There Was Much Blood Shed in This Barn:
A Conversation with Adam Long of the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House in Piggott, AR
I have traveled near and far, driven across deserts and through forests, from city to city, town to town, point of interest to point of interest, creating an ever more tangled web of ink on my map of places visited and routes driven. One constant in my cross-country road trip adventures is my interest in authors’ homes and museums. I’ve been to most of the ones that exist in this country: from the Robert Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire, to the Beat Museum on the winding streets of San Francisco, California, and all the way down to the Hemingway House just a stone’s throw away from the southernmost point of the continental United States in Key West, Florida.
Writers, like all artists, are products of their environments. The more you know about the reality of the men and women behind the great works of literature, the better you become at reading those great works of literature. I’ve been surprised to learn that a number of my literary friends look down on these spots as tourist traps. I’ve heard complaints that these places flatten out the writer, sanding smooth any of their rough edges and pruning away any undesirable elements to stoke the flames of the cult of personality surrounding the big names in the canon. In my experience over the years, these places actually tend to do just the opposite: they demystify their writers more than they deify them. They allow you to see great artists as complex and flawed people, full of inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies, plagued by personal problems as much as interested in worldly concerns. It is in this spirit that I embark upon this journey, which will be a series of interviews here at Full Stop with the directors and curators of the various author homes and museums that dot our American landscape.
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Though the Hemingway House in Key West mentioned above is likely the most famous place associated with the writer of The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, I recently visited another of Ernest Hemingway’s houses, lesser known, though no less interesting. And it is here, in Piggott, Arkansas, at the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House, where we shall begin my Author Museum Interview Series. This property was the home of the parents of Pauline Pfeiffer (Hemingway’s second wife). Hemingway himself spent many a summer here, writing in the barn, which had been converted into his personal studio.
Hemingway once explained: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” If that is the case, then there was much blood shed in this barn: parts of A Farewell to Arms were written here, as were a number of his short stories. One in particular, “A Day’s Wait,” is based on events which took place in this very house. Though the museum isn’t especially close to any major city or interstate highway (it’s about an hour off I-55, and about two hours from Memphis and I-40), it’s well worth the detour if you have any interest in Papa.
In this first installment of my Author Museum Interview Series, I spoke with Adam Long, the director of the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House, about the writer, the property, the museum, and its collections.
Tyler Malone: First, tell me about the Pfeiffers and the story of this house . . .
Adam Long: The Pfeiffers were from St. Louis. Paul and two of his brothers founded a pharmaceutical and cosmetics company there, which was very successful. Paul didn’t care for the city, though (in part because he had bad asthma and the smoke bothered him), and wanted to return to his family’s rural roots. He sold his shares of the company and began looking for a place to buy land. He chose Piggott by chance. On a return trip to St. Louis from New Orleans, Paul was stranded in Piggott when the St. Francis river flooded. During his stay in Piggott, he realized that there was quality land available at a good price, so he decided to buy. He bought his first land in Arkansas in 1902. By 1913, he owned enough land to move his family (his wife Mary and three children) to Piggott. At the height of his business, he owned about 63,000 acres in Northeast Arkansas.
How did Ernest Hemingway become involved with the property? And what was his time in Piggott like?
Hemingway married Paul and Mary Pfeiffer’s oldest child, Pauline. Pauline was Ernest’s second wife, the mother of two of his three children, and a skilled editor. Following their marriage in Paris on May 10, 1927, Ernest and Pauline visited Piggott regularly, often staying months at a time. The family converted the loft of their barn into a studio for Ernest. Besides writing, Ernest would spend his time in Arkansas quail hunting, often with his brother-in-law Karl.
What are some novels or stories he wrote in part or in full in this barn in Piggott?
Ernest wrote portions of A Farewell to Arms and several of his short stories in Piggott. He set one of his Nick Adams stories, “A Day’s Wait,” in Piggott. This story is based on events that happened during one of his Piggott visits. The Pfeiffers, especially Pauline’s Uncle Gus, became great benefactors of Hemingway. Uncle Gus’s financial support also helped fund the writing of Green Hills of Africa, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and Death in the Afternoon.
