Why a Hemingway Doc Now?
War and peace, fascism, anti-fascism, communism and anti-communism loomed large in the life and work of Ernest Hemingway. An ambulance driver in World War I who was badly wounded, he covered WWII as a journalist and reported on the defeat of Hitler and his henchmen. Also, he went to Spain during the Civil War, identified with the anti-Franco forces and wrote a novel with an anti-fascist hero. From afar, he tracked the Russian, the Chinese and the Cuban revolutions, lived in Cuba on and off from 1939 to 1959 and planned to live there after Fidel, Che and the guerrillas overturned the Batista dictatorship. Instead, Papa went to Idaho, pulled the trigger and ended it all.
For most of his life, he was a political animal. His prose style was an act of rebellion against the lush, adjective-rich prose and poetry of the advertising and the PR industries in the 1920s. Curiously, or perhaps not, the honchos who mass produce culture, as well as the critics for many of the leading American magazines, would rather explore Hemingway’s gender and sexuality than his politics. Perhaps that’s because sex sells and because American citizens today are often intensely concerned about transgender bathrooms, and what pronouns—she, he, him, her or they— to use to identify themselves, their friends and family members.
What and who was Hemingway? Was he a he-man, or a
transsexual who disguised himself as Mr. Macho and did manly things. In their new doc, titled simply, “Hemingway,” Ken Burns and Lynn Novick emphasize Papa’s sex life, his issues with gender and his suicide, though they throw almost everything about the man into their stew. In a review, The New Yorker’s Hilton Als rips the doc to shreds, but he follows the thematic trail that Burns and Novick blaze on screen. For Als, the major influence on Hemingway was the woman from Pittsburgh and Oakland who lived in Paris with Alice B. Toklas and who befriended modernist artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
“Hemingway’s famously muscular prose was born of admiration for a middle-aged lesbian,” Als writes. He adds that “Absorbing Stein’s influence, and admitting to his attraction, was one way of getting at what he always longed for: to be a girl in love with a powerful woman.” How’s that for instant, pop psychology?
One wonders why Als has to identity Stein as a “lesbian.” When he introduces Hemingway he doesn’t call him a heterosexual, a homosexual or a bi-sexual. Als marginalizes Stein and trashes the new doc which he calls “a little anachronistic,” and shrinks Hemingway to a lost soul and deprives him of his membership in the Lost Generation.
In 1918, in a hospital in Europe, Hemingway proposed marriage to an American nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky. She accepted his proposal and then changed her mind. Als writes, “Hemingway never got over Agnes’s rejection.” Really? He was a teenager when he fell in love with Agnes and would fall in love again and again over the next four decades, but perhaps Als thinks that Papa sought Agnes in every other woman he desired. I don’t think so. Papa was more of a use-her and discard-her kind of guy.
Als asks “why a film about Hemingway now?” It’s a good question. He also wonders why Burns and Novick didn’t choose to make a film about Faulkner, who, Als writes, “prefigured the age of Trump and Derek Chauvin’s trial and the Gordian knot of race.” I suspect that for the time being, TV viewers have had enough of Trump and Chauvin. True, the knot of race is as tight as ever, but untying it, or at least loosening it, by examining Faulkner’s life and extraordinary body of work would open up the author, Mississippi and the South to intense scrutiny that could easily turn away fans of The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, Absalom Absalom! and more.
Dead, White Male
Focusing on a white Southern writer when there are so many young Black female writers—Nandi Taylor, Yaa Gyasi and Helen Oyeyemi to name a few— wouldn’t sit well with the current folks in the White House, liberal producers in Hollywood and New York publishers and editors. Hemingway is ripe for the picking now because the statute of limitations on “dead white male” has expired.
In a way, he’s a safer subject now that he has been for a long time. Feminist in my neck of the woods who watched the doc mostly yawned. Hemingway doesn’t alarm anymore. The King is dead. Even the subject of his suicide, once a taboo topic, is safe. For a time, his gunshot was declared a hunting accident.
The three words, “dead, white male,” seemed to fit Papa more than his contemporaries, William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who belonged to the same generation as he, and who helped to shift the contours of American literature. Papa, Faulkner and Fitzgerald also reinvented literary success and fame in the ways they lived their lives in Hollywood and in front of the paparazzi. Papa was part of a literary movement; Burns and Novick don’t give it nearly enough recognition.
