‘Hemingway’: A two-hearted reconsideration

The documentary filmmaker Lynn Novick in Millerton, New York on March 15, 2021. Lynn Novick and Ken Burns consider Ernest Hemingway in all his complexity and controversy in their new PBS documentary series. (Photo: NYTimes)
One of the more unsettling moments in “Hemingway,” the latest documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, finds Ernest Hemingway, big-game hunter, chronicler of violence and seeker of danger, doing one thing that terrified him; speaking on television.اضافة اعلان

It is 1954, and the author, who survived airplane crashes (plural) earlier that year in Africa, had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He agreed to an interview with NBC on the condition that he receive the questions in advance and that he read his answers from cue cards.

The rare video clip comes after we’ve spent nearly six hours seeing the author create an image of virile swagger and invent a style of clean, lucid prose. But here Hemingway, an always-anxious public speaker still recuperating from a cerebral injury, is halting and stiff. Asked what he is currently writing about — Africa — his answer includes the punctuation on the card: “the animals comma and the changes in Africa since I was there last period.”

It’s hard to watch. But it is one of many angles from which the expansive, thoughtful “Hemingway” shows us the man in full — contrasting the person and the persona, the triumphs and vulnerabilities — to help us see an old story with new eyes.

Burns, whose survey of American history is interspersed with biographies of figures such as Jackie Robinson, Mark Twain, and Frank Lloyd Wright, might have taken on Hemingway at any time over the past few decades. But, now “Hemingway,” airing over three nights starting Monday on PBS, comes along as American culture is reconsidering many of its lionized men. And there are few authors as associated with masculinity — literary, toxic, or otherwise.

He clashed spectacularly with his third wife, writer Martha Gellhorn (played in voice-over by Meryl Streep), who matched him well, maybe too well to last. A free spirit who resisted marriage at first. Gellhorn would not sideline her ambitions for his. (You might find yourself wishing you were watching her documentary.)

But “Hemingway” also complicates the popular image of Hemingway as he-man woman-hater (or, at least, woman-dismisser) in his life and his work. Starting with his early childhood, when his  mother enjoyed “twinning” him and his sister, dressing them identically as boys or as girls.

“Hemingway” takes as a test case the story “Up in Michigan.” It was controversial at the time; Gertrude Stein called it “inaccrochable,” like a painting unsuitable to be hung. But Irish novelist Edna O’Brien unpacks how Hemingway’s raw, tactile prose centers the woman’s thoughts. “I would ask his detractors, female or male, just to read that story, and could you in all honor say this was a writer who didn’t understand women’s emotions and hated women?” she asks. “You couldn’t.”

O’Brien is no one-sided Hemingway booster. (She dismisses “The Old Man and the Sea” as “schoolboy writing”.) But she is the MVP of a group of literary commentators that help do the difficult work of describing a creative process.

The resulting biography is clear-eyed about its subject but emotional about his legacy. It celebrates his gifts, catalogs his flaws and chronicles his decline.

The biggest compliment I can pay “Hemingway” is that it made me pull my “Collected Short Stories” off the shelf after years. This story is not entirely a pretty picture. But to quote its subject, “If it is all beautiful you can’t believe it. Things aren’t that way.”