How did the Pfeiffers react when Hemingway separated from and divorced Pauline? Uncle Gus had done so much for Hemingway, so I’m curious if he felt betrayed by the writer when he ran off with another woman?
The Pfeiffers, though clearly not happy at the divorce, treated Ernest fairly well. Mary Pfeiffer, a devout Catholic who strongly disagreed with divorce, wrote a letter to Ernest which reads in parts: “This is the saddest Christmas I have ever know. A broken family is a tragic thing [. . .] I shall always remember you in my prayers and hope that we shall meet again in a fairer clime upon a farther shore.” Mary signed the letter “Mother Pfeiffer.” Her disappointment in the divorce is evident, but so is her continuing motherly concern for Ernest.
Gus, too, treated Ernest kindly but firmly. He refused to accept the original manuscript from For Whom the Bell Tolls, instead agreeing to hold it in trust for one Ernest and Pauline’s children. He also insisted that all communication between the two of them go through Pauline. Because of this rule (and Gus’s failing health), they did not have much of a relationship after the divorce.
Piggott’s importance in the writing of A Farewell to Arms was honored in attempts to have the world premiere of the first film version of the novel in town in 1932, correct?
Yes, the 1932 film A Farewell to Arms was planned to premiere simultaneously in New York and Piggott, but the Piggott premiere was delayed due to Ernest’s lack of cooperation. He had heard that the director changed the ending of the story, so he refused to go. (This was ultimately not true. The ending remains true to the book.) This placed quite a damper on the opening. He also complained that the town seemed more excited about the new Tarzan movie, also new that week. They even misspelled his name (“Hemmingway”) on the placard. Despite Ernest’s impression of the event, Hemingway biographer Ruth Hawkins notes that those in attendance of the event “remembered it as a gala event with standing room only.”
Speaking of the 1932 film premiere of A Farewell to Arms, you just announced a May 2015 Reading Retreat, which will focus on Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and the premiere of the 1932 film adaptation. Tell us about your reading and writing retreats, and about this one specifically.
We have two writers’ retreats a year, one in June and one in November. Writers’ retreats allow writers the opportunity to work with a professional mentor, write in Hemingway’s Barn-Studio, and become a part of a community of writers. We have one reading retreat each year. This year, we will focus on A Farewell to Arms. We will read the novel and two books from/about the time period. We will also screen the 1932 movie. Participants will receive copies of the books several months in advance, so that they can read and prepare to join us for discussion and fun on May 8-9. This year’s event will culminate with a Red Carpet Party, where participants will be invited to come dressed as their favorite Golden Age of Hollywood star. More information about our retreats can found on our website.
How did the property transition from private home to house museum?
Following the death of Mary Pfeiffer, the home was sold fully furnished to the Janes family. The Janes family preserved the home and its contents for years, ultimately selling the property to Arkansas State University in 1997. Thanks to the Janes’ care, we have roughly 75% of the original furnishings for the home.
What do you think are some of the benefits of having author houses become museums?
House museums are special places because they allow visitors to better understand the people behind the writing by giving them something tangible to attach the stories to. Authors don’t work in a vacuum, and the context of their lives provide new ways to understand the texts. For example, our museum tells the story of an influential family who are interesting in their own right, and who altered the course of Hemingway’s career. By understanding them better, we understand Ernest better. And by visiting the site where he wrote one of his greatest works, we have something tangible to connect to that novel.
What are some of the items that you have here at the museum that you find the most interesting?
My favorite item in the museum is Ernest’s alpine skiing manual. The manual was taken from the Hotel Taube in Schruns, Austria. Ernest has signed his name in the front cover. Ernest and his first wife Hadley stayed at this hotel during a skiing trip in 1925. Pauline, Hadley’s friend, joined them for the trip. It was during this trip that Pauline and Ernest began the affair that ultimately resulted in Ernest leaving Hadley and marrying Pauline.
