Documentary Review: PBS’s “Hemingway” — Inside an American Legend
By Roberta Silman
If you love fiction you should devote several hours to watching Hemingway. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have brought a special tenderness to this series, something deeper and more compelling than previous Burns documentaries.
Hemingway by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on PBS
Eighty-five years ago in April 1936 Ernest Hemingway climbed the stairs to his writing room in the house on Whitehead Street in Key West and finished two stories that insured his place among the very best writers that America has produced. They are “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” two heartbreaking pieces that, like his earlier stories and the novels The Sun Also Rises and Farewell to Arms, changed the course of American writing. In all these works, which dazzled their readers when they were published, we see Hemingway shaping sentences that are direct, elegantly simple, and telling stories that, perhaps most important of all, trust the reader like few writers have. This is an author who could write about abortion or date rape without actually spelling out what was happening, but which any alert reader understands. As he said more than once, he was interested in writing that made the reader “live” the experience, not just read about it. And he succeeded like no one else.
Although most writers after him tried, no one could really imitate him successfully, because Hemingway was sui generis. Still, even if you were not trying to imitate him, his way of expressing things in English affected everyone’s writing thereafter. Journalists, fiction writers, even historians. And when the history of the English language is written it may be that it was Hemingway — as much as Joyce or Faulkner or Woolf or T.S. Eliot or Elizabeth Bishop — who had the most influence in its evolution in the 20th century. Which is why, among all the writers of the past century, he was the one chosen by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for their splendid three-part series that aired on PBS for the first time on April 5, 6, and 7th. And why The Library of America last fall issued his early works.
By 1937 Hemingway had already lived more than half of his short life and, for some people, had already produced his best work. Other novels were to come; only For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Old Man and The Sea were considered even close to the quality of the early work, and even those are still up for debate. Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the commentators in the PBS series, laughed at For Whom the Bell Tolls while John McCain touchingly confessed that he adored that novel — after he read it he became Robert Jordan, the protagonist. And Edna O’Brien, who is a fan of the stories and loves Farewell to Arms, thinks The Old Man and the Sea a terrible falling off, adolescent in its premise, which may be why it is beloved by so many high school students. Yet it was the book cited by the Nobel Prize Committee who awarded it “for his mastery of the art of narrative . . . and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.” Others have found it a masterful myth, while some find it embarrassing and sentimental.
I mention these varying points of view to give you some idea of the range of people who weigh in on Hemingway in this series, and how interesting their comments are. Which is why — if you love fiction — you should devote several hours to watching all of it. For despite all the contradictions that arise about Hemingway as a man and as a writer, Burns and Novick have brought a special tenderness to this Hemingway, something deeper and more compelling than previous Ken Burns series that many found formulaic, even if they were fascinated by the subjects: The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz.
Ernest Miller Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1899, the second child of Clarence, a physician, and Grace, a homemaker who gave up her aspirations to become an opera singer for her husband and children. He remembered it as a happy childhood, but as an adolescent he grew to hate his mother not only for her insistence on martyrdom but also for the effect she had on his father, who never measured up in her eyes. Against their wishes he refused to go to college and instead went to work for the Kansas City Star newspaper. Then, at eighteen, he volunteered to be an ambulance driver in Europe during the First World War. But the very family that he was so anxious to get away from was to play a large part in his life; its legacy of mental illness would affect his interactions with his four wives, his three sons, his many friends and acquaintances, and with the editors and publishers who helped propel his work into the world.
It is the forthright portrayal of this illness, which permeated his life, even when he seemed on top of the world as a young man, that makes this documentary so valuable. Who was this man who could move us to tears by paring down the English language to its essence? Hemingway, the iconic author, earns enormous respect from such remarkable writers as Tim O’Brien and Abraham Verghese. But it is Hemingway, the man, who is revealed in this series as never before. The context provided by the black and white photographs of the time — some from newsreels, some from home movies and newspaper clips — brings an immediacy that only the screen can provide for this larger than life personality: complicated, flawed, charming, obnoxious, courageous, and also repulsive.
