The new Ken Burns documentary Hemingway takes in the genius, the agony, and the sins of this defining American artist.
Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, said there were “so many sides to him he defied geometry.” A man’s man who liked to be called “Catherine” in bed, an apostle of frankness who often lied about his feats, a libertarian who spied for Stalin, he left us with a biography as overstuffed as his work was lean. He was an object of fascination like no other writer, and he receives his due in the superb new documentary Hemingway, a three-part, six-hour film for PBS directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, with a penetrating script by Geoffrey C. Ward.
Standing properly at the center of the documentary is Hemingway’s famously spare prose, and all of these years later it retains its pure, concentrated power, achieved by the literary equivalent of unlocking enormous force by splitting the atom. “I’ve tried to write a helluva good story about people without faking, preciosity or horses**t,” he said early in his career. (Hemingway’s words, both from his many letters and his prose, are read by Jeff Daniels: an odd choice, but you get used to it.)
As much as anyone, Hemingway created modern taste: Sardonic without trying to be funny, allergic to adornment, and guiding his readers in the opposite direction from aggressively difficult writers such as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, he was the master who taught all subsequent artists how to say things by not saying them. The more elliptical he was, the more devastating. The doc notes that he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 47 times before settling on these indelible words, after Catherine, the girlfriend of the narrator, Frederic, dies in childbirth, her child is stillborn, and Frederic talks the nurses into leaving the deathbed:
But after I got them to leave and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.
That is hard to top: The sparseness is what makes it crushing. At his best, Hemingway achieved the alchemy of crafting sentences that were minimalist and unsentimental yet deeply expressive. This made him the manliest of writers, and in his private life he leveraged his literary persona, becoming America’s most visible sportsman since his idol Teddy Roosevelt, hurling himself into World War I (as an ambulance driver in Italy, where he received more than 200 shrapnel wounds), the Spanish Civil War (correspondent in Madrid), and, most amazingly, World War II. In his 40s, he joined the invading force in Normandy, killed three SS officers with grenades in France, was nearly killed twice, and, despite being a civilian, fought with the 22nd Infantry Regiment in the nightmarish battle of the Hürtgen Forest.
Burns and Novick’s appreciation of Hemingway’s prose is infectious and will make you want to go back and reread your favorite works. The doc uses Burns’s signature technique of slowly gliding over still photos backed by voiceover narration (Meryl Streep and Keri Russell are among those who voice the women in Hemingway’s life) so that the dead may speak to us from letters. There are also extensive and valuable interviews with Hemingway’s second son, Patrick, who is still alive. All of this is fleshed out with useful comments from writers, scholars, and fans such as the late John McCain, who speaks fondly of falling in love with Robert Jordan, the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). McCain, nearing the end of his life, almost breaks down as he quotes that marvelous line, “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”
And yet that book also contains the notorious clunker, “But did thee feel the earth move?” Seeking to make everything a kind of profound ritual, Hemingway very often got bogged down in his own earnestness and became the most easily parodied of novelists. I couldn’t stand him as a teenager and didn’t return to him until my 30s, when the simple beauty of The Sun Also Rises (1926) hit me hard, and I was equally entranced by the Jazz Age detail in his incandescent memoir A Moveable Feast, published posthumously in 1964.
There were times that Hemingway’s whittled-down style became a kind of affectation, what J. D. Salinger (who, as an Army sergeant and a fan, tracked down the icon at the Ritz in Paris in 1944) might label rampant phoniness. At his worst, Hemingway fairly shouted, Can you believe how much I’m underplaying this? Burns and Novick are honest enough to consider where Papa went wrong (his reviled 1950 effort Across the River and into the Trees) and also allow that opinion is hardly unanimous even on The Old Man and the Sea (1952), the novella that brought Hemingway the Nobel Prize. A later Nobelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, asserts that it is not merely an unexpected late gift but Hemingway’s greatest achievement, whereas novelist Edna O’Brien calls it “schoolboy writing.” (O’Brien is correct; it’s terrible.)
Documentaries tend to be essayistic, to stake out a position and defend it, but Burns and Novick are enthusiasts above all else; they don’t usually set out to cover a subject for the sake of tearing it down. They are clearly admirers of Hemingway who strike the right balance in discussing his many sins. He was cruel and manipulative to all four of his wives, he let drink carry him to hellish places, and he wasted a considerable portion of his most productive years. The film also takes pains to remind us, twice, that he used the N-word and that he gunned down many innocent animals on safari, not that anyone born in 1899 would have considered either of these habits unusual. Also, when asked to blurb James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, he instead called it “a river of snot.”
The sources of Hemingway’s torture were many; mental illness ran in the family, as did suicide. (Four of the eight members of his nuclear family, including his father, died by their own hand.) Within him there was a perhaps unsolvable sexual mystery; he was drawn to androgynous women and, late in life, with his fourth wife Mary Welsh, played sex games in which he would be the “girl” (Catherine) and she would be the “boy,” called Peter. Hemingway’s third son, Gregory, was a cross-dresser who was undergoing a sex change at the time of his death. Whether Hemingway’s hyper-masculine image was performative or a put-on is a fair subject for debate, but the documentary simply lays out what is known without venturing into speculation. Nor does it establish a definitive answer on Hemingway’s politics. In the Thirties, he wrote: “There is no Left or Right in writing. There is only good writing and bad writing.” He also declared: “I cannot be a communist now because I believe in only one thing: liberty. The state, I care nothing for. All the state has ever meant to me is unjust taxation. I believe in the absolute minimum of government.” In Spain, though, where the anti-fascist cause gradually turned into Stalinism, he covered up leftist atrocities and urged John Dos Passos not to report Stalinist murders for fear of hurting the Left. He even accepted a spying assignment for Stalin (though he never delivered any information), and when Castroism swept through Cuba in 1959, costing him his beloved house outside of Havana, Hemingway declared his support.
So Hemingway goes into the Deeply Flawed category, but he has plenty of company there — notably 98.5 percent of his fellow great artists. By no means should we overlook his strengths, though, and Hemingway doesn’t, leaving us feeling rich with admiration for this defining American artist, arguably the American novelist. One of his disciples in the church of hard, lean prose, the novelist Tobias Wolff, puts it this way: “He changed the furniture in the room.”