CLAY JENKINSON: Future In Context — Ken Burns, Lynn Novick Create Perfect Hemingway Documentary

Ernest Hemingway is one of our greatest writers, and Ken Burns is our greatest documentary filmmaker, so it is fitting that the latest film by Burns and his creative partner, Lynn Novick, is about the most influential American writer of the 20th century, who committed suicide on July 2, 1961. Hemingway wrote seven novels during his lifetime, six collections of short stories and two works of nonfiction. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. He was married four times, and there were plenty of other women, too. His greatest novels were “The Sun Also Rises” (1926), “A Farewell to Arms” (1929) and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940).

Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Ill. He died at Ketcham, Idaho, but we associate him primarily with Cuba, where he lived on and off for 30 years, and Paris, where, at the beginning of his career, he became the living embodiment of what Gertrude Stein called “the lost generation.”

Hemingway served as an ambulance driver in the International Red Cross in World War I — the Great War. He was seriously wounded by a mortar explosion July 8, 1918, in the Italian Alps. He was just 18 years old. He spent six months recovering in a hospital in Milan, Italy, where, of course, he fell in love with his nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, who was seven years his senior. Hemingway wrote, “When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you. … Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you.” Death haunts nearly all of Hemingway’s work as a writer.

It is possible to read The Grapes of Wrath without ever thinking about the life and adventures of John Steinbeck, or for that matter to read Huckleberry Finn without ever picturing Mark Twain on stage issuing quips in his white suit, but it is not as easy to read any of Hemingway’s novels or short stories without thinking about his outsized offstage persona. The myth of Hemingway clouds the creative work of Hemingway and, as any acquaintance with his biography makes clear, he was not always an admirable man. Burns and Novick make no effort to whitewash Hemingway, but they certainly recognize and excavate his genius.

Hemingway writing. (Lloyd Arnold/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A Documentary Masterpiece

“Hemingway” is a filmic masterpiece, in part because Burns and Novick, who are known for their innovations in documentary technique, had access to the author’s manuscripts at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Burns and Novick found a way to animate the manuscripts — making the typescript and even the handwriting unfold as if we are standing over Hemingway’s shoulder as he writes. The film “erases” and then restores Hemingway’s manuscript revisions, x-ing out paragraphs, inserting new phrases or sentences between typescript lines, all without taking any liberties with the original manuscript page. This is a work of technical genius.

Fortunately, Hemingway’s handwriting is legible. Burns and Novick have lavished almost as much attention in constructing and deconstructing the manuscripts as Hemingway put into them in real time 60 to 100 years ago. We viewers get as close to watching the magic of literary creation as we are ever likely to get. There are times when we almost feel we are in at the composition of his short stories, “Up in Michigan,” “Indian Camp” or “Hills Like White Elephants.”

One great example will illustrate the brilliance of this technique. While literary critic Miriam Mandel quotes from the story “Hills Like White Elephants,” the original manuscript writes itself out before our eyes. The filmmakers track the exhausted sorrow of the young woman in real time as she finally says to her boyfriend, “Would you please please please please please please stop talking,” and then a seventh “please” that Hemingway carroted in above the line of type. We not only feel that we are watching Hemingway at work in 1927, but we feel the weary frustration of the young woman who is being manipulated by the unnamed young man to obtain an abortion she is not sure she wants. Meanwhile, talking heads Edna O’Brien, Miriam Mandel and Tobias Wolff provide excellent commentary about this edgy short story that never actually uses the word “abortion.”

Everyone Takes Ken Burns’ Calls

Novick and Burns have brought together a magisterial assemblage of writers and literary critics (talking heads) for this six-hour documentary: Mandel, O’Brien, Wolff, Stephen Cushman, Susan Beegel, Amanda Vaill, Abraham Verghese, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mary Dearborn, Marc Dudley and others. The interviews are so rich in every way — amazing insights, sensuous camera work, an unhurried pace of discourse — that we believe the experts are each offering us a master class on the life and achievement of Hemingway. Former U.S. Sen. and war hero John McCain makes a memorable appearance to explain his admiration for the selfless hero Robert Jordan in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

It cannot have been easy to carry PBS viewers into the heart of Hemingway books they had never read or had not read recently enough to remember much. As usual, Burns and Novick make this look easy, but we know it wasn’t. The remarkable camera work and lighting creates a rich sensuality that breaks down the barrier between us and the expert, until it feels that we are getting everyone’s best thoughts very close at hand, as if we are in that room where the interview is taking place, and the author or the scholar is talking directly to us. No podium between us, no backdrop of a formidable (and distancing) bookshelf.

