The biggest threats to Ernest Hemingway’s life were not necessarily the flying bullets and exploding shells all around him when he volunteered as a medic in World War I, or when he worked as a journalist covering the Spanish Civil War and World War II. The biggest threats to his life were domesticity and an ordinary life. Tranquility agitated his demons—loneliness, depression, and alcohol. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick direct the three-part documentary series Hemingway in their typical style—epistolary in its narrative, reliant on archival photography and footage, coupled with the insights of critics and historians.
Some may have grown tired of Burns and Novick’s style; for me it is enduringly transfixing. Enduring because their style always seems to cohere with the subject matter and elucidates it—whether in the macro-historical documentaries on The Civil War, The Vietnam War, Jazz, Baseball, Prohibition; or in the micro-historical biographies on Jack Johnson, The Central Park Five, or The Roosevelts. Transfixing because all the elements—narrative, visual, interpretative—make the history palpable. Burns and Novick’s Hemingway sits us on a barstool next to the writer, myth, and man. We get to listen to his life story, embellishments and all.
In Hemingway’s own words, his stories tried to not merely depict life, but to “make life alive” with “the bad and the ugly” along with “what is beautiful.” According to Hemingway, literature should try to capture life in “3 dimensions and if possible 4.” Burns and Novick’s Hemingway does indeed give us all 4 dimensions of the writer. We are introduced to the amazing drinking companion Hemingway overflowing with stories, the great seducer of audiences and women Hemingway, the daring teenage Hemingway who volunteered as a war medic, the older Hemingway who covered The Spanish Civil War and World War II at considerable risk to his life.
We are shown the bohemian Hemingway who moved to Paris and hobnobbed with giants such as Joyce, Stein, Picasso, and Pound. And, thanks to Burns and Novick’s focus on Hemingway’s texts, we are exposed to the aesthetic power and depth in Hemingway’s sparse and unadorned prose—a style that revolutionized American literature. Without a doubt, Hemingway not only lit up rooms when he walked in, he lit up blank pieces of paper with his prose. Those, however, are only one half of Hemingway’s dimensions.
The other half of his dimensions are not as savory. Burns and Novick cover the darker aspects of Hemingway’s personality, not because they delight in chopping down a literary giant, but because some of these aspects were in his literary output and even in his letters! Racial epithets, misogynist language, caricatured fictional Jewish characters, cruelty toward other writers, the hunting of wild animals in Africa for mere “sport,” verbal and physical abuse toward the women in his life; they were all there, existing in Hemingway, freely flowing from his pen and typewriter. It would have been reprehensible on the part of Burns and Novick to ignore the darker pockets of Hemingway’s personality. If anything, they are being faithful to Hemingway’s dictum to capture “3 dimensions and if possible 4.”
While most found him gregarious and charming, there were some who found Hemingway insufferable and just too much of an “oracle.” Relationships usually started as great romances and ended in domination and cruelty. To give but just one example, one of his wives, Martha Gellhorn, had a thriving journalistic career. She went to Europe to cover World War II as a war correspondent. Hemingway resented this. He refused to be overshadowed. Hemingway decided to become a correspondent with the same magazine his wife wrote for and trekked over to Europe because he knew his stories, given his stature as a writer, would make the cover of the magazine. He felt the spotlight should be on him and not his wife—narcissism at its finest. As horrific as some of his acts were, there was a vulnerable kernel tucked within the macho bravado. There were strained relations with his parents that obviously scarred him. Hemingway hated sleeping alone. He used the company of women and alcohol to cauterize feelings of loneliness, depression, and suicidal ideations. He suffered head trauma and numerous concussions. Toward the end of his life, Hemingway showed symptoms of severe mental illness. In addition, the male persona he built may have been mostly performative. He liked the women in his life to cut their hair short and liked to engage in gender role-play with them. Again, Burns and Novick are truly giving us Hemingway’s 4 dimensions.
Hemingway succeeds not only because it gives us a picture of the man, the complete man, but also because it never forgets the writing. Burns and Novick remind us of the brilliance of novels such as The Sun Also Rises and short stories such as “Hills Like White Elephants.” Burns and Novick remind us of how Hemingway developed his craft, his style. It was developed in a Kansas City newspaper that set strict editorial guidelines demanding simple sentence structures. We learn that Hemingway’s fascination with the theme of death in his writing may have started when he was a crime reporter for that Kansas City newspaper. Some may have a hard time putting a parenthesis around Hemingway’s personal failings. These failings may not allow some to give an objective aesthetic critique of his writing. This challenge is not new. We run into this challenge when listening to Richard Wagner’s music, looking at Paul Gauguin’s paintings, or encountering the works of many other artists. What is undeniable, for better or worse, is Hemingway’s influence on the American literary scene.
The writer Abraham Verghese probably puts it best when he says: “If you’re a writer, you can’t escape Hemingway. He’s so damn popular that you can’t begin to write till you try and kill his ghost or embrace it.” It is a ghost that the writer of this review fights when reading and rereading his writing. Every time he asks himself if a sentence he wrote is too ornamental, it is a clear indication he is engaged in a wrestling match with Hemingway. I suppose every writer after Hemingway has been caught in this Oedipal struggle with Papa Hemingway.
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