The Most Interesting Man in the World

World-renowned Hemingway scholar lives out his own adventures

While speaking with Dr. James “Jim” Nagel ’62 (English and physical education), you begin to notice a striking resemblance to “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

The viral Dos Equis ad-turned meme embodies the persona of a suave, collected, well-traveled, ambitiously educated man with an aristocratic air and a resumé that could make your boss cry.

In Nagel’s case, he could truthfully say lines, such as how he doesn’t always take vacations with Ernest Hemingway’s family, but when he does, they go to Spain for the bullfights.

Nagel is a world traveler, a respected scholar, and a close friend to celebrated families and figures. He has written and published 26 books and over 80 articles for scholarly journals and has lectured on American literature in 17 countries. He and his wife Gwen both Breckenridge, Minn., natives, reside in a ski chalet in New Hampshire. He is currently a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College – you know, that private Ivy League research university in Hanover.

Initially, he was going to be a high school English teacher with a gig as a basketball coach on the side, the cherry on top of a sweet career. That was his plan. However, life led him in a different direction – numerous directions, in fact.

While studying at Moorhead State College in the ‘60s, he played basketball for four years and was all-conference for three of them. His senior year, Nagel was the league scoring leader, named the most valuable player, and set the record for field goals in a season. He also had the school record for points in a season. He played in the first game ever held in Nemzek Fieldhouse and hit a jump shot with one second remaining to defeat Concordia.

When he wasn’t playing basketball, working, or participating in Greek life on campus, he did as any good English major would do; he read, wrote, and studied.

In a course on the modern American novel, Nagel wrote an essay comparing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” It proverbially knocked the socks off then-professor Richard Browne who sent it to a colleague. His essay and the referral resulted in full-ride fellowships and assistantships for graduate school at Pennsylvania State University.

Nestled in between six years of graduate school, Nagel taught English courses at MSU for three years, which only strengthened his friendship with former professors, such as Clarence “Soc” Glasrud.

Building a Bond

It was not uncommon for Nagel’s era of students to know their professors beyond the confines of classroom walls. Students often knew their families personally and stayed connected far beyond their college days.

“There was a very close bond between faculty and students,” Nagel said, “not just for me, but for lots of students. We’d often get invited to dinner in faculty homes. I knew the names of the dogs of all my faculty members, and there was a very close friendship with the faculty.”

With the coming of the Vietnam War and the protest era of the 1960s, all of that changed. “One of the results of that was a permanent divide between faculty and students that’s never been repaired. It’s never been anything like the way it was before.”

MSUM English professor emeritus Clarence “Soc” Glasrud was an important influence for Nagel. “He had a Ph.D. from Harvard and he liked a lot of the same writers that I was interested in – the American novelists of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Nagel would even visit the Glasruds at their lake cottage in Detroit Lakes, Minn. “I’d go down and play tennis with Soc and we’d go swimming and have dinner out on their screened porch.”

Teaching in the Library

Nagel was the only graduate student in the English program at Penn State to have published a book while still in school. The book was called “Vision and Value; a Thematic Introduction to the Short Story” and was quickly incorporated into their undergraduate curriculum.

Upon completion of his doctorate in English, Nagel taught at Northeastern University in Boston, traveled the world lecturing, became a member and president of several scholarly societies and a visiting scholar to renowned universities, and claimed the title of distinguished professor of English and visiting scholar at various institutions, like the University of Georgia and Dartmouth.

During Nagel’s 20 years teaching at Northeastern University, one of his classes became well-known among graduate students at other universities, such as Boston University and Harvard. It was taught where Hemingway’s innumerable manuscripts were placed for safekeeping – the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.

Before these troves of papers were stored in the library, Mary Hemingway traveled all over the world to collect boxes of texts Hemingway stored in the basements of hotels he frequented. There were more than one million manuscripts and 10,000 photographs to organize, a task not fit for the faint of heart, hoarders or those who easily feel overwhelmed.

After a few years of intense sorting, a dinner was served in honor of the accomplishment, a dinner at which Jackie Kennedy graced the guest list.

“All the members of the Hemingway family came and I played host to them. Jackie Kennedy was there. She was very gracious – a good diplomat. She asked me about Hemingway.”

Getting Personal: Studying Hemingway Secondhand

Unlike the portrait painted of Hemingway by many, he was a man of discipline who never drank after his glass of wine with dinner. He arose every morning by 6 a.m. and went to bed by 9 p.m.

“People have this image of Hemingway drunk at midnight in a bar somewhere trying to write. That’s just total bologna. Never,” Nagel said. “There was a stage late in the 1950s when he drank too much, but it was a very complicated situation. But for most of his life, he drank in the late afternoons, and drinking quite a lot and behaving as a gentleman was thought to be an important social virtue. And during the prohibition, people drank like fish. The consumption of alcohol went way up, but Hemingway never drank after dinner.”

Every morning, Hemingway would go to his desk and work until 11 a.m. That was all the work he did for the day. He would read over what he had written, make changes, and then add a page or two.

“It was his theory that, as a writer, you want to take a regular amount of water out of the well every day,” Nagel said. “You don’t want to pump it dry one day and have to wait a week for it to fill up again. You want to keep taking a regular amount out every day.”

