The Outskirts of Literature: Uncovering the Munitions Factory in "A Natural History of the Dead"

Article excerpt

BOLLATE IS A BIG TOWN in the outskirts of Milan, built for the most part in the 1960s, during the great migration of workers from southern Italy. There are no monuments, historical buildings, famous streets, or any of the things that usually attract a foreign tourist to a European city. It's hard to imagine that Ernest Hemingway not only visited Bollate, but also set a portion of one of his short stories, "A Natural History of the Dead" in the town.

"I first saw the inversion of the usual sex of the dead after the explosion of a munition [sic] factory which had been situated in the countryside near Milan, Italy" Hemingway wrote (SS 441-2). Then, any Hemingway reader knows the story of how the young ambulance driver searched the surrounding fields for the bodies of dead women workers and detached fragments from "a heavy, barbed wire fence surrounding which had surrounded the position of the factory" (442). Hemingway also wrote about this episode in a postcard to the Kansas City Star published on 14 July 1918 (Baker 571).

While I was teaching Hemingway's short fiction at the Punto Rosso, a cultural association in Milan, a student asked me where that munitions factory had been. No one knew, or had yet tried to discover it, so the student's question provided the impetus for starting a search. I went to the Palazzo Sormani, Milan's public library, and consulted the two major newspapers in Italy during World War I, Corriere della sera (still the most important Italian newspaper), and L'Avanti, a socialist newspaper. Because Hemingway had been in Milan only a few days during June 1918 before leaving to drive ambulances in the mountains around Schio, there was not a long period to analyze.

The first interesting article I found was in the Corriere della sera for 10 June 1918. In the rhetorical style typical of the period, it discussed the funerals of victims of a munitions factory explosion in Bollate. The journalist wrote of twenty-one coffins containing entire bodies and ten coffins containing the fragments of other victims. More than 15,000 people, including delegations of the Italian and American armies, were present at the funerals, which ended in the Bollate cemetery.

The 9 June 1918 L'Avanti wrote that the explosion took place on 7 June, that the total number of victims was thirty-five, and that only a storage area had exploded, so that the factory started working again after twenty-four hours. …