We see his selfishness and emotional brutality as he always finds the next wife before getting rid of the present one; we hear the pain of Hadley Richardson, the first wife, who speculated — probably correctly — that he might have led a more stable life if she had had the stamina to live through Ernest’s affair with Pauline Pfeiffer and stayed married to him; we see his need to “be in love” and then, once married, his need to abuse that is so poignantly portrayed with Hadley and Pauline and grows violent and frightening with Martha Gellhorn and Mary. We see his delusional fixation with the young Italian woman who inspired Renata in Across the River and Into the Trees, his need to become “Papa” to other women in middle age. And we begin to understand how his insecurities and mental instability led to his alcoholism, undercutting the received wisdom (by some) that the abusiveness was a symptom of that alcoholism. We see him trying to be a good father and husband, as when Patrick, his middle son, had a schizophrenic episode and when Mary almost died from an ectopic pregnancy. But we also see that he could be mean and vicious, a bully without peer.
This Hemingway also explores Hemingway’s need to take risks as well as his proneness to accidents which caused him to have at least seven concussions. They surely contributed to the downward spiral that became his life in the ’50s and contributed to his paranoia and suicide in 1961 when he shot himself in Ketchum, Idaho. He was just short of 62 years old. Thus, in the end, he is one more alarming statistic in a family where his father Clarence and two of his siblings committed suicide. Some of his descendants have also taken that path, making the Hemingway family seem “cursed.”
Yet there is more than just the man. There is the work. So while this documentary doesn’t flinch from the tragic trajectory of Hemingway’s life, it also delves into his prose, sometimes sentence by sentence, so that when, for example, you hear the beginning of Farewell to Arms you can appreciate how great that rule-breaking writing by a man in his twenties really is. And when Edna O’Brien observes that much of it could have been written by a woman and that, in the end, this book about war leaves the reader with the lasting image of a woman dying in childbirth, you want only to go back and re-read the book with a fresh eye. Which I did, and, to my surprise, realized that apart from the stories this may be — as it seemed to be for most of the participants in this documentary — my favorite Hemingway novel, too.
The series has three episodes: A Writer (1899-1929), The Avatar (1929-1944), and The Blank Page (1944-1961). The story is interspersed, seamlessly, with the thoughtful and original comments of many writers and critics and associates of the Hemingway family, like his middle son, Patrick and Michael Katakis who is described as “the manager of Ernest Hemingway’s literary estate.” In many ways Katakis serves as the anchor for the series in both his devotion to Hemingway and his and clear-eyed assessment of who he really was; and the scholars, several of whom I had not heard of, were very illuminating, as well, especially when they analyzed Hemingway’s obsession with bullfighting, his alcoholism and passive aggression, and the relationship of his many concussions to his volatile mental state. Moreover, Hemingway is not a mere distillation through amazing snapshots and insights; the series also builds tension, just as any good story does. I would recommend that once you start watching you continue until the sad, bitter end. And that if you are hooked on learning more about him, I would urge you to get the magnificent five volume biography of Hemingway by Michael Reynolds, which brings the same kind of empathy to its subject as the series does
For me the most interesting part is the middle section — The Avatar — when Hemingway’s tale becomes a cautionary one, universal in its thrust, and sometimes terrifying in its details. For here Burns and Novick explore what happens to man possessed of genius but also haunted by tremendous self-doubt, and what fame does to him. How he was determined to be a “famous” writer and was at his happiest when he was creating “one good sentence” after another. Yet he also felt the need to fashion his myth as a hard-drinking hunter and fisherman and lover and bullfight aficionado and soldier, sometimes lying in the process. And how, in the end, his need to perpetuate the image came to control him and contributed to petty jealousies and thin-skinned resentments and even violent episodes in which he became more brutal than anyone could have predicted. As we watch him hurl to his ultimate destruction we wonder what he might have accomplished if he had been able to control the avatar he had created and conquer the challenge of the blank page that threatened him constantly in the late ’40s and ’50s. Watching him succumb to the myth he had so carefully constructed is painful, especially when he and Mary return to the Ritz in Paris and are given a trunk of his early pieces that became his posthumously published memoir A Moveable Feast. For here is that magical prose of his early years, prose he is no longer capable of creating. It is as if the regrets Harry Walden explored in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” have come to torment him; thus has art predicted life.