His father committed suicide and one of his own sons committed suicide, too. Suicide is a theme in his novels. The field of American literature is littered with the bodies of writers who took their own lives: Anne Sexton, Jack London, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson and Sylvia Plath. Burns and Novick don’t even try to explore what made Hemingway’s suicide unique or why it appears to be so antithetical to his image.
Before he died in 1961 at the age of 60, he seemed to be in love with life itself. An insatiable traveler, he cranked out stories and novels anywhere and everywhere that he had a typewriter and paper. He was also an avid fisherman and a big game hunter. In the pages of Life and Look, Hemingway was depicted as a man’s man. In the new doc by Burns and Novick, he’s portrayed as a woman’s man, albeit a misogynist whom women couldn’t seem to resist. For Burns and Novick, Papa was defined by his love affairs, his four marriages and his relationship to his mother whom he lambasted as “an all-American bitch.” Not a nice thing to say; he often dipped his pen in acid.
Hemingway’s male protagonists mostly look at the world through white eyes, whether they’re young and innocent like Nick Adams who appears in the early stories about Indians. Or expat Jake Barnes, a wounded World War I veteran, who stalks the pages of The Sun Also Rises. Or Robert Jordan, the guerrilla warrior fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War who graces the pages of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Like them, Hemingway was a tough guy with a heart who tried to stifle his own feelings with alcohol and a stripped down prose style. But he had feelings, including nostalgia and sentimentality, and couldn’t stop them from leaking onto the page. Hemingway is a much more complex person than Burns and Novick make him out to be.
Death and dying are almost everywhere in Papa’s work, whether it’s on the battlefields, the bull rings or on safari where husbands and wives like Francis Macomber and his wife Margot wage war against one another. How could death and dying not be paramount? Papa was writing in the aftermath of WWI.
His contemporary, T. S. Eliot, eulogized “The Waste Land.” F Scott Fitzgerald depicted another kind of “waste land” on Gatsby’s Long Island. Yes, there’s death and destruction, but love and beauty are also almost everywhere in Papa’s books and stories, from “Big Two-Hearted River,” published in In Our Time (1925) to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936), where the mountain itself seems to embody eternity and transience, life and death.
Green Hills of Africa
When it suited him, he cared about the planet Earth, and all living things, including humans. Papa identified with the Greek refugees from the Turks who were stripped of their homes, their country and their livelihoods, many of them slaughtered in the early 1920s. In his non-fiction book, Green of Hills of Africa (1936), Hemingway took on the persona of an environmentalist and observed that “A continent ages quickly once we come. The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys, cuts down the trees, drains the water and in a short time the soil is cropped out. But the earth gets tired of being exploited.”
In his own books, nature is often man’s adversary and man is nature’s foe. He didn’t seem to realize that killing lions, which he did for sport, and to prove something to himself, wasn’t good for the lions or the savannas, or that fishing in ocean waters, which he also did with a vengeance wasn’t good for the fish population or the deep blue sea. Maybe he knew it and didn’t want to face it or change his modus operandi. Always, he seemed to be half-conscious and a kind of spectator in the movable feast of his own life. But that’s not unusual. Writers are often better at unraveling the motives of their characters, than their own.
In Green Hills of Africa Hemingway also noted that in America writers had “to write to keep up their establishments, their wives, and so on, and they write slop.” He might have been thinking of himself. In his own country, he added, writers were harmed by “politics, women, drink, money, ambition.” Again, he seemed to have himself in mind. Hemingway could have added that American writers were all too often their own worst enemies. He certainly was.
He lived for two-and-a half-decades after the publication of Green Hills of Africa. During that time, he went on drinking and chasing after women who sometimes chased after him. He allowed himself to be driven by his own extravagant lifestyle that demanded he go on writing, making money and paying heed to what philosopher William James called “The Bitch Goddess Success.”