Telling the life stories of Hemingway turned personal when the interviewees became close friends. Nagel learned of these idiosyncrasies from none other than Hemingway’s family – Mary, his fourth and last wife, Jack, Gregory and Patrick, his sons, and Valerie, Hemingway’s secretary and the wife of Gregory.

“I knew Jack well,” Nagel said. “We went to Spain together and Italy another time. We’d play tennis every day and had a lot of fun together. He knew I was working on Hemingway and had some stuff he needed help with, like the big pile of letters between his parents. I stayed at his house in Sun Valley and we went through all those papers and decided what should be burned, what should be donated to the Kennedy Library, and what he should just keep.”

Hemingway Visits Hollywood

While giving a series of lectures in Italy in 1986, the International Herald Tribune mentioned Nagel, which caught the eye of an elderly man who still resided in Switzerland, the country to which he had been an American ambassador.

A few days after Nagel returned home to Boston he was phoned by the retiree who told him he had occupied the bed next to Hemingway in an Italian hospital in WWI. He also knew the nurse Hemingway had fallen in love with and kept her diary.

The man, Henry Serrano Villard, was from an incredibly wealthy family. Villard’s grandfather had built the Northern Pacific Railroad. In fact, Villard, Minn., was named after him.

“The problem was that he was already 90 years old and he couldn’t remember or do much,” Nagel said. “He always wanted to write about these people, but he wasn’t able to do it anymore. The deal we struck was that he would share with me his diary, the nurse’s diary, and his photographs of Hemingway and the nurse and all those people back in 1918, and I would write the book. That’s what we did. I said he could be a co-author.”

After the release of “Hemingway in Love and War,” it was selected by the New York Times as one of the outstanding books of 1989.

The close bond Nagel has shared with Hemingway’s family and connections added a color to the retold stories of their lives, which lent itself well to Hollywood.

While at a publishing party in Washington, D.C., more posh than a backyard barbeque, a Hollywood producer approached Nagel, asking him if he thought the book was worthy of production.

“I said 'absolutely.' Hemingway was, for awhile, the most famous person on earth, and he was the first American wounded in WWI. He was involved in a war in a foreign country. He had a romance in Italy, and all that’s pretty glamorous stuff for the movies.”

The producer said he loved it and asked Nagel to write a rough outline of a screenplay for him to see if there was any interest and financial backing in Hollywood.

“I did write a treatment, and two weeks later, we had $70 million,” Nagel said. “By then I had moved to Georgia. I was flying back and forth between Atlanta and Los Angeles talking to actors and actresses about being in the movie and meeting people at New Line Cinema.”

Although the film utilized the talent of well-known actors and directors, such as Sandra Bullock and Lord Richard Attenborough, liberties were taken that stripped some parts of the story’s accuracy.

“It’s not a wonderful movie. It could have been, but I won’t say anymore,” Nagel said. “It wasn’t the fault of the actors or the director. Big money people insisted on certain things that made the movie seem ridiculous.”

Although the final outcome of the film left a less-than-savory flavor in Nagel’s mouth, it hasn’t tainted his desire to work more with movie and television productions.

One of the projects he is currently working on is a PBS documentary about Hemingway in Paris in the 1920s. Filming will begin in Boston in August and then at the Hemingway summerhouse in Michigan this October, but the majority will be shot next April in Paris.

In true Hemingway and Nagel fashion, Nagel will have to juggle his commitments, as he will also be lecturing to graduate students this fall in Mainz, Germany, on – what else – American literature.

No matter what classes, books, articles, documentaries or films Nagel decides to undertake, one thing is certain: There is never a dull moment for Jim. Hemingway, deemed as one of the most interesting men ever to have lived, was cut from the same cloth as the man who has spent so much time studying him and teaching his works.

Nuggets about Nagel

 Nagel was the first lecturer in the Glasrud Lecture Series.

 From 1983 to 1986, Nagel was the president of the International Hemingway Society, a 600-member, worldwide organization consisting of scholars who teach at the university level, study and write about Hemingway.

 While attending MSU, Nagel was a member of Alpha Epsilon, which then became Sigma Tau Gamma.

 For a Greek event, Nagel wrote a musical called “Roman Rhythms.” “It was kind of an acronystic joke. This was ancient Rome and odd things would happen, like the phone would ring and the emperor would have to take a phone call,” Nagel said. “One of the songs we sang was ‘Brush up Your Shakespeare.’ That was part of a Broadway musical, and I rewrote the musical referring to people on campus, and the audience would laugh at every reference.”

 His favorite book by Hemingway is “The Sun Also Rises,” “In part because of the research I’ve done,” Nagel said. “I was able to identify the real people that the characters are based on and to investigate their stories.” 

Lessons from the Lecturer

“Don’t think of yourself in such a small context. You might want to play the game on the national level, and if so, the competition is keen. Study hard. Take it seriously. The competition is international."

"That doesn’t mean I don’t think students should have fun, but you need to study hard 40 hours a week and work of have fun the rest of the time. Don't fiddle away the hours neither studying nor having fun."

"I worked every day I was at Moorhead state. I washed towels for the athletic department. I carried books over to Livingston Library. The danger isn’t working a couple hours a day and it isn’t having fun. The danger is diddling – wasting time – neither studying nor having fun – just hanging out. Don’t waste hours. There’s plenty of time to do everything. You can waste an hour on Facebook any time you want to.”


This story was first published in Moorhead Magazine, Fall 2015.

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