Hemingway Up in Michigan: The Birth of Nick Adams and a Literary Legend

Throughout his life, Ernest Hemingway traveled the world, leaving his mark everywhere he lived or visited.

In Cuba, they called him Papa. You’d find him fishing for marlins or drinking whiskey or daiquiris in a local watering hole. He would do the same in Key West.

In East Africa, you’d find him big game hunting, the concluding photograph captured with the legend kneeling above a lion or antelope.

In France, he’d be writing in a small upstairs room, or sipping coffee and walking along the Seine. In July, he’d travel with friends to Pamplona, Spain, to witness the running of the bulls.

Back in the United States, he’d walk his property in the mountains of Idaho, bird hunting and enjoying the tranquility.

Some would argue that Ernest Hemingway the celebrity was even bigger than Hemingway the writer—an argument levied justly, given the man’s life story. But where did it all start? Surely someone running from continent to continent in search of grand adventure must have a history, a childhood that sparked the curiosity.

For Hemingway, it didn’t start in his hometown near Chicago. It began in northern Michigan—the place from which he was running his entire life.


Take a drive to Walloon Lake today. You’ll see a gorgeous body of water, beautiful vacation homes lining its shore, tucked between the trees. Walk the streets of Petoskey. The weekend traffic rolls into town. Tourists crowd the sidewalks. SUVs clog the normally quiet streets.

Now take a trip back in time, one hundred years ago. See the town that inspired The Torrents of Spring, Hemingway’s first book, or the streams and woods where the young boy fished and hiked. In many ways, it’s an entirely different place. At the same time, not much has changed.

Start with the population. Around 1920, Petoskey was home to 5,064 people. In the 2010 census, the population was 5,670. Pretty similar, but that measurement may be misleading. The city now spills out into once-rural parts of the county, areas that were thick forests in the early twentieth century. The GR&I Railroad no longer runs through town, but the will of eager tourists needs only to take them into the driver’s seat in order to reach the popular destination today.

Still, there is much about the Petoskey area that remains from Hemingway’s childhood. The Horton Bay General Store still stands, as does the Perry Hotel, where Hemingway stayed in 1916. How about the City Park Grill, a downtown Petoskey landmark that Hemingway frequented in his teenage and young adult years. Or the small family cottage, called Windemere, that is on Walloon Lake.

Perhaps the most unaltered aspect of northern Michigan from Hemingway’s days are the woods and streams, which remain largely untouched. Reportedly in an effort to avoid his mother, with whom he did not always get along, the boy Hemingway would escape the Walloon Lake area and trek through the woods to prime fishing spots, such as Horton Bay on Lake Charlevoix or the connecting Horton Creek. Those are the places where the writer’s love for fishing and hunting and hiking began, in the Schulz Nature Preserve area and the Horton Creek Nature Preserve area.

As Michael R. Federspiel, a Hemingway historian, told John O’Connor in an interview for The New York Times last year, “Northern Michigan was (Hemingway’s) first Eden, and it got seared into his emotions. From that came great stories.”


First he fell in love with northern Michigan, and then he fell in love with Hadley Richardson.

Hadley was eight years older than Hemingway, and on a trip she took to Chicago to stay with a friend, they were introduced. Hemingway fell for her immediately. When she left, he continued to write her letters. The two visited one another—Hemingway going to St. Louis and Hadley to Chicago. Six months after meeting, in June 1921, the two were engaged, and then came time to plan the wedding.

So they headed north to the place that meant the most to Hemingway, so he could share it with his new love. The couple was married on the shores of Lake Charlevoix in Horton Bay on September 3, 1921, and then paddled the short distance across nearby Walloon Lake afterward for their honeymoon.

Soon after the wedding, the couple moved back to Chicago and then to Paris. But that was where they met their demise, and divorced in January 1927. Hemingway—who was to blame for the divorce after his affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become his second wife—spent the rest of his life filled with regret. Just before his suicide in 1961, he wrote about Hadley in A Moveable Feast: “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”

Longtime friend of Hemingway, A.E. Hotchner, also recently shed light on the writer’s love for Hadley. In his book Hemingway in Love, Hotchner wrote that Hemingway said Hadley was “The best and honest and loveliest person I had ever known.” In his own words, Hotchner added, “No man has ever loved a woman more or written about that love so tenderly,” as well as describing Hadley as Hemingway’s “heavenly companion.”

One wonders how often Hemingway recalled the memory of marrying Hadley in northern Michigan, where love was pure.


Pick up a copy of The Nick Adams Stories. Read a few. Hemingway is right there, getting married in Horton Bay. Fishing in the Upper Peninsula. Drinking in the Petoskey bars. Those stories, along with many other Hemingway books, are what scholars call “roman à clef,” a French term for a true story that is written through a fictional lens. That was how he wrote.

One of Hemingway’s good friends, director Orson Welles, said of the writer in a 1974 interview, “There’s hardly a word of humor in a Hemingway book, because he’s so tense and solemn and dedicated to what’s true and good.” What’s true and good. That was how Hemingway thought. Maybe he took it too literally.

His group of friends in Paris, upon reading The Sun Also Rises, became angered at the amount of truth in the book about their personal lives and abandoned his friendship. But that never stopped the writer from continuing to ink his own legacy, his own way—uniquely Hemingway.


The Petoskey area is riddled with Hemingway references. Every October the Michigan Hemingway Society throws a Hemingway-themed weekend. The local bookstore, Mclean and Eakin, dedicates an entire section to Hemingway books. Just north of Horton Bay, there is a 44-acre area designated as the Nick Adams Nature Preserve. The nearby Terrace Inn & 1911 Restaurant even has a “Chicken Hemingway” dish on the menu. To say the region is proud of its Hemingway tie would be an understatement.

But this pride is warranted. When Hemingway moved to France in the mid-1920’s, he had yet to write a Nick Adams story. Young Adams was still only a childhood memory for the writer. Sitting in his room in Paris, Hemingway took up his pen and started writing. What came weren’t stories of grand travel or the dangerous war during which he was injured. He wrote about a young boy in northern Michigan. He wrote about what he knew and loved.

These stories persisted—he didn’t simply use them as ammunition until better or more interesting subjects could take their place. In the final year of his life, Hemingway was still writing stories about Nick Adams in northern Michigan. Yet for as often as he visited northern Michigan in his writing, he failed to return in the final four decades of his life. One may ask why. A place so special. A place with so much sentimental value.

To Hemingway, just like to many Michiganders today, northern Michigan was pure, untouched, innocent yet wild, and most of all it was true. It’s where he discovered his passions that would carry him through the rest of his life. And it was where he married Hadley, his first true love.

Until his final day, that’s how northern Michigan was able to remain in Hemingway’s mind: true.

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Published by Ed A. Murray

Ed A. Murray is an author, freelance writer, digital marketer and blogger dedicated to impactful storytelling. He writes about writing, books, marketing and life, and has published three books of fiction.

8 thoughts on “Hemingway Up in Michigan: The Birth of Nick Adams and a Literary Legend

  1. Great article! I really never paid attention to Hemingway until very recently, and I bought The Nick Adams Stories just a few days ago. I can’t wait to get started. Hemingway strikes me as very accessible – as accessible as he can be, anyhow, what with him being “elsewhere.”


    1. Thanks so much! Always nice to hear from other fans of Michigan literature. Glad you’re doing your “Michigan Monday” posts—Hemingway, Jim Harrison and Steve Hamilton are some of my favorites!


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