When modern readers lambast the American literary canon, they’re probably complaining at least partially about Ernest Hemingway. The Hemingway clichés are easy to rattle off: a thrill seeker who fetishized bullfighting and big-game hunting to prove his manliness; a womanizer who was always on the lookout for his next wife; a wartime bystander who co-opted the violence and trauma of the Great War to make a name for himself as a writer. To use the language of Hemingway admirer J.D. Salinger, the man’s uber-masculinity sometimes had a phony stink.
To its credit, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s six-hour docuseries Hemingway doesn’t dispute much of this. The directors use the author’s own statements, letters, photographs, and other writings to verify some of our worst assumptions. As cultural conversations about whether we can separate the exemplary work of an artist from their problematic personal life resurface over and over again, Hemingway wades into that same muddy water and throws down its anchor. The result is a docuseries that acknowledges what it doesn’t definitively know about Hemingway—did his sexual experimentation suggest questions related to his gender identity; did all the concussions he suffered contribute to mental illness?—while doing its best to paint a full portrait of the artist and the man. Hemingway seems to come down a certain way on whether his moral failings overshadow the beauty and exemplary quality of short stories like “The Snows Of Kilimanjaro” and novels such as The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell To Arms, but Burns and Novick also leave space for viewers to make their own decisions.
Hemingway charts the entirety of the author’s life, dividing it into three chunks that are engagingly written by Geoffrey C. Ward and evocatively narrated by Peter Coyote, both longtime collaborators of Burns and Novick. First is “A Writer,” which depicts Hemingway as a “troubled and conflicted man, who belonged to a troubled and conflicted family.” His father was a family doctor who saw many patients die during childbirth; his mother was a former opera singer who resented her children. To amuse herself, she often dressed Ernest in girls’ clothes and pretended that he and an older sister were gender-swapped twins. Desperate to escape from the stifling, prosperous Chicago suburb in which he grew up, and increasingly hostile toward his mother, whom he blamed for his father’s late-life paranoia and instability, Hemingway began writing for The Kansas City Star at 17. (The newspaper’s style guide encouraging “vigorous English” is a particularly enlightening detail.) After turning 18, Hemingway’s time as an ambulance driver in Italy in World War I would profoundly change his life, and Burns and Novick masterfully use archival footage, news reels, and Hemingway’s own photographs and letters (the directors were given access to his collection of materials at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library) to chart the horrendous physical injuries he sustained on the battlefield, and the heartbreak that came afterward.
Upon his return to the U.S. after his recovery, Hemingway relished in the hero’s welcome he received, while chafing against his parents’ strictness and teetotaling. Perhaps retelling and embellishing the stories of his injuries was when Hemingway began spinning his own performative myth, the series suggests, and “A Writer” examines how that self-aggrandizement helped shape his writing style. The sparse sentences shaped by his time as a journalist; the contemporary, informal dialogue he and other young men spoke while in Europe; and his willingness to tackle difficult material, including death, suicide, and abortion, were all shaped by aspects of his own life, Hemingway argues. His problems with his parents. His failed love affair in Italy with an older nurse who cared for him and then sent him a “Dear John” letter. All the death he saw in the trenches. Jeff Daniels voices Hemingway, and the documentary builds in long stretches where we see the author’s drafted pages, his handwriting materializing on the document, scratching out words, and writing in others, while Daniels reads the final versions of the passages. Hemingway often modeled his protagonists after himself, and that approach built a sort of self-feedback loop. “I hate the myth of Hemingway… it obscures the man,” says Michael Katakis, manager of Hemingway’s literary estate. “And the man is much more interesting than the myth.”
While “A Writer” tracks Hemingway’s ascension—working as a war correspondent, marrying his first wife Hadley (voiced by Keri Russell), moving to Paris and traveling Europe with her, fathering his first son, and publishing his acclaimed collection of short stories In Our Time—subsequent episodes purposefully puncture the persona in which Hemingway wrapped himself. In doing so, Hemingway pulls off a tricky balance: It allows authors, scholars, and biographers to extol, celebrate, and elaborate upon Hemingway’s short stories, journalism, and novels, while also confronting them with instances of the man at his absolute nastiest, most abusive, and most delusional. As experts of the craft, writers like Edna O’Brien, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tim O’Brien, Abraham Verghese, and Leonardo Padura are able to pinpoint what made Hemingway so unique, going into specific detail on certain character arcs, narrative turns, and thematic considerations; fans of Hemingway’s work will particularly appreciate their earnest appreciation. And they don’t hold back on their dislikes, either: O’Brien sniffs at The Old Man And The Sea, calling it schoolboy writing, while Llosa bursts into laughter describing the romance between the feuding Spanish loyalist and fascist characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls. They admire Hemingway, but they’re not zealots.
“The Avatar” and “The Blank Page” follow Hemingway’s career ups and downs with the volatility of his marriages (Meryl Streep, Patricia Clarkson, and Mary-Louise Parker also voice his three future wives); the inexplicable cruelty he leveled toward people who were once friends, like Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and his escape from the United States to Cuba and to Africa for lengthy safaris in which he hunted and killed dozens of animals. How did the Hemingway who so abhorred death during WWI and the Spanish Civil War become the man gunning down defenseless animals in East Africa? That’s just one of the idiosyncratic contrasts Hemingway attempts to explain. “I’m not sure what to say about this,” admits scholar Marc Dudley after he reads a staggeringly vitriolic and racist letter from Hemingway to a colleague; earlier in the documentary, Dudley had explained Hemingway’s use of the n-word in his work as “a man trying to convey a sense of his time.” The realization that Hemingway might have been a racist in his life outside of his writing shocks Dudley practically into silence. This sort of inability to reconcile the myriad identities of Hemingway comes up over and over again. Author Edna O’Brien almost sounds reverential when she observes, “I think ordinary life was anathema to him,” but when asked to speak on Hemingway’s increasingly abusive behavior toward his wives, she almost downplays it by saying that he was “a bit of a controller and a bit of a bully as well.” Perhaps Verghese sums it up best with his somewhat resigned delivery of “There he is,” a pat line that mirrors the entire approach of Hemingway: Here’s the man, brilliance and discipline and sexism and racism and all.
The indulgent run time is mostly a boon, allowing Hemingway to offer up certain lesser-known details about the author: that he served as a spy for both the American and Soviet governments, although he only divulged secrets to one side; that he subverted the career of third wife and fellow war correspondent Martha Gellhorn by booking a better deal for himself with Collier’s magazine, for which she also wrote; that he married a 17-year-old girl of the Kenyan Kamba tribe in a traditional ceremony while on safari there with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh. These aren’t exactly flattering details, and Hemingway’s most unintentionally hilarious moment might be Daniels’ snotty line delivery of the author’s insistence in a letter to his son Gregory, “I am not a gin-soaked monster going around ruining people’s lives.” The concluding sense of Hemingway, rather, is that the life the author was most responsible for ruining was his own. The documentary paints a tragic figure of an author whose work remains powerful, and whose complexities remain impossible to parse out.