New Ken Burns documentary explores different sides of Ernest Hemingway


He was the famous writer who chronicled the ravages of war and romance and bullfighting history, and did so with stripped-down prose that stood up to the literary conventions of the time and is become a very influential style.

He was an avid outdoorsman who loved to hunt, fish and camp, someone who also loved his whiskey and became a national symbol of wild masculinity.

But as a new film by Ken burns and Lynn Novick relates, Ernest Hemingway was a more complex character than his public persona would suggest. There were times in his life when he experienced the fluidity of genres; he came from a family with a history of mental illness and struggled with depression and premonitions of death as he grew older; and he could write about women with a sensitivity and understanding that belied his macho image.

In “Hemingway”, a three-part documentary series broadcast on PBS Starting April 5, Burns and Novick, the film’s co-producer and director, shaped an in-depth look at the writer who was a literary star in his late twenties but began a slow decline under the age of 20. later, one who drove the man known as “Papa” to put a shotgun to his head in 1961, shortly before his 62nd birthday.

It’s a portrayal that juxtaposes his triumphs as a writer with his unmistakable physical courage – he was wounded as an ambulance driver in WWI, then became a civil war battlefield correspondent. Spanish and World War II – with less attractive aspects of his personal life. He has been married four times and could be emotionally abusive towards his last two wives in particular; he separated from two of his sons; and some of his fictions and personal letters revealed racist and anti-Semitic content.

Hemingway could also show outbursts of terrible anger. In 1944, while chasing his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, who was married at the time, Hemingway took a picture of her absent husband, threw it down the toilet in the Parisian hotel room where he was staying with Welsh and fired with a submachine gun. in the toilet, blowing out the crumbling porcelain and flooding the hotel hallway.

“You don’t want to do anything sensational, but you also don’t want to hesitate in trying to get a full picture,” Novick said on a recent phone call from his home in upstate New York. . “There is so much focus on her public life and her image that it really invites some sort of detective work” on her personal life.

Tell about your personal life

Novick says Hemingway has become a prisoner to some extent of his own legend, sometimes fabricating stories about his daring, such as the one he personally freed the Ritz hotel in Paris from the Nazis in August 1944 while he was a correspondent. of war. In fact, the Germans had already left.

Speaking from his studio in New Hampshire, Burns recalled that years ago he jotted down a short list of topics he could explore as a result of his landmark series on the American Civil War in 1990; baseball was one subject and Hemingway was another. A project on the writer was ruled out for various reasons, he said, but Novick, who worked with him on his 10-part Vietnam War series in 2017, encouraged him to return to the ‘writer.

Burns, who graduated from Hampshire College in 1975, says he’s glad he did. Hemingway, he said, “is like an iceberg. There is only a small part that you really see. We know he enjoyed fishing, hunting, drinking and fighting, but there is so much more below the surface. The celebrity profile can obscure both the real person and their great ability as a writer. “

Burns notes that he had read a number of Hemingway’s novels and short stories in the past, but taking on the new film revealed to him what he calls “the humiliation of what you don’t know.” . There was a lot to learn about him, a real journey of discovery.

What really stands out is “how revolutionary his writing was,” Burns said. “It was the era of modernists like James Joyce and William Faulkner, in all their complexity, and [Hemingway] takes fiction in a completely different direction.

As one of the film’s interviewees, writer Tobias Wolff put it, “It’s like he’s changed all the furniture in the room… we all have to sit in it.

Irish novelist and short story writer Edna O’Brien, now 90, is also a fan, in part because of what she says is Hemingway’s ability, despite his hyper-masculinity, to see things wrong. ‘a female point of view. Speaking about her acclaimed novel “A Farewell to Arms,” ​​she says parts of the book “could have been written by a woman. Now I take that as a compliment … because it’s androgyny in a man or woman that allows them, even briefly, to put themselves in the other’s shoes.