Burns and Novick (really Burns, Novick and Geoffrey Ward, who has won four Emmy Awards for his outstanding Burns filmscripts) are the perfect team to take on Hemingway, especially at this advanced stage of their great collaboration. They have perfected their craft and their artistry to rarified heights that are unlikely to be reached by any other documentary team. And they have no agenda except to reveal the man and the work, and the world that shaped the man and the work. It is clear that they greatly admire Hemingway, but equally clear that they don’t idolize him, in fact that they are troubled by those qualities of the man and the myth that were once lionized or casually forgiven. The idea that a man of great talents is entitled to be reckless in his personal life, that the drinking, the quarreling, the gambling, the womanizing and neglect of one’s children are a defensible byproduct of artistic genius, still has a place in the 21st century consciousness, partly thanks to Hemingway, but that view finds no defender in Burns and Novick.

Hemingway: A Complex and Troubled Life

The troubling aspects of Hemingway are all here — the cult of virility, the occasional misogyny, the cruelty, the colossal selfishness, some streaks of anti-Semitism, the self-pity. Nor do Novick and Burns ignore Hemingway’s occasional racism — a single manuscript page uses the n-word half a dozen times. Hemingway biographer Mary Dearborn expresses for us all her head-shaking disappointment in his anti-Semitism, so at odds with his close Paris-phase friendship with Harold Loeb, who becomes Robert Cohn in “The Sun Also Rises.” It was so arbitrary, unnecessary, out of the blue, merely coincidental, merely hateful, Dearborn says, that it cannot be explained away.

It is true that Hemingway suffered at least seven concussions in the course of his life, received 220 shrapnel wounds in World War I, survived two plane crashes, during the second of which he was badly burned, and quite clearly suffered from PTSD, not to mention some heartbreaking mother issues from which he never fully recovered.

Hemingway and Women

Hemingway’s relations with women inevitably take up a great deal of time in any biography.

The serial marriages could easily be a distraction in a film like this because they each have to get their share of attention, but Burns and Novick remind us that Hemingway’s life is inexplicable without reference to the women with whom he was friendly or intimate. He attracted remarkable women who loved adventure, who had independent lives and careers, who were willing to challenge him, stand up to him, and — when necessary — leave him to protect their hearts from further violence.

The film walks a fine line between disgust for Hemingway’s womanizing and his cruelty to women and a realization of how much positive love he was capable of, at least in the beginning of a new relationship. After the traumas he endured during World War I, Hemingway was incapable of sleeping alone. This sounds pretty convenient, but it was apparently true. His love letters to the women in his life are innumerable, passionate, attentive, optimistic and beautiful. Nevertheless, when the first blush was off, his cruelty was sometimes astounding.

Style and Myth: Caricature and Influence

Hemingway’s gifts as a writer can hardly be overstated. Early on, he developed a terse, unadorned, direct, even raw style, cutting out everything that was rhetorical or superfluous. He was always trying to write what he called “one true sentence.” Everyone who has read Hemingway recognizes the stark, spare prose. Hemingway’s influence was so great and his style so easily imitated (style yes, genius no) that he shaped much subsequent American fiction. Most critics believe he had an unfortunate influence on later American writers, that his celebrated style became a caricature and a crutch, indeed that Hemingway became a caricature of himself in his later years.

Hemingway believed that life is both beautiful and brutal at its core, and he never shied away from its brutality. Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa says of the characters in “The Sun Also Rises,” “They are all a little bit tragic, as Hemingway’s characters always are. They’re all on the verge of death.” His fascination with war, bullfighting and masculine aggression does not swallow as well in the 21st century, when we are more sensitive — certainly less confident — about the cult of masculinity than back in the lost world of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis and James Joyce.