One of my favorite items in our archives is a home film of a 1940 Pfeiffer family reunion at Uncle Gus’s vacation home near Fairfield, CT. Uncle Gus gave one of his Connecticut houses to Helen Keller, and the video shows the family visiting with her during their Independence Day parade.
How did you become the director of the museum?
I have a PhD in literature, with a focus on American modernism, from the University of Kansas. I grew up in Arkansas, though, about 50 miles away from the museum. Because of my connections to Arkansas, I heard when the position opened and applied for it. I’m happy to be back in my native state working to preserve our literary heritage.
What is your favorite Hemingway novel or short story? And who are some of your favorite authors besides Hemingway?
My favorite work by Hemingway is In Our Time. Taken individually, the stories in this book are among Hemingway’s best, especially “Big, Two-Hearted River.” Taken together, the text is one of the finest by an American modernist. Though I work primarily with Hemingway, most of my scholarship has been over William Faulkner, who also has ties to this region. It’s an interesting pairing. The two writers were contemporaries and public rivals.
Yes, I know Hemingway and Faulkner had an odd relationship to say the least. At one point I think Hemingway called Faulkner “the best of us all,” and Faulkner co-wrote the script for the film version of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (still maybe the best Hemingway film adaptation?), but after Faulkner later made some slightly disparaging remarks about Hemingway’s vocabulary, they remained at odds. As arguably the two pillars of American modernism in fiction, how do you see them in comparison with one another?
This is a very interesting topic. Even though Hemingway and Faulkner never met in person (at least not that we can confirm), they did exchange letters and referred to each other publicly. At times, they seemed to respect each other and at times they seemed to dislike each other. Both clearly recognized the other as one of the leading writers of their generation, though. Otherwise, why would they have spent so much time talking about each other? Joseph Fruscione has a very good book on the topic which tracks the relationship in more detail. In terms of public opinion, I think Hemingway was more popular early in his career, while Faulkner was more popular later. In terms of legacy, Hemingway has been very influential in popularizing the minimalist style that has become standard in American fiction. I would say that Faulkner has remained more popular in universities, though, and more influential in “literary” circles.
Hemingway is sort of the prototypical machismo American writer, but that uber-masculinity aspect of his persona often gets played up. He seems to me a much more complicated man than the mythical bull-fight-loving tough guy allows. Do you agree? And if so, in what ways do you see a different side of Hemingway? And how can highlighting those alternate aspects of his personality help to open up his novels in different ways?
I agree that Ernest is more complex than his one-dimensional macho performance. Certainly, Ernest was obsessed with masculinity, as were many men in his time and place. Because of this performance, he seems to have worked to ensure that his public persona was quintessentially macho. This probably becomes more and more true as his celebrity grows. Beneath this, though, I think there is a much more complex person. Looking at his texts, I think that, at times, you see his narrators regret their own chauvinism. It seems to me that many of his narrators are speaking about past events, like one might in a confessional. I think seeing the difference in age in the first-person narrators and the events they narrate is important in seeing growth (or at least regret) in some of the Hemingway heroes.
Lastly, for visitors thinking of coming to visit, Piggott is somewhat off the beaten path, so what other museums or points of interest are in the surrounding area that someone visiting your museum might want to check out?
The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum is part of a system of museums in the Arkansas Delta. Currently, we have two other sites, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum (which explores an early agricultural union which was one of the first in the South to integrate) and the Lakeport Plantation (the only antebellum plantation on the Mississippi River in Arkansas). In addition, we recently partnered with several other institutions to open the Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center Museum. Rohwer was a Japanese American internment camp during World War II. George Takei (Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu) was interned here as a child. We also recently opened the Dyess Colony: The Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash, which celebrates the life of one of the best-known Arkansans.
For those interested in other literary sites, there are several nearby. You can see sites associated with John Grisham (65 miles), Alex Haley (90 miles), Laura Ingalls Wilder (175 miles), William Faulkner (200 miles), and Mark Twain (300 miles), among others.
Tyler Malone is a writer, teacher, and traveler. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Millions, Full Stop, PMc Magazine, The Tottenville Review, and Literary Traveler. He was once known as “the Reading Markson Reading guy.”