Ernest Hemingway’s formative Michigan paradise

Lansing filmmaker documents the iconic writer’s early years


Ernest Hemingway spent his first 21 summers in Michigan as his “up north” was being transformed from an Eden-like existence to a popular tourist destination. The languorous summers were filled with fishing, roasting marshmallows, and exploring the woods and streams around Horton Bay, Michigan.

Later, those summers would be front and center in his stories about Nick Adams, a character much like his early self. Heming way’s Nick Adams stories have been collected in a single volume “The Nick Adams Stories” and include such classics as “The Last Good Country” and “The Big Two-Hearted River.”

Filmmaker George A. Colburn takes you back to that time in his documentary, “Young Hemingway & His Enduring Eden.”

In the documentary, Colburn follows Hemingway from his first visit as baby with his family in 1899 to his last visit in 1920 to marry his first wife Hadley.

He also includes the seminal winter of 1919 when Hemingway returns to Petoskey to heal his mind and body following injuries received while serving in the Ambulance Corps on the Italian front.

Colburn spent time in the late 60s at MSU, where he received his Ph.D., and was also an East Lansing City Council Member and a State House Democratic staff member in the early 70s.

The 90-minute documentary alternates between gorgeous footage of Hemingway’s favorite places, dark flowing streams and lush green forests, to numerous Hemingway experts who help place the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author in context.

Colburn, who has extensive experience in documentary filmmaking and educational consulting, first became enamored with Dwight D. Eisenhower and in 1991 produced and wrote three TV specials on “Ike” for Discovery featuring NBC commentator John Chancellor. He later produced and wrote the five-hour series “The Eisenhower Legacy” for Disney Television.

The City Pulse Book Club meets the first Thursday of each month, 7 p.m., at Schuler Books & Music in the Meridian Mall. April’s selection is “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” by Taylor Branch. The book is the first of a three-part series on the Civil Rights Movement. Upcoming books include “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” by Joan Didion (May) and “Bobby Kennedy,” by Chris Matthews (June).

The producer who lives on Walloon Lake said he became interested in the Hemingway legacy after asking the current owner of Windemere and nephew of Hemingway, Ernie Mainland, if he could film the deconstruction and the rebuilding of the cottage exactly as it was in the early 1900s.

He got the go-ahead, and gave the tapes to Mainland who called three years later and said it was time to get the tapes out of the safe.

Colburn said he learned that the International Hemingway Society was meeting in Petoskey in 2012 for the first time.

“I immediately thought maybe I could get some money and film the event. It’s the first thing a documentary filmmaker sees when numerous experts come together at one place,” he said.

Colburn figured he could get some interviews in the can with little expense over the three-day meeting at the historic Perry Hotel in Petoskey.

“I got 8-10 interviews and an education on young Hemingway and the importance of Michigan on his writing,” he said.

“I was very fortunate and got all the top scholars. It was like a postgraduate seminar.”

Colburn said it helped that he lived at Walloon. For example, he enlisted Robin Lee Berry, who owns an art gallery in nearby Boyne City, to record the sound track, which is deftly used throughout the 90 minute film.

In the film experts comment on Hemingway’s early life in Michigan including Sandra Spanier and Robert Trogdon, co-editors of the Hemingway Letters Project. Trogdon is a professor of English at Kent State University and Spanier holds a similar position at Pennsylvania State University.

Others include Chip Lorenger, co-owner of the Horton Bay General Store; John Sanford, Hemingway

nephew and scholar; and Authors Nancy Sindelar, “Influencing Hemingway,” Paul Hendrickson “Hemingway’s Boat,” Mary Jane Doer, “ Bay View,” and Fred Svoboda, “Hemingway: Up in Michigan Perspectives.”

A particularly moving interview was completed with the now deceased Jim Hartwell, the owner of the Fox Inn — a quirky bookstore and a paean to Hemingway in Horton Bay.

The documentary is augmented by the reading of numerous personal letters Hemingway sent his friends and family. The letters also track the development of Hemingway’s simple writing style of noun, verb and direct object.

Colburn also gives a shoutout to Hemingway’s father, an Oak Park, Illinois doctor who was an avid amateur photographer.

“Finding photos in the public domain is very important to filmmakers,” he said. Numerous photos in the film, used in the Ken Burns style, were sourced from Central Michigan University and the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.

So far, Colburn has spent six years on the project and his next goal is to get a commitment from Public Television to air the documentary. He also hopes to take the film, money permitting, to Paris for the meeting of the International Society in July 2018.

“I hope to show it in Paris on Hemingway’s birthday, July 21,” he said.

“Young Hemingway & His Enduring Eden”

Wednesday, April 4, 7 p.m. Hannah Community Center 829 Abbot Rd., East Lansing Tickets are $8, $6 for seniors (65kknd) and $3 students.


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