1918 Seventy-five Years Ago

PrintPrintEmailEmail War, Art, and Dancing

“Outside a woman walked along the wet street-lamp sidewalk through the sleet and snow,” began the eighteen-year-old Ernest Hemingway in one of his early efforts for the Kansas City Star . His admirable little story—turning an unremarkable evening of soldiers fox-trotting with young women from the Fine Arts Institute into something significant—ran on April 21. Young Hemingway had come to Missouri the previous October at his uncle’s urging and spent six months covering Kansas City’s “shortstop run,” seeking out newsworthy action along the strip from the hospital to the police house and Union Station. There were the usual brawl victims to interview in the emergency room, he could chase down a fire truck, or a man burning up with influenza might stagger off the train and cause a panic at the station.

When his editor at the Star sent young Hemingway to cover an ordinary YMCA dance, he got back a story that centered on a streetwalker outside the hall. The chaperone at the dance had been a Miss Winifred Sexton, Hemingway noted, and the function’s sponsors were the War Camp Community Service. After an evening of popular tunes, including “The Long, Long Trail Awinding,” a “girl in red, surrounded by a crowd of men in olive drab, seated herself at the piano, the men and the girls gathered around and sang until midnight. The elevator had stopped running and so the jolly crowd bunched down the six flights of stairs and rushed waiting motor cars. After the last car had gone, the woman walked along the wet sidewalk through the sleet and looked up at the dark window of the sixth floor.”

Hemingway’s colleagues at the Star were impressed by his making something out of so little, and the story ran with the headline MIX WAR, ART AND DANCING . As his six-month apprenticeship was coming to an end, Hemingway wrote to his parents back in Oak Park, Illinois, on April 19: “Everything is going fine down here. It is raining hard now and has been all day. I put my old macinaw on and turn the collar up and let it rain…. I’m enclosing a couple of the tank stories. Some of them go pretty good.”

Hemingway left the next month for New York, and transport to Italy, where he served as a volunteer in the Italian ambulance corps. In later life Hemingway claimed that the Kansas City Star ’s style sheet, with its warning against adjectives and insistence on “vigorous English,” had been the best guidance he ever received as a writer.