The stereotypes about Ernest Hemingway are many — war-wounded macho man, bullfighting fan, heavy drinker, big-game hunter, brilliant but terse writer. And he was all of those things. But there’s plenty more to the man revealed by documentarian Ken Burns and codirector Lynn Novick in a six-hour film, Hemingway, airing on PBS April 5-7 (check local listings).
The story is a no-holds-barred doozy, exploring Hemingway’s fascination with death (leading to his suicide at age 61 in 1961), gender fluidity, four volatile marriages, insecurities, depression and wildly inconsistent moods. Suicide and mental illness ran in his family: His father, grandfather and two siblings also took their own lives.
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Famously drawn toward danger, the author lived recklessly enough to suffer at least six serious concussions that, the documentary suggests, may have contributed to his erratic behavior — including as a husband. Besides his consistent unfaithfulness, he could be wildly romantic or cruel and controlling.
“There’s a fascinating pathology to Ernest Hemingway,” notes Burns, who hopes viewers can appreciate the subject’s complexity and “be blown away by his art,” without finding the need to decide whether they like him as a person (though they may form an opinion by the end of the film).
Novick, Burns’ frequent collaborator, says she’s wanted to focus on Hemingway for some 20 years, ever since she visited the Hemingway home in Key West, Florida. “Standing there in that room,” she says, “I just thought, ‘Wow. Hemingway would be an extraordinary topic.’” It took time to get buy-in from the Hemingway family. Patrick, one of the author’s two sons with second wife Pauline Pfeiffer, is interviewed in the documentary, which discusses Patrick’s late brother, Gregory, coming out as transgender to a father famed for his hypermasculinity but who liked gender-bending sexual role play.
Here Burns talks about the man behind the myth — as well as Hemingway’s undeniable genius as a writer.
COURTESY OF ERNEST HEMINGWAY PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION. JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, BOSTON
Ernest Hemingway at his home in Cuba, circa 1950s.
His simplicity was revolutionary
What characterizes most of modernism is a kind of difficulty and impenetrability [as in] the ornate and difficult prose of Gertrude Stein and William Faulkner. But equally a modernist is Ernest Hemingway, who dared to impersonate simplicity.… And then you realize how much he could pack into a single sentence. There’s [a probably apocryphal] story that Hemingway wrote the shortest novel ever, and it’s just six words. It says: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Maintaining his public persona may have taken a toll
Hemingway hid a lot of the stuff that we’ve been able to reveal in this. It must have been exhausting for him to try and maintain the artifice, and the edifice of this mask of celebrity, of macho big-game hunter. And his work suffered as a result of the huge effort necessary — the concurrent concussions and the concurrent drinking and all of that sort of stuff.
We don’t need to like him
You know, as Mary [Welsh, his fourth wife] says as she’s reading the pages of The Old Man and the Sea as they’re coming out of the typewriter, “I forgive you for all the rotten things you’ve said.” You’ve got the transcendent power of great art — not to excuse, but to just suggest that this is part of it. We’re trapped, in a way, in a media culture … that everything has to be in the good or the bad, the black or the white [categories]. In fact, human beings, however great or not, are always a mess of contradictions.
Knowing his backstory adds depth to his fiction
You don’t have to know that particular biography, but when you do, and you see the recurring themes of suicide, the recurring themes of difficult pregnancies and severe infections and dying in childbirth — when you see the gender-bending aspects of romance, you begin to realize how timeless he is for someone who arguably could be a dead white male that we don’t need to deal with anymore.
Hemingway’s best, for readers less familiar with his work
You can’t go wrong diving in with his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms. It’s so beautiful and so complex. Or his short stories, like “Hills Like White Elephants” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” — those are two of my favorites. These are really fabulous works of art.
Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.