A Farewell to “Great Men”

“Why do you read this trash? It is inflated trash, Hemingway. By a dead man.”

“I like to see what they are writing,” I said. “And it keeps my mind off me doing it.”

– Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, “Une Génération Perdue,” A Moveable Feast

I was reading (and watching) a hit piece in the New Yorker today that takes the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre to task for botching an elephant kill in Botswana eight years ago.  “The Secret Footage of the N.R.A. Chief’s Botched Elephant Hunt” includes video of the fatal shots; it’s nasty stuff, trophy-hunting endangered animals, and when I read that LaPierre’s wife, Susan, cuts off the elephant’s tail (“Oh, it’s like a fish almost, with the center cartilage,” she says.”) to mark the beast as their kill, it has an anachronistic feel — and there’s nothing romantic about it. When I read that the elephant’s front feet were eventually made into stools for the den, I was disgusted that such ostentatious egotism still has legs.

Apparently, Mike Spies, senior writer for the anti-gun online journal, The Trace, was trying to show LaPierre what it’s like to be taken down by a boom-gun. Spies, the bush sniper, hits point-blank, right between LaPierre’s running lights. Like the elephant in the piece, who wasn’t looking for trouble, LaPierre goes down in a heap. BOOM: By Spies account, the head of the NRA is an incompetent boob, a fumble-thumbs with guns, who misses the kill spot repeatedly at close range; even the old bull seems to look up with one dying eye in wonder. BOOM: Good heavens! the comfortably middle class New Yorker seems to opine, you drove  your organization into bankruptcy!  Of course, had LaPierre not missed his mark (or had he discovered he was being secretly filmed and executed the cameraman on the spot), we never would have seen the snuff film or read the hit piece.

You come away feeling that New Yorker, using Spies Trace blog entry wholesale for the piece, has an agenda: Gun control pressure is in the air; Biden’s feeling it like a prostate problem.  Guns on the loose in America now number in excess of 400,000,000, so that concern is understandable. But the piece got me thinking. Recently, I finished watching the three-part, six-hour PBS mini-series Hemingway, a Ken Burns and Lynn Novick production.  And I’ll tell you, suddenly I felt like Joan Baez in that old song “Diamonds and Rust” where she answers the phone and she’ll be damned, there comes that voice of Dylan again from “a couple of light years ago.”  (For the record, it didn;t seem to faze Dylan; he hooked up with his old lover shortly thereafter for the Rolling Thunder Revue Tour — the ever-relevant Woody Guthrie number, “Deportee,” a highlight of their mike-sharing.) Except this time, it’s me not Baez, and I find myself considering Hemingway again for the first time in ‘a light year.’

I’m a postmodern, fully relativized son-of-gun now.  I haven’t believed in the Great Man theory since the clowns were all shot out of the Canon by the feminists and other lefty literati decades ago. I’ve attended more than one Good Riddance party. I’ve asked attractive women at such bong-passing parties questions like, “What does Hemingway have that Toni Morrison doesn’t have?”  Seemed like a good pick-up line at the time, but she just kept saying to me, “Hey, I’m up here,” before finally sashaying away. (At least, that’s how I read it.) And it’s true, what does Hemingway have that Morrison doesn’t. (I’m up here, reader.)  Well, they have blue eyes in common.  But sadly, I can picture Hemingway among southern slaves picking cotton shooting at wild geese, admiring the industry of slaves while ignoring their plight.

Really, the Question that comes to mind is why Hemingway? Why now?  What were Ken Burns and Lynn Novick after?  Not long into the viewing the work seems dated already. By the time I was finished watching, I was partially satisfied, but it seemed to me a series that belonged in the era of Carl Sagan and Cosmos; there was something sentimental, even MAGA-desperate about it, as if the snug-comfy middle class ‘folk’ possessed their own pensive nostagitations about an American past not coming back.  Like Joan Baez, I could see myself going back on a readerly tour with Papa, delving into his short stories, reliving his Paris years, learning over again the virtues of minimalism as a writer.  But it will never be the same. As Will Rogers used to say, Nothing is the way it used to be, and never was.

Anyway, I was happy enough that Part One, The Writer, featured Hemingway’s “lost generation” years in Paris, with several quotes from A Moveable Feast. It seemed appropriate to begin with the end, his memoir of those years in the City of Light. The first major essay I ever wrote, for my Lowell High School Honors English class, was a review of A Moveable Feast. (Lowell, let me wax: canals to rival Venice, the ghosts of textile mills still looming, home of Jack Kerouac, who was away at the time.) It was one of those classes led by a tight-seeming teacher with (a golden heart, probably a Catholic) who forced us all to memorize a short classic poem per week and stand up in front of the class to deliver it. Keats Odes on a; Ozymandias; what Beast crouches toward; Tiger! Tiger!; and Milton, alas, gone blind, working as a janitor, They also serve who only sweep and buff, he told himself.