Like most writers of my generation I have had a long relationship with Hemingway. I remember the anticipation my parents felt when they opened Across the River and Into the Trees and their disappointment and confusion when they finished it. I remember the excitement when The Old Man and the Sea was published, and then the pride at Cornell when Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in 1954. As a young woman in Paris I remember going to the streets where he lived and to Shakespeare & Co. where I actually met and talked with Sylvia Beach. But most of all I remember waiting for my first child to be born in that summer of 1961 when I was ordered to stay in bed at my parents’ home and Hemingway died of what the papers called an “accidental gunshot wound” which occurred when he was cleaning his gun. No one was fooled, he knew too much about guns to have had such an accident, but it would be years before the real cause of Hemingway’s death was discussed freely. I also remember more than one discussion with friends when we were in our 20s and 30s about who they loved more — Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Although I am a great fan of The Great Gatsby and my late husband adored Tender Is the Night and I still read “The Ice Palace” and “A Diamond As Big As the Ritz” and “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” when I need cheering up, I must admit that over time, I think that Hemingway, deservedly, has achieved the kind of immortality so movingly bestowed upon him in this series and that Fitzgerald does not quite achieve.
I also have connections to Hemingway that have to do with place. In 1978 when my collection of stories Blood Relations was given Honorable Mention for the PEN Hemingway Prize — the second year that it was awarded — my husband and I were invited to a small reception at Mary Hemingway’s apartment on the east side of Manhattan. We were thrilled, and I can still see animal rugs and leopard printed upholstery and masses of photographs that filled an apartment that was essentially a shrine to the great man. Mary Hemingway was gracious and very protective of her husband’s reputation, praising him to the skies. By then he had been dead for almost two decades so perhaps it was easier for her to edit her memories for the adoring public. But I remember feeling that it was all a well-controlled bit of theater. I also felt that when I visited Key West in the early 2000s and saw the house on Whitehead Street. Except for the little studio where he would go at first light to write.
And now I wish I had accompanied my structural engineer husband Robert when he was asked to look at the Finca Vigia, the villa outside Havana that Martha Gellhorn bought when she and Hemingway first began to live together and where he lived with Mary until 1960. Although Hemingway supported the revolution and could have stayed, his health had deteriorated sharply and he was depressed; Mary was threatening to leave him and the Finca needed lots of repair, which neither of them had the will to do. He left Cuba in July 1960, never to see it again. Because of Bob’s work in Historic Preservation, he was sought out by the foundation in Cuba dedicated to restoring Hemingway’s home so that it could become the tourist attraction it now is. Years later our daughter Miriam and her family visited the Finca. They were allowed to tour inside the building because of her father’s connections. At the time most tourists could only look in the windows. How relieved I was when she told me that the books were helter-skelter, in no discernible order, but clearly loved. It fit that this great reader could not be bothered to organize his books and comforts me when I see that the order I thought I could impose on our library has failed, miserably, again.
In conclusion I would like to leave you with two things that reinforce the importance of Hemingway’s place in American culture: The first is part his Nobel prize speech which was read on his behalf because by then his health did not allow him to attend the Prize ceremony in Sweden. Hemingway had become an old man though he was only in his 50s, but when you think about it, the trajectory of his relatively short life was truly remarkable: a midwestern boy who never went to college, who educated himself, who disciplined himself despite many early rejections to hone his astounding work, and who understood the writer’s life perhaps better than anyone in his century. Here is what he had to say:
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.
How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.
I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.
It is, as Edna O’Brien says, “like a prayer.”
And here is the Coda, written in 1998, from Reynolds’ great biography which substantiates why Burns and Novick chose Hemingway above all others:
Ernest Hemingway was the embodiment of America’s promise: the young boy from Oak Park who set out to become the best writer of his time. With pluck and luck, talent and wit, hard work and hard living, he did just that. In the process he told us that pursuit was happiness, that man alone was no fucking good, and that any story followed far enough would end badly. Before he burned out, he lived constantly out on the edge of the American experience. In the process he fathered sons, wrote books, influenced friends, and won every prize available to a writer. He remodeled American short fiction, changed the way characters speak, confronted the moral strictures confining the writer and left behind a shelf of books telling us how we were in the first half of this century. His is a classic American story: the young man who transforms himself following his ambition, succeeds beyond his dreams, and finally burns out trying to become true to the person he has become. His imagination, which created “Big Two-Hearted River,” also created his paranoia. His ambition, intensity, creative drive, sense of duty, belief in hard work, and faith in the strenuous life carried him to the pinnacle of his profession, provided him with wide recognition and considerable wealth, before destroying him when he could no longer meet their demands. It is an old story, older than written words, a story the ancient Greeks would have recognized.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon and at Campden Hill Books. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and writes regularly for the Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at email@example.com.