The viewer can only marvel about how serious this documentary is. The second episode opens with a complex discussion of the myth that sprang up around Hemingway, a myth he largely crafted for himself, including all sorts of exaggerations, embellishments and bald lies. Hemingway explores the burden of that myth on his friends and lovers, his own life, but also his writing, which over time suffered from the confusion. As Geoffrey Ward’s superb script sums it up, Hemingway was a man “who destroys himself trying to remain true to the character he has invented.”

All this, of course, backed by the gorgeous dance of perfectly chosen photographs, documents and period film clips that are the signature of a Burns-Novick documentary. Nobody works harder at finding these images and then lavishing caresses on their most pertinent details.

The Film Artistry of the Burns Crew

Lynn Novick has said that one of the highlights of the project was having access to Hemingway’s Cuba estate Finca Vigía, the novelist’s marvelous, serene, even idyllic retreat just outside Havana. Hemingway left Cuba in 1960, one year after Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by Fidel Castro’s revolutionary guerillas. He knew and got along well enough with Castro and fully expected to return. He left everything behind, including books, papers, a typewriter and even his toothbrush. The Cuban government chose to preserve Finca Vigía just as Hemingway left it — as if, says Novick, he had gone away on vacation and might return at any moment.

I was not altogether certain that Jeff Daniels is the right voice of Hemingway, but he grew on me enormously as the documentary developed. He reads Hemingway beautifully, at times hauntingly, and it is clear from his read that either he understands Hemingway or that Novick and Burns have directed him perfectly. There is strain and pain and occasional lyricism in Daniels’ read, and the feeling, central to Hemingway’s work, that he is always trying to write “the one true sentence.”

One of the reasons people with literary interests or aspirations love Hemingway is because he wrote so well about writing. He made writing sound heroic instead of the tedious and lonely business it usually is. He informs us that he started his day of writing by reading the whole work, even if it was a novel, up to the point where he left off the day before. He advises us always to park on a hill so that we know exactly how to get things started when we next sit before a notebook or typewriter: “I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.” He insists that we write about what we actually know, especially the physical details of the scene we are describing. Excise the adjectives! “If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”

Lynn Novick never gets her full share of praise and admiration. Burns is generous about her contributions, but he has established so potent a brand that whatever comes out of his shop fixes on him, and never quite enough on Geoffrey Ward, Dayton Duncan or the extraordinary Novick. Burns is so compelling as a personality — the perfect image of America’s great documentary film producer, with his enormous capacity for articulation — passionate, insightful, but accessible, righteous and humorous at the same time, always inviting us to join him in his journey to the heart of the American soul. I have seen major figures like NBC’s Brian Williams gush and blush in his presence. That’s always a little unsettling, but there is no denying Burns’ genius or his charisma. Novick makes herself less visible, but she has great talent. She played a very major role in Baseball “ and most recently Vietnam.”

The test of this documentary is whether you get up from the viewing experience to search your library for something of Hemingway to read. I suspect that hundreds of thousands of Americans did just that. It would be interesting to have the “metrics” of Hemingway activity at Amazon.com in the last couple of weeks and to know which of Hemingway’s works have been most in demand. I expect that the short stories are getting a well-deserved resurgence. They are some of Hemingway’s best writing, and as he says in the film, they are simple enough to be read by people with a high school education and brilliant enough to win the respect of the most exacting literary critics. I know I immediately found my copy of “A Moveable Feast” (published posthumously in 1964) and commenced my return to the work of Ernest Hemingway.

The documentary “Hemingway” is now running on many PBS stations across the country and streaming online.

You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, The Future In Context.”

One thought on “CLAY JENKINSON: Future In Context — Ken Burns, Lynn Novick Create Perfect Hemingway Documentary”

  • Daniel Ackerman April 18, 2021 at 11:38 am

    I haven’t read any of Hemingway’s works, but I can tell you I’m going to. I also need to check out this documentary. Thank you, Clay, for reminding us of our history and literary masterpieces. I truly admire your work and insights. Best regards, Dan


Leave a Reply