Michigan's Literary Laureates

Article excerpt

Ernest Hemingway is arguably's the most famous writer to have lived in Michigan, having spent 22 summers of his youth in the state. But he was by no means the only literary figure to draw inspiration from our two peninsulas. A dozen authors and poets of the past earned national recognition for their work.


Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) sat at a small round table in a Paris cafe sipping a drink. Taking a wooden pencil in hand, be wrote in his purest prose: "It was a pleasant cafe, warm and clean and friendly... and I ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story."

Though this excerpt from "A Moveable Feast" described his life in 1920s Paris, Hemingway was daydreaming about an earlier period he experienced in Michigan: his "Nick Adams" days.

A native of Oak Park, Illinois, Hemingway spent many summers at his family's cottage on Walloon Lake outside Petoskey and was a familiar face in nearby Horton Bay. [Horton Bay's Red Fox Inn serves as an unauthorized museum to all things Hemingway. But a comprehensive history of the author in the state may be found in the article "Up North with the Hemingways," in the September/October 2007 issue of Michigan History.]

In a writing career that spanned the 1920s to the 1950s, Hemingway published seven novels, six short story collections, and two nonfiction works. Three novels, four collections of short stories, and three nonfiction works were released after his death. The posthumously published collection titled "The Nick Adams Stories" contains 24 short stories, 20 of which are set in Michigan including the classic "The Big Two-Hearted River." (Hemingway used the name because of its appeal; however, the geography of the story suggests he was really describing a different trout stream, the Fox River near Seney in the Upper Peninsula.)



Hemingway's first run at the Pulitzer Prize was associated with "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1940); despite being chosen by the committee, his selection was purportedly blocked by the president of Columbia University. However, the novelist would go on to win for "The Old Man and the Sea" in 1953. The Nobel committee saw fit to award him its prize for literature in 1954.


Ernest Hemingway was the subject of a United States Postal Service commemorative stamp in 1989. Theodore Roethke and Robert Hayden were similarly recognized in a 2012 stamp series honoring American poets.

Saginaw-born Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) spent much of his childhood in his family's greenhouses, which was reflected in the use of natural images in his poetry.

Roethke earned two degrees at the University of Michigan and settled into a career as a teaching poet at colleges in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book "The Waking" in 1954 and the National Book Award in 1959 for "Words for the Wind" and 1965 for "The Far Field" (a posthumous honor). From the last collection comes this excerpt of a poem of the same name: "I learned not to fear infinity,/The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,/The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,/The wheel turning away from itself,/The sprawl of the wave,/The on-coming water."

Roethke's childhood home at 1805 Gratiot in Saginaw is maintained as a museum.

Poet Robert Hayden (1913-1980) rose from humble beginnings in the Paradise Valley neighborhood of Detroit to become the first African-American poet laureate of the United States.

He worked with the Federal Writers' Project for four years before getting his graduate degree from the University of Michigan (U-M). After teaching several years at U-M, Hayden joined the faculty of Fisk University in 1946, where he remained for 23 years. …