Gary Raymond reviews Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s epic documentary biopic of Ernest Hemingway.
A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, I was a student in an American literature MA class, and I made the flippant comment that Ernest Hemingway was a “masculine writer”. Eyes fixed on me, and I wasn’t the only one who sensed the air being sucked out of the room. I was, quite rightly, grilled to a char by the seminar tutor on what exactly I meant by that. Who remembers, but I’d imagine at best I gave the defence a decent stab. His aggressively coarse prose, his subject matter, the virility of it. Mine was unlikely to be an iconoclastic position. But what I do remember is the defence taking a while because I kept leaving the subject of Hemingway’s prose and drifting to his biography. It may be impossible to talk about one without the other in the case of America’s preeminent man of letters, but the question we must always remind ourselves is which matters most. Hemingway was contradictory, problematic, cruel, egomaniacal, and even though friends and family in this purportedly definitive documentary on the man from Ken Burns and Lyn Novick reflect on his generosity, his spirit, his warmth, his strength, it is difficult to come away thinking the “myth” of Hemingway the asshole has been at all debunked. Many think his prose convicts him of this alone, although Edna O’Brien disagrees, and who are we to disagree with her. It is the appearance of people like O’Brien, giving compelling evaluations of the work, that make this documentary as weighty as it is. It is vital, this film attests, to talk in some depth about Hemingway’s work when talking about his life. And vice versa.
The truth is, however, that the reason why Hemingway is a “masculine writer” (and how I wish I’d thought of this in that seminar) is because defining the masculine writer was his life’s work. In his writing, Hemingway was able to control the world in which men moved about, and he was able to sculpt the terms by which they failed and succeeded. He was perhaps the finest romantic tragedian of the twentieth century (the film points out he critically failed whenever he slipped into melodrama), and his men were embattled, naïve, flawed, and rarely triumphant. His obsession with manhood’s validation through connecting with the unforgiving hardness of the natural world was mirrored in the way he seemed to understand that women were equally uncontrollable, unknowable, unconquerable. But for Hemingway it was more humane to kill the beast than it was to kill the woman, although he sometimes, memorably, did that too.
Ken Burns and Lyn Novick’s film is as scrupulous as you’d expect from the pair who have made the hypericons of American culture their own life project. Burns, still best known for his seminal twelve-hour Civil War (1990), has since tackled, with equal aplomb, subjects such as jazz, the Vietnam War, America’s national parks, the Statue of Liberty, and Prohibition. If Hemingway is the American writer most concerned with the American idea encapsulated in its masculinity, then Burns is the documentary maker most concerned with the signposts of Americanism. If you’re interested in unpicking the pillars of what Godfrey Hodgson termed the myth of American exceptionalism, then the oeuvre of Ken Burns is an excellent place to start. He can be sentimental, which is a common pitfall of American artists when they strive for the heart, although there’s no evidence of it in Hemingway; and the employment of the authoritative tones of the beloved uncle at thanksgiving in narration (where once the aged lightness of touch of David McCullough guided us in Civil War, now Peter Coyote has a more declarative delivery) are something of a signature soundtrack. Here Hemingway is given voice by Jeff Daniels, who keeps sending me back to Dumb and Dumber, which is no doubt a connection Hem would have found deeply offensive. Daniels is a fine actor, but I always had Hemingway down as having a more rugged poised sound, like his doppleganger Clark Gable, or the sonorous authority of Orson Welles. It’s the voice of gravity we’ve come to expect from the American moralists. To hear Hem’s own voice narrating a documentary he wrote about the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s suggests he was indeed closer to Daniels’ thinner oratory. It’s reminiscent of finding out, via Daniel Day Lewis, that Abraham Lincoln sounded more like an Appalachian grandpa than Don LaFontaine. Meryl Streep as Martha Gellhorn, Hem’s third wife and arguably his equal as a prose stylist, is an absolute triumph and a crowdfunder needs to be immediately set up to have her do all Gellhorn audiobooks.
Ken Burns works his socks off trying to get us as close to Hemingway the man as possible. It is a sympathetic portrayal, although the film never shies away from condemning him for his worst traits. His devotion to his wives and family, while it lasts, is addressed with reassuring warmth for a man now often dismissed as a misogynist. But there’s no escaping the fact Hem’s marriages deteriorate when he meets the next Mrs Hemingway. He gets itchy feet, and his lifelong need for adventure and travel often walked hand–in-hand with a refreshing of his female companion. That said, he seems to have not been much of a philanderer, rather he was one of those guys whose relationships overlap. (And we’ve all known one of them.) The women in his life are afforded a good time. We are given full characters, not dashed off sketches, and it’s important that Hem had a weak spot for formidable women. His mother, from whom so much seemed to flow when you try to psychoanalyse him, is perhaps a little two dimensional, though. Grace never let her children forget she gave up a glittering career as an opera singer to raise them, and Hem blamed her haranguing negative presence for the suicide of his father. That was her role: to ruin his view of women.
