Literature in the Mountains 

A Bookworm's guide to Sun Valley

Everyone knows you can ski, hike and hunt big game in the Wood River Valley, but what if you'd rather explore the literary legacies that also exist around Bald Mountain? The valley has produced two of the most prominent figures in 20th century literature: Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound. Thanks to the Sun Valley Writer's Conference, a new crop of literary stars is being celebrated and fostered for the future. You can't hang with Hem, of course, but the young guns have their favorite local haunts, too.

A good place to start your literary ramblings is the Community Library in Ketchum, where Regional History Librarian Sandra Hofferber has compiled a walking tour for the Hemingway-curious. She says Hemingway spent a total of 708 days in the area--not too many more than his third wife, novelist and journalist Martha Gellhorn.

The brown Ketchum Korral cabins at the south entrance to Ketchum on Highway 75 are where Ernest and Mary Hemingway (wife No. 4) stayed with their three boys for two hunting seasons--though back then, in the late '40s, they were known as the MacDonald Cabins. The Sun Valley Lodge, about two miles east of Ketchum, is where Papa holed up, in Room 206, to work on For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1939. The Hemingway House off Warm Springs Road in north Ketchum--where the writer committed suicide in 1961--is off-limits to the public, and fans are not encouraged to visit his gravesite at the Ketchum Cemetery, just east of Highway 75 a half-mile north of town. Instead, go 1.6 miles east, past the Sun Valley Lodge to the Hemingway Memorial, where a bronze bust of the writer is positioned at a picturesque section of an irrigation canal. This is a great place to relax and read a short story.

Feeling thirsty and want a drink at one of Hemingway's favorite watering holes? Try Whiskey Jacques (the Alpine Club in Hem's day), in downtown Ketchum. For eats, check out Michel's Christiania and Olympic Bar, where Papa had a regular table.

The Wood River Valley was home to another literary icon before Hemingway, though. The first to emerge from the Wood River Valley was born in Hailey long before Count Felix Schaffgotsch and Averell Harriman conspired to create America's first destination ski resort near Ketchum. Poet Ezra Pound's birthplace was nearly forgotten by history, and would have been lost had an Irish playwright working for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts not "discovered" it in 1972.

The locals, including community leader and columnist Roberta McKercher, who owned and lived in the house where Pound was born, seemed willing to allow the legacy of his origins to drift into obscurity. Probably because this towering modernist poet and friend of writers (he edited T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, helped discover James Joyce, and was a longtime friend of Hemingway, going back to their ex-pat days in Europe in the '20s) was also a notorious anti-Semite and branded a traitor to the United States for his hysterical pro-fascist rants during World War II.

Today, the restored Ezra Pound House at the corner of Second Avenue and Pine Street in Hailey is managed by the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, offering writing workshops, gallery shows and concerts throughout the year.

Pound was born in Hailey during the mining boom of the 1880s, but moved as a child to Philadelphia and later Europe. Despite his controversial reputation--no consensus has been reached as to whether he was unbalanced or just despicable--many poets and writers after him, from Allen Ginsberg, Naomi Shihab Nye and recent poet laureate William S. Merwin, have made the pilgrimage to his birthplace.

Hemingway, who would help put Sun Valley on the map when he was invited to the opening of the resort by Harriman in 1936, helped Pound escape execution after World War II and later came to his aid, along with poets Robert Frost and Archibald MacLeish, to free him from St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a Washington, D.C., asylum where he was confined from 1946-1958 after pleading insanity to accusations of treason in 1945.

The literary esprit de corps that existed among writers in Paris during Hemingway's generation has been re-created since 1995 at the Sun Valley Writer's Conference, which takes place each year over the last weekend in August. During the early years of the conference, major writers such as William Styron, Peter Matthiessen, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje told stories at the Community School campus in Sun Valley, joined by a host of leading journalists and TV news executives. Legendary editor James Bellows read and edited manuscripts for a lucky few.

Over the years, the list of SVWC writers, poets, filmmakers, journalists and news makers has multiplied to include Abraham Verghese, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Tracy Kidder, Alexandra Fuller and many others. Several of the presenters return year after year, and have seen one another's work evolve.

The SVWC has become expensive and exclusive. Journalists are forbidden to interview participants, and $900 tickets for the next year sell out immediately after the conference ends, leading to speculation in literary circles: What might former poet laureate Billy Collins learn from National Geographic explorer-in-residence Wade Davis? Have either of them read Mona Simpson's summer phenom, Gone Girl, which will soon be made into a feature film? What might Harvard creative writing professor Bret Anthony Johnston, who just finished a documentary about the world's best skateboarder, have to share with retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former leader of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and author of My Share of the Task?

Many other writers have emerged from the Sun Valley area. They include Ridley Pearson, who formed the Rock Bottom Remainders band with Steven King, Dave Barry and Amy Tan. Judith Freeman taught skiing in Sun Valley in the 1970s and wrote for the Idaho Statesman before going to Los Angeles to write The Chinchilla Farm.

Freeman, who is now at work on a memoir, said she attended the first Sun Valley Writer's Conference 18 years ago. She recalled in an interview that she joined poet W.S. Merwin; his wife, Paula; and a 22-year local kid named Alexander Maksik on an outing to Silver Creek Preserve that summer. Maksik's father was headmaster at the Community School in Ketchum in those days, and one of the original founders of the Sun Valley Writer's Conference.

"Xander said he wanted to become a writer, and he did," said Freeman. "A lot of people say they want to, but few actually do."

Today, after many years teaching and writing, Maksik is a rising international literary star. His first novel, You Deserve Nothing, has been translated into six languages, including Russian and Korean. In a recent interview with the Idaho Mountain Express in Ketchum, Maksik said his favorite local hangout is Iconoclast Books on Sun Valley Road. Proprietor Sara Hedrick keeps her shop supplied with many books of regional interest, and collections of work by Sun Valley Writers Conference attendees.

Also worth noting in the Sun Valley area are a number of lesser known writers, including Mary Clare Griffin, author of Language Lessons, and Rick Slone, author of Brown Shoe. There is also Mike Medberry's recent memoir On the Dark Side of the Moon, and a collection of columns by Michael Hofferber called Rural Delivery.

Sandra Hofferber has collected many more that most have never heard of. Get her started and she can also dish out some local gossip and enchanting lore about the valley that may never make it into print.

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