Hemingway’s novels are populated by bitches. Habitually, he turned many of the women he loved into shrews. He also used them as muses, playmates and as the mothers of his children. Then he threw them away, though some escaped on their own.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Hemingway’s own death in Ketchum, Idaho where he shot himself in the head with a double-barreled shotgun. I was a teenager and in Paris, on the Left Bank and the Right Bank, both Hemingway territory, and haunted by his spirit. I read the news in The International Herald Tribune. I’m sure it hit me harder than it would have hit me in New York. I thought of Papa all that summer of 1961, until the Algerian War, plastique and bullet holes in walls. drove him out of my mind. Then I turned to Camus who died a year before Hemingway in a car crash. He was 46.
Once upon a time, every school kid read something by Hemingway. From the 1920s, until his death, hordes of wanna-be novelists and short story writers tried to emulate him. My pal, Jim Harrison, was one of them. Jim imitated Hemingway and also went beyond him in novels like Dalva and The Road Home and the novellas published in Legends of the Fall. Papa’s fans cheered when he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954, when his best work was already behind him.
“The macho facade is superficial,” Ken Burns told reporters when his and Novick’s doc was first broadcast on PBS. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, dead white male, goodbye.’” Clearly, his and Novick’s doc is meant to tear down stereotypes imposed by the media and the myths that Hemingway himself helped to create in the outsized manner he lived his life in France, Spain, Cuba, Kenya and in the U.S.
“Façade” isn’t the right word to describe anything about Hemingway. None of his personae were superficial. They were carefully crafted in much the same way that Jack London, one of his heroes, crafted his own legend as a world traveler, sports reporter, adventurer and macho male who signed his letters “Wolf” and “Yours for the Revolution.”
Deconstruction and Reconstruction
Literary deconstruction is almost always welcome, especially when it concerns legendary figures like London and Hemingway. It’s helpful to see what lies behind the official story and beyond the boundaries of the narrative that the public relations industry produces. But debunkers often replace one myth with another.
In the process of deconstructing Hemingway, Burns and Novick construct a new series of myths about the man they depict as complicated, and yet very “human”—meaning that he had flaws like mere mortals. They harp on the fact that his mother decked him out as a girl, and that he liked to cross dress and pretend he was a woman, while he wanted his female companion to assume a male identity, whatever that might mean. BFD.
The Burns and Novick Hemingway is alive and wiggling, but he’s like a shark at the end of a hook. Like the shark, their Papa doesn’t do well once he’s hooked. In fact, under their eyes he’s doomed, and at the same time accident prone all the way to the grave. He was in too many airplane crashes. Still, Burns and Novick, portray him as relevant, contemporary, and a tragic figure who, like Shakespeare’s Lear, brings about his own decline, fall and death.
The doc has searing images of war, bullfights and big boats in the Caribbean. It has insightful commentary by the Irish writer and memoirist Edna O’Brien, whose books were censored and burned, and by the Peruvian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa who once declared famously “Mexico is the perfect dictatorship.” Hemingway’s last wife described life with him as a “dictatorship.” It was my way or the highway.
Edna O’Brien choses her words carefully and she’s thoughtful, too. She says that Hemingway’s work introduced her to the “life of glamor.” The Sun Also Rises did that for me. In the doc, there’s splendid archival footage of Sylvia Beach, the publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses and the founder of the legendary bookstore Shakespeare & Company, who remembers Hemingway as the first American she encountered as German soldiers retreated from France. Papa told her he had to liberate the Ritz. He would do it single-handedly if he had to. To hell with the G.Is. and the American army.
It’s inspiring to hear Hemingway’s own words as read by Jeff Daniels. Also, I found Peter Coyote’s voice less grating than in previous docs. There are some fine moments in the film, as when Hemingway drove an ambulance in World war I and later when he stayed at the Hotel Florida in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War and seemed closer to communists and communism than at any other time in his life. Still, on screen a portrait emerges of a man who is a prime candidate for a psychology textbook: a self-destructive alcoholic, and anxiety-ridden depressive. Welcome to the bughouse, Ernest. Yes, he could be morbid. Yes, he could be lonely and depressed. But do we have to hear that litany over and over again? I don’t think so.
