Mr. Wright and Mr. Hemingway

Not long ago I ate lunch with some friends from Texas. As we walked down Lake Street toward the restaurant, we talked about how the history of this village is tied up in two names–Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway. Many people consider Frank Lloyd Wright the greatest architect America has ever produced. He lived in our village for twenty years. There are more Wright-designed homes in Oak Park and River Forest than anywhere in the world. Although he left Oak Park eighty-five years ago, he remains our number one tourist attraction. Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, grew up here, attended church here, and graduated in 1917 from Oak Park High School. By all accounts Mr. Hemingway is one of the two greatest American writers of the twentieth century, winner of both the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for literature.

Voices From the Past

The heroes we choose tell much about us. Go to Washington and you will find monuments to Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Come to Oak Park and you will hear about Wright and Hemingway. Both men were brilliant, extraordinarily gifted in their respective fields, unquestioned geniuses. Yet while he was here Frank Lloyd Wright had an affair with a married. That torrid affair, which ended in fiery tragedy, has been called Oak Park’s most famous romance. When Ernest Hemingway graduated from Oak Park High School, he went off to World War I, came back with false stories regarding his war record, left Oak Park again, leaving behind his Christian upbringing, moved to Paris where he met F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, and others who would form “the lost generation.” He married, divorced, remarried, divorced, married again, had innumerable affairs, wrote brilliant novels, fell into deep despair, and in 1961 took a shotgun and blew his brains out in Idaho.

We have chosen as our heroes deeply-flawed men, men of great brilliance who epitomize the term “secular humanism.” They represent both sides of the great truth about the image of God in man. It is because of the image of God that men are able to write great novels and design world-renowned buildings. But ever since the Fall, when Adam knowingly ate the fruit, that image of God inside all of us has been deeply marred by sin. Thus you have men like Wright and Hemingway who were capable of great works of art and yet lived in complete disregard of the Christian faith. Wright wanted nothing to do with biblical Christianity which he regarded as narrow and sectarian, while Hemingway knowingly rejected his Christian upbringing.

The Way We Were

It wasn’t like this in the beginning. Oak Park was founded by families that moved here from New York state in the 1830s. They came primarily from Scotch-Irish Presbyterian and Congregational backgrounds. In those days, when Joseph Kettlestrings settled here, Oak Park represented the first bit of high ground after you left Chicago and traveled west across the marshland that eventually became the West Side of Chicago. Those early settlers saw more than symbolism in the high ground. They were Christian people who wanted Oak Park to be a Christian village, a “city set on a hill” that would shine its light into the darkness of Chicago. That’s why there are so many churches built around Scoville Park. They were sending a message that the church was be at the heart of the village, the moral conscience of the community. The founders of Oak Park wanted this village to be built upon the enlightened teaching of the Bible as the guide for civic life.

Things have changed in the last 150 years. At some point we decided to follow Mr. Wright and Mr. Hemingway. If we are unhappy about what has happened in Oak Park, we have no one to blame but ourselves. It wasn’t this way in the beginning.

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