In the 1929 novel, which is set during the Italian Campaign of World War I, O’Brien says that Hemingway writes convincingly about “the boy’s thing, the man’s thing, the horror of the war. But when people put the book down, what will they remember? They will remember a woman dying in childbirth.

A man in conflict

Although Hemingway has been the subject of a number of biographies, Burns and Novick suggest that many viewers of the new film may not be familiar with his family’s dark history. Four members of this family, including his father, eventually committed suicide and Hemingway had a difficult relationship with his mother; he later said he hated her, and the two broke up.

Born outside Chicago in 1899, Hemingway as a young boy was sometimes dressed as a girl by his mother so that he could be a “twin” to his sister, and years later he was exploring elements of this fluidity. gender with Welsh, his fourth wife, sometimes wearing women’s clothes with her in private, as she cut her hair short (as did two of Hemingway’s other wives). Hemingway and Welsh also gave each other names of the opposite sex.

“I think his sexuality was somewhat complicated and evolving,” Burns said.

Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, became an intermittent crossdresser as a teenager and young man; he also began sex reassignment surgery in the 1990s and sometimes used the name Gloria before dying in 2001 at age 69.

Another revelation in the film is the number of serious head injuries Hemingway suffered in the 1940s and early 1950s as a result of car accidents, loss of foot, and falling. a skylight on him, and especially two small consecutive plane crashes in Africa. ; newspapers around the world have reported that he and Mary died after the first one.

Literary Susan Beegel provides a light moment in the documentary where, speaking of Hemingway’s larger-than-life presence, she says, “Who else has two plane crashes in two days in Africa, has the word everywhere? the world he’s dead, and reads his own obituaries?


But Burns and Novick postulate that the cumulative effect of all these injuries, coupled with Hemingway’s heavy drinking, led to serious problems for the writer in his last decade – depression, paranoia, headaches. head, hallucinations, blurred vision, a growing case of writer’s block – and probably exacerbated some mania he already had. He underwent electroconvulsive therapy at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in an unsuccessful attempt to cure his depression.

“I was really struck by how quickly he seemed to age,” said Novick, who first became interested in Hemingway after visiting his home in Cuba, known as Finca Vigía. “At 40 or even 45, he’s about his age, but at 50, he looks like he’s 70.”

Still, Hemingway might come together on occasion. After having published his 1950 novel “Across the River and in the Trees” to the worst reviews of his career, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for “The Old Man and the Sea”. Hemingway said health concerns would prevent him from speaking at the awards ceremony, but sent a short speech to read that served as a compelling summary of his writing philosophy and style of writing. cut prose.

Writer and photographer Michael Katakis, who is also Hemingway’s literary director, says Hemingway’s work endures because of its universality. “He keeps talking to us because his writing is fundamentally human, with all that we are – the dark, the light, the passionate, the small, the ugly, the beautiful, the kind, the cruel… and I think that he was able to do it because he loved the world so much.

Jeff Daniels voices Hemingway in the new documentary, reading his books and letters, and Patricia Clarkson, Mary-Louise Parker, Keri Russell and Meryl Streep handle the voiceovers for his four wives. The late US Senator John McCain gives one of his last interviews in the film, speaking of his love for Hemingway’s 1940 novel, “For Whom the Bell Ringing.” The film also includes numerous images and archival photographs.

This is just one of the many documentaries Burns is working on. A film on Muhammad Ali will be screened this fall, and another, on the US response to the Holocaust during WWII, is scheduled for 2023. Making these films has been a challenge during the pandemic, he said, members of the production team being forced to work. separately and some interviews and archival research are difficult or impossible to do.

“We are all looking forward to the moment when we can start working together again,” he said. And if the pandemic cooperates and the stars align, maybe he can put on a special screening of ‘Ali’ in Hampshire in the fall. “It would be great,” he said.

For more information on “Hemingway,” including trailers and filmmaker profiles, visit

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected]


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