A Moveable Feast was the saddest, deepest, most manly book I’d ever read. I felt lucky. While kids in normal English classes were grumping because they had to read A Patch of Blue (their teacher scolding for writing about Sidney Poitier’s looks, when he wasn’t in the book, although his image was on the cover, and reminding them that Mockingbird was up next, and that she was gonna scrub the dirt out of race relations come Hell or High Water — probably a Catholic (with a golden heart)). So yeah, sad, deep, manly. Witness to horrors. Bearer of unbearable secrets. Seer of symbols seen in bullfights, wars, marriage. Toro!

You could feel the world-weariness of Hemingway as he reminisced in A Moveable Feast, reminding me of Gregory Peck (I mean Harry Street) “feverishly” dying in a cot of gangrene, palliative care administered by the hot Susan Hayward, him recalling his even hotter romantic years with Ava Gardner in Paris (which recalled Rick’s remembered golden years in Paris with Ilsa, before the Nazis ruined everything, and also, she was married).  Burns and Novick, through signature stills and voice-overs and slow period tunes, do a pretty good job of aping A Moveable Feast’s end-of-career reminisces of a writer’s life. It’s a good, clean, well-lighted place to begin their narrative.

There are quite a few things I liked a lot about this series about memory and decay, history and its owners, positing meaning in the void we all face, writing and reading narratives.

I thought the PBS kulture-klatch duo did a reasonably good job representing the myriad places Hemingway had been for realz or vicariously, in no particular order: Kansas City, Toronto, London, Italy, Africa, Spain, Cuba, the Keys, Germany, Paris, Pamplona, and Ketchum, and so on.  A dizzying array — a moveable feast, indeed. All of these places represent a constellation of Hemingway’s cosmos, and as the series unfolds with all its nostalgic crenellations, you can almost see his special place lighting up the firmament. Of course, who looks at stars anymore, now that we have the Internet.

I especially enjoyed the Cuba sequences.  “Papa” seemed quite at home and productive at Finca Vigía, at first; it’s where he had all his African safari trophies, art works, papers, books, typewriter, cats, and the best years of his life with his women and kids (when they visited) were had.  He and journalist Martha Gelhorn, chased away Papa’s first wife, Pauline, and shacked up there together. Burns and Novick conjure up the couple’s dynamism together quite well; an often-rocky relationship between two headstrong, independent reader-writers of the world, whose views were counterpoint to each other.  Good sex, too, apparently, but not always living up to Papa’s needs from women. Ouch.

That brings up another fine depiction from Burns and Novick: The Warrior versus the Writer. It’s often true what they once said, He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. Ask one of Hirohito’s grandkids.  But it’s also jocularly true that He who lives by the words, dies by the words. Every man kills the things that he loves, said Oscar Wilde, and then they gaoled him and paroled him to Paris where he died in a gutter, like some David Lynch version of Quasimodo. Over his career, Hemingway did his best to humanize the trauma soldiers were faced with on the battlefield — the horror, the horror, and then, if you got lucky, you got laid, preferably to your nurse, preferably with tits. But nobody really wants to be a warrior any more, except the psychopaths on drone patrol, clean cut kids fresh out of Full Metal Jacket Academy, and Cofer Blacks and his merciless mercenaries.

Sad to say, and it’s never raised in the series, Hemingway mayn’t have found a publisher for his war stories today. He may have ended that guy sweeping and buffing the high school floors after school, saying I also served, and muttering “small talk at the wall, while I’m in the hall,” as the Bard from Duluth sings — another Nobel laureate who might have become a janitor had he “burst on the scene” a decade later.  And this raises the Question of what it is we get out of watching a series about Hemingway today?  Who’s watching (gulp, meekly raises hand)? What can He possibly teach us?  We are so lapsed in our catholicism and romanticizing, so relativized by the shifty paradigm we live by, that the conceits of the well-off and smug, like many of the “supporters” of PBS, strike one as bourgeois fantasy at Fate’s end.

Still, we can probably rescue and fully appreciate the Hemingway style for its clarity, simplicity and almost journalistic “objectivity” that eschews (gesundheit) modifiers (subjectivity) for simple subject-predicate-object plank-hammering, as Hemingway put it, elegantly, I thought, Burns-Novick don’t linger long on it (unfortunately) but the section on Hemingway’s writerly beginnings at the Kansas City Star, were a trenchant and pure gaze at his male prose. We’re told by a no-bullshit narrator that the Star “was a pioneer in crisp, clear, immediate reporting,” and then they flash an image of the Star’s Style Sheet and it’s opening desiderata: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.”  Sound advice, but, again, anachronistic in the Twitter-tweet age.

The Style Sheet is excellent advice for any newbie writer of any generation, I reckon.  I myself was so inspired starting out.  Get a load of this lede (actual): “The state budget fiasco is running out of time. Like rebels who’ve lost their cause, Senate and House leaders are rushing headlong toward the fiscal cliff, neither willing to give in, while towns and cities clutch each other like fearful siblings in the back seat.”  Some editors liked the front page piece above the fold, but I never got the statehouse beat I coveted.

The other thing that Burns-Novick merely mention is Hemingway’s very brief Nobel prize acceptance speech that, coming at the end of his career and not long from the end of his life, he so succinctly sums up the universal writerly life:

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life…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…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. [Listen to the full speech here.]