Ken Burns’ documentary will probably not reveal any Hem life facts that a devotee won’t already know, but it was surprising to learn that Ernest’s mother used to dress him as a girl when he was a toddler. As a child he was unusually close to Grace, a dominating theatrical presence in any room. He wrote later that he hated his father for his weakness, by which he meant the depression that drove him to take his own life. Hem grew to hate his mother as well, and although it would be to assume too much, and assume it inappropriately, to postulate Hem took up big game hunting as a push to escape his mother’s drawstrings, Burns lays it out there as part of the ingredients of the character behind the myth.
Sympathetic or not, Hemingway is divisive enough to put him top of any poll of writers from history who would likely be cancelled today. It’s not just his attitudes to women in his books that gets him into hot water (and get ready to battle with Edna O’Brien if you come down on the Hem-hates-women side). It’s a famed theory that Hem’s obsessive masculine posturing in his life was a reaction to his own insecurities, his over-correction for fears he may be a sissy in a sissy’s game. Christopher Hitchens gets it wrong, though, when he writes Hem was afraid writing was for men who weren’t real men. That suggests a wavering of conviction in the sacred nobility of the writer class. Streep reads Gellhorn’s musing on Hem’s devotion to writing. Nothing else mattered to him, she notes with a peculiar admiration from a wife and mother.
When young, looking for man’s man heroes, he found uber-mensch president Teddy Roosevelt, who at one point held a record for kills on hunting trips into the American wilderness of the latter part of the nineteenth century. If you want a full breakdown of the posturing and politicking of Uncle Teddy, look no further than Gore Vidal’s coruscating essay “Theodore Roosevelt: The Great American Sissy” from 1981. The general points could be lifted and applied to Hemingway, it seems to me, in that he was both trying to present a mythologised version of himself (Teddy fabricated many of his kill statistics, Hem was a poor shot and prone to getting airlifted to hospital with life-threatening dysentery), and trying to fill some inner personal void.
It’s uncomfortable viewing to see Hem grinning over his dead animal trophies, the smoke still spiralling out of the barrel of his twelve-bore. Equally, the footage of bullfighting is hard on the contemporary eye and it’s a complex and ultimately futile journey to find what Hemingway found so engrossing in it. He wrote of the artistry and nobility of it and the fundamental connection to tragedy in Death in the Afternoon, and Ken Burns takes some time out to analyse the thinking here with a seriousness very few filmmakers would attempt. Did Hemingway have a noble connection to this brutal, cruel spectacle? To retrospectively accuse Hemingway of disingenuousness would be to ignore the fact critics called him out on it at the time. The greatest American critic of the age, Edmund Wilson, a writer who had played his part in establishing Hem as the king of the castle in the first place, saw this lyrical waxing as an empty venture on Hem’s part. Another critic pleaded for Hemingway to return to fiction.
Was Hemingway a great non-fiction writer? Like most great writers of fiction, he certainly had his moments, but contributors to Burns’ doc only reserve words like “masterpiece” and “genius” for his novels and short stories. A Moveable Feast, however, is quoted from extensively and we’re reminded of the winning honesty at the heart of Hemingway’s style. The debate is open, but the important thing is that critiquing the work is a vital focus of the film. His prose is beautifully visualised, the screen panning down manuscripts that are crisscrossed with edits in real time, breathing life into the famed iceberg theory drafting process that Hem employed to boil down his work to its essence.
When Saul Bellow claimed to have invented a new American sentence with The Adventures of Augie March in 1957, what he really meant was he was breaking away from the Hemingway shackles that had dominated American prose for three decades. It had taken that long for the elites of American letters to kick back, to look for some new pastures. That said, it could be argued that the novel never strayed too far, and the short story, through Cheever to Carver, embedded deeper into the harsh soil of Hemingwayland. The longer form may have become lusher, and some of those seeking the Holy Grail of the Great American Novel always remained tickled and teased by the grandiosity of the nineteenth century pastoral. Bellow prized the novel from Hemingway like Velcro, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that David Foster Wallace, without doubt a Bellovian rather than a Hemingwayite, erected a new shadowcaster for American literature. The writers over there (and all around the world) have still yet to recover from Infinite Jest.
And yet Hemingway endures in a way nobody else really does. The strengths of his prose are not things to fade away. Writers at Hemingway’s side, like Sherwood Anderson and John Dos Passos, were dazzling and brilliant and have influenced in their own right, but their visions were not so achingly personal and true as Hemingway’s. As Burns’ film says at the outset, Hemingway seemed to understand people. If this is a definitive filmic biography it may ultimately not get us closer to understanding who Hemingway was, but that’s because his role was to understand, not be understood. Maybe now we have this doc, we should stick to reading him, not about him.
Hemingway’s suicide hangs over the documentary just as it does his life and work. It’s where we already know his story ends. It’s the marker that defines his life as ultimately tragic in common parlance, and Ken Burns draws somewhat beautiful parallels between this cycle and Hem’s preoccupations in his writing. That he is obsessed with death is a given, as it would be for most writers who have suicide in their family, but here we are asked to consider the predestination of the fate of the bull in the bullfight – the bull must die – with Hemingway’s own understanding of where this will all end up for him. In the first few minutes, Peter Coyotes’ narration brings us straight to Hem’s own hand in his myth. The greatest writers are great because of their control. Hemingway ultimately, as madness threatened to consume him, controlled even his own demise, it seems.
Hemingway is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.