Review of Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s Hemingway

Myths, received ideas, and ancient controversies tend to obscure the work of a great writer, making it almost superfluous to the legend. This is especially true of Ernest Hemingway, whose myth has proved particularly seductive to those who make movies and commercial television. Hemingway’s work is understood almost entirely in biographical terms, as an extension of his personal virtues or, less charitably, as a product of his pathologies. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s mission, in their three-part, six-hour Hemingway, airing nationally on PBS affiliates, is to provide a more naturalistic portrait of Hemingway the man and thereby return us to the indelible work itself. They have succeeded marvelously.

Burns’s recent films, including The Vietnam War (2017) and Country Music (2019), have moved in sweeping arcs of national and cultural history. With Hemingway, Burns returns to the biographical mode of Huey Long (1985), Thomas Jefferson (1997), and Mark Twain (2001). These films are glimpses through opposite ends of the same telescope rather than fundamentally different styles. Country Music succeeded partly because it told the history of the music through deft individual portraits; Huey Long found its pathos in merging the great man with the mythos of Louisiana itself. Hemingway presents a driven, fractious, and isolated individual—a man often terribly lonely, even in a crowd—but moves that man securely through the currents of collective experience.

Crucially, Hemingway returns again and again to the words themselves. The first episode is so astute on Hemingway’s language and his influence on American prose style that later, when he begins to lose control of his aesthetic, we understand exactly what is happening and the weight of the loss. Hemingway was trying, with other modernist figures like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, to break down established ways of seeing. (Burns notes these influences but does not push them.) Reality itself seems to be at stake, both in the writing and the life, especially in the final hour of the series, when Hemingway descends into psychotic depression.

Hemingway divorced his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in 1927, thereafter marrying the wealthy Pauline Pfeiffer, who promised greater freedom. He knew that he was doing wrong, but he did it anyway, and the more rooted existence he might have had with Hadley and their young son became a kind of shadow life that haunted him thereafter. (Pfeiffer would become the villain of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir of this period.) Pfeiffer had won Hemingway away from Hadley in part by enabling him in his betrayal of his first publisher, Horace Liveright, with the cynical production of the novella The Torrents of Spring, a bitter satire of the work of their mutual friend, Sherwood Anderson.

Hadley told Ernest that the book was a disgrace, which he must have known was true; Pauline told him that it was marvelous, which was what he needed to hear. The Torrents of Spring got Hemingway out of his contract with Liveright, and he quickly moved to Scribner’s, which could support his career better. After that, Hemingway no longer spoke as much of wanting to be a good man as well as a great writer. Indeed, he would go on to betray almost everyone who ever helped him in his early years in Paris.

Hemingway gives us a man who was frequently dishonest, bullying, and abusive, even in his prime. He made devoted enemies, but many people loved him in spite of these flaws. He remains a sanctified figure in Spain, for instance, for risking his life to confront fascism in the Spanish Civil War, the subject of one of his best-loved novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls. (He did not always behave honorably even in Spain, as the film makes clear.) His physical charisma was extraordinary, apparent even in photos. He was a loving if inconstant presence in the life of his three sons. To feel the warmth of his approval must have been marvelous, however long it lasted. It often didn’t last long. He lived a life of creative destruction.

Burns’s film embeds a theory of suicide: that it is seeded early. This was certainly true in Hemingway’s case. His father, Clarence, died by his own hand at 57. Ernest was physically reckless his whole life, cultivating on battlefronts, in boxing rings, and with ruinous drinking the capacity he would need later in life to inflict violent self-injury. It would not be accurate to speak of Hemingway’s suicide as inevitable, because we do not understand suicide well enough, but the film makes it clear that Hemingway was running from his own death, beginning at least with his return from the Italian Front in 1918. He ran as hard as he could for 40 years. Given the intensity of his suffering, his suicide is forgivable, even blameless. For his fourth wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway, it must have been a deliverance as well as a tragedy.

Our understanding of Hemingway’s terrible decline benefits from our new sensitivity to traumatic brain injury, of which Hemingway had several, and which burdens the middle and later years of many retired athletes. Ironically, one of Hemingway’s fine early stories, “The Battler” (1925), centers around a retired boxing champion robbed of dignity, impulse control, and even the ability to care for himself by the beatings he took in the ring. I have defended boxing and football, but the later images of Hemingway—not just diminished but terrorized by his brain injury—will stay with me.

Hemingway’s elegant and moving six hours remind us of the privilege it has been to observe Ken Burns’s career in real time. (In this, I mean the entire Florentine Films enterprise as much as Burns individually.) It may be that no American documentarian will ever equal his cumulative achievement. The eternally youthful Burns is now, at 67, older than his latest subject ever lived to be, but he has several ambitious projects underway, including a promising series on Muhammad Ali that somehow seems the twin of Hemingway.

We should remember that what Ernest Hemingway did more than anything else was to read and to write. He was widely conversant in Continental literature, and, while he often spoke of the great Russian and French novelists with studied jocularity—“I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant”—he read them closely. It may be that, his own denigration of the merely bookish notwithstanding (“the boys from the quarterlies”), Hemingway’s cultivation of danger was in part an effort to find in life the intensity of thought and feeling he experienced at his writing desk. And in the end, what bothered him most as a once-crowded and eventful life dwindled away—what he finally could not abide—was losing the ability to write. He was indeed a brave man, at times even a hero, as when he lovingly cared for his son, Patrick, after the latter’s own psychotic break in 1946. But it is his writing that made his life a triumph, even as he did his best to give that life away.

Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

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NCAA Reform Should Happen Only Incrementally

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Wednesday in National Collegiate Athletic Association v .Alston, the latest case brought by student-athletes challenging the NCAA’s longstanding restraints on the benefits they may receive under the terms of their athletic scholarships. Alston is but a skirmish in a larger war over the future of college sports, but the NCAA is desperate to win it. In its successful petition for Supreme Court review, the NCAA wrote that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, which favored the athletes, “[would] fundamentally transform the century-old institution of NCAA sports, blurring the traditional line between college and professional athletes.”

The Court will be asked to decide whether the NCAA’s eligibility rules governing the compensation of student-athletes violate federal antitrust law. Recognizing the NCAA’s legitimate interest in preserving its amateur model, federal courts have for decades deferred to the particular means it deploys to do so. Recently, the Ninth Circuit has taken a different path, shifting the evidentiary burden to the NCAA to prove that its rules are appropriately designed—first in a case brought by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon involving the exploitation of college athletes’ “name, image, and likeness” rights in video games, and now in Alston. If adopted, this “full rule of reason” standard would invite trial courts to engage in ad hoc policymaking.

Placing what amounts to ombudsman powers in the hands of judges can only invite mischief. As a group of antitrust economists warned in their amicus petition to the Court, “The Sherman Act does not authorize federal courts to alter a product—here, college athletics—because a judge or jury believes that the interests of an input provider—here, student athletes—would be better served with a different product design.” Experience has shown that those courts are poor predictors of the economic effects of complex, long-evolved arrangements like those enforced by the NCAA.

For some, the broader question is whether the NCAA’s amateur model is even worth defending. The NCAA’s most strident critics say that amateurism is a fig leaf, pointing to enormous coaching salaries, rich television contracts, and lavish stadiums as evidence that the athletes are the only participants being asked to remain financially disinterested. CBS and Turner are paying $850 million to broadcast this year’s NCAA basketball tournament. Among other things, college sports are big business.

Is the current college sports model exploitative? The lead plaintiff in Alston belongs to the relatively small class of college athletes arguably disadvantaged by the current system. Shawne Alston is a former football player at West Virginia University, whose membership in the Big XII Conference earns it about $20 million annually in television revenues. Like any Division I player, Alston would have had a demanding in-season schedule, with practices, meetings, training, travel, and other responsibilities absorbing 40–50 hours of his time weekly. He was a solid contributor on the field and a team captain in his senior season but attracted little interest from NFL teams after he completed his college eligibility. He therefore neither benefited directly from the revenues he helped generate for WVU—because NCAA rules prohibited him from doing so—nor cashed in on his skills later as a professional.

But though Alston never drew a salary to play football and never got a cut of the profits from sales of Mountaineer jerseys in the campus bookstore, his athletic scholarship changed his life. He grew up in a tough part of Newport News, Virginia, a city plagued by gang violence and poverty. By his own account, he used football to get to college, and once he got there, he excelled academically, earning his degree in criminology in three years and eventually an M.B.A. How many young men of his generation back in Newport News are directionless and idle because they never got the opportunity that Alston created for himself through football? The net present value of a four-year college degree over a high school education is well over $1 million. Claiming that Alston’s efforts—and those of the 90 percent of Division I athletes who do graduate—went unrewarded is disingenuous.

Notwithstanding sometimes-poor stewardship from the NCAA, a Division I scholarship is a better deal than ever. Athlete activism, backed by the plaintiffs’ class-action bar and sympathetic media, has generated needed changes. Many schools now offer four-year guaranteed athletic scholarships instead of the standard one-year renewable scholarship, which gives coaches too much leverage over players and facilitates abuses. Changes in calculating the “cost of attendance” cap on permitted educational benefits have let athletic departments make some small additional payments to defray travel and other expenses, alleviating the burden on players from poor families. Finally, even the NCAA now agrees that the rules around the use of players’ “name, image, and likeness” (NIL) in commercial ventures should be changed. Facing hostile state legislation, the NCAA has asked Congress to give players limited NIL rights with guardrails in place to ensure that the players are still perceived as amateurs. These reforms reflect the substantial economic value of the talents of elite the most gifted Division I football and basketball players.

The great majority of Division I college athletes, however, generate little revenue for their institutions. Many play in such non-revenue-producing sports as swimming, tennis, and lacrosse. Others play for football and basketball programs that lose money every year. Still others play for the relatively small number of consistently profitable programs but never become big contributors on the field. Considered only in terms of economics, such athletes are overcompensated by receiving educational benefits for which other students pay tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention the intangible benefits of academic tutoring, media training, and local celebrity.

The school names on the fronts of the jerseys generate the most value. Athletes in professional sports developmental leagues, with skills objectively superior to those of college players, are generally not well compensated because their games typically are neither televised nor well attended. Players in the NBA’s G-League do fairly well at a base salary of roughly $7,500 a month (some players are on two-way contracts with their parent teams and may make more), but minor league baseball players earn only about $2,000–$3,000 a month during a five-month season. Absent family support, the standard of living of a baseball player in a major college program may actually decline when he is assigned to his first minor league team.

Listening to some critics of college sports, one wonders where the NCAA’s purported cynicism actually lies. To speak of college athletics solely in financial terms leaves out the love that motivates the vast majority of athletes to compete, often in sports that have no professional leagues. There is still work left to be done to create a better system, starting with congressional action on NIL reform. But abandoning the amateur model entirely would make the reigning populist critique of the NCAA—“it’s all about money”—a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

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