This still holds true, be ye Hemingway, Toni Morrison, or any global flavor-of-the-month writer.

But probably the best thing about how Burns and Novick put together the Hemingway story is the way they end it, after the reminisces of A Moveable Feast have finished and the book has been set aside, the unravelling of Hemingway’s life begins in earnest. Head traumas from crashes, bad hunting trips in Africa, another broken marriage, alienation from his children, the increasing loneliness of his time in his Ketchum cabin, and the loss of most of his material possessions in the Castro revolution that locks him out of Cuba and Finca Vigía. The Old Man and the Sea seems to tell all of this of going out beyond “where no one can help him,” and events, and memories, and desires are stripped from him piece-by-piece, until he’s just his old man with a gun to his own head. Burns and Novick did excellent job interweaving his last waltz of being.

But the series could have been better. Much better.  While the dynamic duo played up Hemingway’s relationships with women with reasonable balance, not letting the Big Fella off the hook for belting his women around when he got untethered, it was a narrative glimpse that seemed to pander exclusively to feminist concerns with his untenable masculine aggression. Perhaps a more productive way forward would have been a deeper dive into Gelhorn’s writing and journalism; they were writing competitors and we might have benefitted, in our understanding of each, if a brief compare/contrast of styles and focus had been displayed. For instance, they covered D-Day for Colliers, and that’s mentioned in the episode, but a comparison of texts might have deepened the analysis we’ve been provided by Nurns-Novick. Check out their D-Day stories for yourself: Hemingway’s “Voyage to Victory” and Gelhorn’s “The Wounded Come Home.” It’s worth noting here also that Gelhorm has a prestigious journalism award named after her. Mighta got a mention.

I feel that more review of Hemingway’s short stories could have been teased out for the viewer. There’s a reasonable set represented — “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “Indian Camp” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” — each ca:rrying a weighty theme: courage/betrayal; the pain of birth and death; egotistical nostalgia, respectively. But to reach a new generation, it might have benefited us to know more about the differences in production between writing short fiction and novels.  But also, Burns-Novick might have said more about the early outdoorsy “nature” tales that make up much of the Nick Adams sequence. And “The Killers” is instructive of a fighter who won’t sell out (I assumed) and now waits in bed for the fight Furies to come for him. And, my favorite Hemingway story (sad, I know), “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” seems to need a way of coping with the nothingness (nada nada nada) that consumes us in the end and by which we may actually share a brotherhood of understanding.

Also, how could any production of Hemingway’s life and writings not emphasize the so-called Hemingway Hero — coded and stoical, absorbing the gut punches of reality and struggling to find its meaning and express it, exhibiting “grace under pressure.”  Why include it? We used to say we believed in this stuff.  That it was the very essence of what a Great Man was. Do we still believe this stuff? A fuller exploration of an answer might tell the viewer if Hemingway’s worth the read anymore, since so much of his simple prose, especially in his longer work, is a delivery system for his message, this Code.

Burns and Novick also provide some intriguing glimpses into the previously unknown interior of Hemingway’s feminine mystique. We’re teased with his early proclivities, brought on by an overbearing mother who would dress him the same as his sister. Apparently, cross-dressing and cross-sexual roleplaying was a quiet feature of his marriages.  Why bring this stuff in? I wondered.  No psychosexual analysis is forthcoming. We’re not force fed the notion that he was “over-compensating” and the lions he shot Burt Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, or any other twattle. I don’t know, felt like a gratuitous diss, a bone of contention thrown to dogmatic feminists to interrogate and un-man. Although, who could blame them if they waterboarded over Papa over the she-wanted-it story, “Up in Michigan.” (Burns-Novick do speak to the gender identity issue in an Esquire piece.)

Speaking of teaching Hemingway, no matter how you come down on his enduring value viv-a-vis American letters, he will continue to be taught to kids mostly indifferent (god help us, if girls saw any value in his portrayal of their realities) to his message and, these days, too hip to be square, to go with short, simple, clear prose — not if their tweets are any indication. Maybe we can take an emoji poll of the Great Men (and women too). Luckily, PBS, which wants to do its bit for MAGA for the middle class (MCMAGA), offers educators and students tools and kits and links and winks and excerpts and testimonials and maybe even multiple choice quizzes (I didn’t check).

Critics are beginning to tire of Ken Burns’ hold on PBS. Most of his detractors say that even though it’s quality stuff he puts out, other folks can do it too.  What Burns did with Jazz was cool, but maybe it’s not his story — it’s a version, but there are others, if the money’s made available. Recently, an NPR (PBS radio), as if to show it can do its own policing, ran a piece, “Filmmakers Call Out PBS For A Lack Of Diversity, Over-Reliance On Ken Burns.” A letter signed by many concerned filmmakers reads in part:

How many other ‘independent’ filmmakers have a decades-long exclusive relationship with a publicly-funded entity? Public television supporting this level of uninvestigated privilege is troubling not just for us as filmmakers but as tax-paying Americans.

It’s a good point.  Burns may have grown stale pushing Americana to viewers wealthy enough to write out checks at pledge time.  Not every public viewer is able to write a check.

The series can be streamed online for free at PBS: Hemingway.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.