Arkansas has always been a small state, yet from presidents to entertainers to military leaders, it has produced some of American history’s biggest names.
However, for every Bill Clinton, Johnny Cash or Douglas MacArthur the state produces, Arkansas attracts another big-named outsider. For that, the culprit is often duck hunting.
Rock stars, athletes and actors have ventured into Arkansas to test its reputation for world-class waterfowling. A recent sighting was of Yellowstone star Kevin Costner, who dropped in for a little hunting in 2021. The year before, singer/songwriter Thomas Rhett experienced his first timber hunt at Stuttgart.
Whether famous, infamous or otherwise, a person with an affinity for duck hunting and the means to travel will naturally want to visit bountiful Arkansas sooner or later.
So it is no surprise that one of the biggest names in literature — and hunting — tried his luck while making his temporary home in Arkansas and working on one of his most famous novels.
Ernest Hemingway married Pauline Pfeiffer in 1927 and spent several stints at her family’s home Piggott during their 13-year marriage. Considered one of the greatest American writers and one of the most influential 20th-century novelists, Hemingway wrote at least 100 pages of his first best-seller, “A Farewell to Arms,” in the barn studio at the Pfeiffer family farm.
In his time, Hemingway, who would eventually earn a Pulitzer Prize for “The Old Man and the Sea,” was known almost as much for his embrace of a robust lifestyle as he was for his writing. A fan of dangerous, physical sports, a lover of sport fishing and all kinds of hunting — including big game — Hemingway often used his adventures afield to inspire his work.
Bullfights provided a notable and frequent backdrop for Hemingway’s stories and novels, and the 1936 short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is about a hunter facing his own death while on safari.
In Arkansas, most of Hemingway’s hunting escapades revolved around quail. He made frequent trips around the Crowley’s Ridge area, writing to famed artist Henry Strater that Piggott had such “swell shooting … You could hunt a new place every day for two months,” in December of 1931.
But if you’re an avid sportsman and you come to Arkansas, sooner or later you’re going to have to hunt ducks.
In a story for the Southwest Times Record, outdoor writer Joe Mosby noted that in the 1930s the building of Grand Prairie rice reservoirs, the creation of the federal duck stamp and the establishment of Ducks Unlimited were contributing to the Grand Prairie’s large duck population. The high water mark was arguably captured in the famed Claypool reservoir photo, taken by George Purvis in 1956, that depicted flocks of ducks so thick they looked like tree foliage.
Put a man like Hemingway in a state like that, and he’s bound to dabble in Arkansas’ signature sport. And dabble he did.
In 1932, Hemingway set out for the South Delta region with his editor Maxwell Perkins to experience the world-renowned Arkansas duck hunting along the White River.
In a letter from December 1932, Perkins wrote, “Hemingway wrote that he ‘needed’ to see me, and it had to be done while duck shooting, in the snow, on the shore of a river with cakes of ice in it. And you have to kneel down a lot of the time or sit. We got quite a lot of ducks, but not nearly so many as Hem thought we should; but I had a fine time.”
Perkins described falling old trees weighted with ice and a branch that nearly clobbered Hemingway, arguing about Hemingway’s insistance on rising before dawn and highballs with his famed author after the day’s hunt
To make an impression on a New York editor in just one hunt is quite a feat.
“We really had a grand time,” Perkins wrote.