“I always had the illusion that it was more important, or as important, to be a good man than to be a great writer. I may not be either. But I would like to be both. – Ernest Hemingway
A new PBS documentary on the legendary Ernest Hemingway – famous for his “iceberg” writing method – reveals more about the author’s life than his obvious moments of triumph and tragedy.
“You only see the alternate prose sticking out of the surface, but there is so much meaning that is implied that reflects the nine-tenths that lie below the surface,” says acclaimed New Hampshire filmmaker Ken Burns, who has co-directed the three parts. project with fellow historical documentary filmmaker Lynn Novick.
The six-hour documentary premieres Monday, April 5 on PBS. He examines Hemingway’s life from his early days as a reporter for the Kansas City Star until his last dark days in Ketchum, Idaho.
Along the way, he talks about his experiences during World War I and WWII, his grief and his life in Paris and his fainting during the bullfights in Spain. It takes viewers to serene winters in Key West and deep sea fishing in Cuba.
Novick and Burns, who worked together on PBS feature films about American life including “Jazz,” “The Vietnam War” and “Baseball,” spent six years researching and creating “Hemingway.”
The film, written by Geoffrey C. Ward and produced by Sarah Botstein, features contributions from several literary scholars, including Mario Vargas Llosa, Edna O’Brien and Tobias Wolff.
A handful of notable actors lend their voices to the film. Jeff Daniels speaks like Hemingway. Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson voicing Hemingway’s four wives. Actor Peter Coyote narrates the film.
Beneath the surface
The documentary highlights Hemingway’s writing process, his successes and failures.
There are lingering notions of him as a big game hunter, deep sea fisherman, townsman, brawler, outdoorsman and avid bullfighter – all of it, says Burns.
“But it also hides a lot of invisible things,” he says.
The filmmakers had full access to Hemingway’s roughly 6,000 letters, notes, telegrams and other personal correspondence, which are being compiled into a 17-volume book series by Cambridge University Press.
“He was a bulky writer. He can write 10 letters a day, just like we might have 10 phone calls a day, ”says Novick, adding that not all letters are necessarily illuminating.
“A lot of them are very mundane – you can imagine your shopping list. But then every once in a while there’s a really deep and intimate conversation. He can be cruel, he can be selfish, sarcastic, funny, ”says the New York filmmaker.
His abundant letter also demonstrated his dedication to his profession.
“Sometimes his job was good, and sometimes it wasn’t, but he always tried to do something every day. And that says a lot about human capacity, which you can accomplish when you really force yourself to do your job, ”she says.
When Hemingway was not working, he soaked up his surroundings and used real-life experiences to write now iconic novels like “The Sun Also Rises,” set in the middle of the running of the bulls in Spain; “For whom the bell rings”, set up during the Spanish Civil War; and the Pulitzer Prize-winning short “The Old Man and the Sea,” in which a fisherman Santiago wrestles with a marlin near the Straits of Florida in an attempt to break his unlucky streak.
Novick says Hemingway’s travels throughout his life have brought readers closer to these exotic places.
“I can see him in a Parisian cafe and at the Pamplona bullfight and on the boat. So many places that it evokes so nicely. One of the magical things about her writing is that it makes you want to go to all of these places and have those experiences yourself, ”says Novick.
A complex celebrity
“It seemed like he was very, very busy – in his life as a writer, with celebrities, and then also in wars – absorbing all the culture around him,” she adds.
It was these vibrant experiences that attracted Novick and Burns.
A once taboo subject in Hemingway’s life was his experiences with gender fluidity. The documentary details how Hemingway’s mother Grace would dress Ernest in girls’ clothes as a child.
“Early in his life, as you have seen, his mother paired him with his sister. By the way, it’s not an unusual Victorian practice to dress boys in little girls’ dresses, ”says Burns.
Perhaps Hemingway’s “hyper” masculinity and reputation as a “man of man,” big game hunter and fisherman, was perhaps an attempt to mask these forbidden undertones, Novick says.
The subject of gender inversion was explored in her posthumously published novel “The Garden Of Eden”.
“So when you read ‘The Garden of Eden’, a lot of things are inferred or implied. And that’s the joy of reading Hemingway, ”says Novick.
Like everyone else, Hemingway had his demons too – among them, his misogynistic behaviors, his heavy drinking, and the embellishments of his war exploits throughout his life.
“Why did he kill himself? History of mental illness and suicide in his family, PTSD of having almost exploded during the First World War, the actual suicide of his father, abandoned by his nurse Agnus, alcoholism, the many traumas to his head that could have produced CTE – induced dementia and depression that could have led to the self-medication that comes from being an alcoholic and trying to function, ”says Burns.
Hemingway’s rough and dangerous lifestyle combined with his celebrity status to create a culture of empowerment. In his later years, according to the film, he often dated his own doctors, even inviting them to dinner.
“I love the comment that (Councilor Susan Beagle) makes in the film that the people who get the worst medical care are poor people and famous or rich people. It’s so true, ”says Novick.
Burns agrees that perceptions of mental illness prevented Hemingway from getting the care he needed.
“We’re told he’s going to the Mayo Clinic, because he won’t go to a psychiatric clinic, because that would be the stigma. (It was) too awesome then, ”Burns says.
The circumstances of his death, which were not immediately disclosed to the public, only added to his inflated public personality as a male safari hunter who could survive plane crashes and mortar blasts. The first news of Hemingway’s death indicated only that he was being treated for high blood pressure.
The final hours of the documentary show Hemingway trying to put as much creativity as possible on the page while he still has time.
“This last episode made him ride as fast as he could and tried to outrun the group behind him – all those demons, all those banshees on his tail,” Burns said.
Burns and Novick wanted “Hemingway” to be an unvarnished image of the controversial writer.
“The most important process is that we leave our preconceptions, our luggage at the door. We’re not here to tell you what we think you should know about him. We would like to share our discovery process with you. We’ve never stopped researching, we’ve never stopped writing, we’ve never stopped touring, ”says Burns.