Hemingway, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s latest PBS series, is a hagiography of one of the most popular writers of the 20th century, the tale of a man whose writing, image, and life were regularly the stuff of gossip, jealousy, admiration, and legend. In Burns’s classic documentary style, the three-part, six-hour series probes the life of the American literary giant, weaving the tale of how he seemed to slowly self-destruct amidst a flurry of influential books until he tragically pulled the trigger.
The series does a fine job of showing how Hemingway’s distinctive prose was influenced by the barebones style of North American newspaper writing, and how he would go on to reinvent the way people wrote, addressing topics like sex and abortion in a way that still feels contemporary. Hemingway’s Modernism was very unlike those of fellow travelers like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, as he preferred clear, deceptively simple prose which lures the reader into a web of ideas and sentences that trap you in his universe. In a similar way, Burns and Novick sink you slowly into Hemingway’s life until you are engulfed by it, uncertain whether to sink or swim in the stories of serial relationships, a string of head injuries, and words that continue to impact international literature.
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But the year is 2021, and it’s perplexing to me that the filmmakers didn’t probe why this monument to white American hetersexual machoism (with his love of bullfighting, safaris, and war) endures. They could’ve started with how Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park, Illinois was and is a bastion of racism, which would’ve helped us understand why he included the N-word and other racist epithets in his work. Race is largely omitted except as an aside, one of many missed opportunities. Would Hemingway have been allowed to become an American legend if he was Black, or Jewish, or Gay?
Most troubling (and perhaps revealing) is how often Hemingway attacked or satirized his closest friends and allies. It’s a vile tactic, but one he benefited from greatly. He turned a Jewish friend into an anti-Semitic stereotype in the The Sun Also Rises, and lampooned a vocal supporter, the author Sherwood Anderson, in Torrents of Spring, ridiculing him so openly that the New York World pointed out in 1926, “when Hemingway published In Our Time it was Sherwood Anderson who turned handsprings and welcomed this newcomer to the ranks of America’s great men … and now Hemingway pays him back.” Thankfully, these episodes are touched on in the documentary.
There are many holes in the legend of Hemingway, even if interviewees like novelist Edna O’Brien help us understand the throughlines in his work — though she ignores his more sexist pieces to suggest he wrote insightfully about women (well, about white women, anyway). The filmmakers also fall for some of the traps set up by the writer, suggesting that the gaps and peculiarities of his life and work suggest complexity rather than omissions. But really, in over 40 years, he really couldn’t write a central non-stereotypical and memorable nonwhite character?
My favorite revelation in the documentary is that Hemingway was nearsighted and thought it would impede his chances of joining the military during World War I, so he worked as an ambulance driver instead. Myopia appears to have impacted the filmmakers too. It’s not that this wasn’t a delightful watch, but after it was over, I wasn’t sure if I just walked through a Hemingway museum. I’ll leave that open to interpretation.
Hemingway is available to stream via PBS.