushing him far into a deep depressive state.
No matter the cause, Okerstrom says he believes the author simply wasn’t himself anymore by mid-1961.
“He had become someone else, and I don’t think we can hold someone accountable when they are in such a deep, deep depression,” Okerstrom says. “I think we recognize that much more today.”