Name the psychosis, he had it, according to Burns and Novick. Hour after hour in their three part doc, the viewer watches the story of a man whose life was punctuated by his marriages to four women: Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer, Mary Welsh and Martha Gellhorn, the journalist, novelist, war correspondent and foe of McCarthyism who outlived Hemingway by 37 years. Indeed, Hemingway was married four times, but his marriages and his divorces are only one way of framing his life.
Gellhorn divorced Papa. She took her own life in 1998 at the age of 89. Unlike her ex, who often touted his sexual prowess, Gellhorn downplayed hers. “I daresay I was the worst bed partner in five continents,” she said. The author of 24 books, including What Mad Pursuit, The Face of War and Vietnam: A New Kind of War, she explained, “I’ve been a writer for over 40 years.”
Apropos Hemingway, she added, “I was a writer before I met him and I was a writer after I left him. Why should I be merely a footnote in his life?” In the Burns and Novick doc, Gellhorn is mostly relegated to a long footnote, though when she’s on camera she looks gorgeous and sounds fearless.
The “great man” himself is the star of the show, almost always at the center of the stage and with a big booming voice that threatens to drown out the voices of his wives, children, friends, and comrades. Couldn’t Burns and Novick have made room for Faulkner and Fitzgerald and expanded the pivotal role Gertrude Stein played in Hemingway’s apprenticeship? Apparently not.
Watching the doc, I was reminded of Virginia Woolf who wrote in A Room of Her Own, that she wanted to read a narrative about “the girl behind the counter.” She added, “I would as soon have her true history as the hundred and fiftieth life of Napoleon or seventieth study of Keats and his use of Miltonic inversion.” Once an industry gets going it’s nearly impossible to stop it, whether it focuses on Napoleon, Hemingway, or Jack Kerouac.
The Napoleon of the American Novel
Hemingway is the Napoleon of the American novel. There are dozens of biographies of him, including those by Jeffrey Meyers, Carlos Baker, James Mellow and Mary Dearborn’s from 2017 which is described as “the first biography of Ernest Hemingway from a woman’s point of view.” Why did it take so long? Perhaps because men patrolled Papa’s estate and posted “No Trespassing” and “No Hunting” signs. Perhaps, too, because no woman author before Dearborn had the balls and the temerity.
Papa’s novels, including To Have and Have Not with Bogart & Bacall, and stories like “The Killers” have been made into riveting films. A Farewell to Arms arrived on the big screen twice: the first time with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes the second time with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. Hemingway’s life with his third wife is the subject of the 2012 feature, “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” starring the Australian Nicole Kidman and the Brit Clive Owen. I wish the producers had found Americans to play Americans.
Burns and Novick’s doc may say more about pandemic-weary America and neurotic Americans today than it does about Hemingway. It may also say more about Burns & Novick and their taste for morbidity that it does about Hemingway who lusted for life, longed for happiness and for patches enjoyed family and friends and the thrill of writing.
In The New Yorker, Hilton Als writes that the film “makes less of a case for what he did on the page than for what he was doing off the page.” In The L.A. Times, Mark Athitakis observes that “Ken Burns’ new Hemingway documentary doesn’t give you a reason to read Hemingway.” It did make me want to reread some of Hemingway’s short stories, especially “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” where he’s a master of dialogue who suggests, intimates and enables the reader to see and imagine what’s not visible on the surface, or heard via the spoken words. I read that story first when I was in college. It’s well crafted, and it’s also the sort of story a college English major would revere in 1961.
“A Clean Well-Lighted Place” begins, “It was late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.” It ends with the older of the two waiters at the cafe going home to his room. Before he does that he says to himself, “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as its in nada.”
Out of nada, Hemingway made art. If you want to read an inspiring account of Papa’s life and work, turn to Clancy Sigal’s Hemingway Lives: Why Reading Ernest Hemingway Matters Today (2013). Sigal had the political savvy it took to understand and appreciate novels like For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), which Gellhorn urged him to write, and that served as his contribution to the anti-fascist cause. The title for the novel comes from John Donne who wrote in 1624, “No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the maine.” That’s Sigal’s Hemingway. It’s the Hemingway I want to remember now. Papa, you did the best you could with what you had. Thanks for being there in Paris in the summer of 1961 when I needed you and you helped me see the beauty in clean well-lighted cafes and all around the City of Light.