It helps to know that Ernest Hemingway was afraid of the dark. After having been badly wounded in the First World War, he had to keep the light on all night, every night at home, and his sister would sometimes have to sit up with him just to keep him calm. It had been a night battle when he was shot, and he said he felt his soul depart from his body and then mysteriously return. Afterward, he felt sure that if he found himself in total darkness again, his soul would leave his body permanently.
Young Hemingway, as presented in the first episode of the three-part PBS series Hemingway, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is actually an interesting figure — a big, ungainly guy most comfortable out in nature, struggling in an odd, troubled family prone to mental illness and suicide. He first tries to find his way as a reporter, then as a writer. It covers the time before he developed the outsized persona he’s best known for, the hard-drinking, two-fisted, he-man writer forever attending bullfights and shooting off his mouth about the weaknesses of rival writers and getting photographed grinning over large, beautiful animals he’d shot. That persona, which made him rich and famous, as well as oppressively egotistical, is explored in the second episode. The third episode covers how the same persona helped exacerbate his alcoholism and mental illness, which eventually led him to suicide.
The series approaches Hemingway with the tone of solemn, even lugubrious reverence that Ken Burns is known for, as if everyone still agreed wholeheartedly that Hemingway was the greatest American writer of the twentieth century, which as far as I know is by no means the case.
By the time I became conscious of debates about the American literary canon, Hemingway’s reputation was already badly damaged:
In the ’80s, writes Mary Dearborn in her richly detailed biography, “Hemingway and his place in the Western literary tradition came under full-on attack, as readers, scholars, urgently questioned what ‘dead white males’ like Hemingway have to say to us in a multicultural era that no longer accords them automatic priority. The so-called Hemingway code — a tough, stoic approach to life that seemingly substitutes physical courage . . . for other forms of accomplishments — increasingly looked insular and tiresomely macho.”
But you can keep going back to even earlier times to find the rot setting in on Hemingway’s once sky-high status as an important writer. The documentary establishes the surprising fact that Hemingway was already wearing out his welcome with various critics by the 1940s. Perhaps it was an inevitable reaction to all that hero worship in the 1920s and ’30s, when he was the most widely admired and slavishly emulated writer in America.
As early as 1974, Orson Welles describes Hemingway’s literary reputation as being “in total eclipse.” It’s a funny interview, with Welles discussing their rather cantankerous friendship that started with an incompetent fistfight during a screening of The Spanish Earth, a documentary directed by Dutch communist Joris Ivens. The film was financed by a group of leftists in support of the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. The narration was read by Welles and written by Hemingway and his pal John Dos Passos, who ceased being his pal after arguments about the film’s politics. Welles criticized some of the narration, which angered Hemingway. Welles then mocked the writer for being “so big and strong,” setting off a torrent of flying fists, most of them missing their mark.
Welles also notes that, much as he admired Hemingway’s artistry, something valuable about him as a person was sorely lacking from his most famous publications:
The thing you never get from his books is his humor. There’s hardly a word of humor in a Hemingway book, because he’s so tense and solemn and dedicated to what is true and good and all that. But when he relaxed, he was riotously funny, and that was the level that I loved about him.
I think that’s the key to why his most famous novels — The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls — can be such a drag to read. Back in my misspent youth, when I read everything recommended to me by high-literary types, I didn’t care for them. They seemed stiff and strenuous, writerly in a bad way. In fact, the heaviness of Hemingway’s approach is movingly explained in the Burns documentary, which shows how the author would allay his daily anxiety about writing by telling himself, “Just write one true sentence.”
I’ve got much more compassion for the writer’s plight now, and could probably read his novels with greater empathy. But then I hated such tics as his frequent refusal to use contractions, which seemed absurdly affected, alternating statements such as “Nick didn’t look at it” and “Nick did not watch.” Eschewing contractions is clearly meant to add solemnity and emotional heft, in this case to the agonizing birth of a baby in the short story “Indian Camp,” cited often in the Burns-Novick documentary.
Like Charles Dickens, who had a tendency to lapse into the use of “thee” and “thou” in moments of big spiritual significance, Hemingway tried out the same move in For Whom the Bell Tolls, writing the notorious post-coital clunker “And did thou feel the earth move?”
It’s a shame that to get to the interesting stuff about Hemingway — his raw youth, some of his excellent short stories, and his leftist politics — you have to wade through the worst of his writing and then all the guff surrounding his outsized persona. We hear how Hemingway used to go around bragging endlessly about dangerous fighters he’d outboxed and medals he’d won for valor in combat — all lies, as the documentary points out — when according to any reasonable standard of courage, he’d more than already proved himself early in life.
The explanation for this behavior is so obvious it hardly needs a three-part series to cover it. It’s pretty clear now that Hemingway was a bowl of mush inside, scared to death just like us regular people, and was just putting up a big-man front to prevent anyone from noticing.
His once beloved father’s mental breakdowns, which eventually led to suicide, shook Hemingway so badly he turned on him in a vicious manner, condemning him for his “weakness.” He hated and feared his controlling mother, supporting her financially but refusing to see her for many years before her death. He was so broken up about the “Dear John” rejection letter he received from his first fiancée, a WWI army nurse, that he never got over it. He spent the rest of his life desperately trying to control women, pushing each wife into the role of doting housekeeper-nursemaid-concubine, then getting bored and leaving her for another, more adventurous woman.
He met his match in Wife No. 3, Martha Gellhorn (voiced by Meryl Streep), a fellow journalist who was also covering the Spanish Civil War. She left him to cover World War II as well, which Hemingway tried to sit out because he was desperately afraid to go — he felt, not unreasonably, that now in his 40s, he’d pushed his luck far enough in surviving two wars already. But he followed her straight into battle, and was ashamed when she got far better coverage of D-Day than he did — she fearlessly stowed away on a combat vessel heading to Omaha Beach, while Hemingway waited at a safe distance with the other journalists. Probably compensating for getting shown up, he crossed the line from reporter to civilian-soldier and actually fought in the terrible battle of Hurtgen Forest with the 22nd Infantry Regiment.
It was with Mary Welsh, Wife No. 4 (voiced by Mary-Louise Parker), that he finally achieved a sexual breakthrough, able to admit at last, in his old age, that his preference was for androgynous-looking women and erotic gender role-play, with him playing the role of Catherine and her the role of Peter. He still didn’t treat her much better outside of the bedroom, though, and it’s amazing what most of Hemingway’s wives were willing to put up with. But he tried to write about finding greater sexual freedom in his unfinished last novel, The Garden of Eden.
For many, that book was the first sign that maybe something else was going on underneath all the bluster. For me, it was studying film noir, the roots of which lie with two major American writers: the brilliant master of pulp Dashiell Hammett and the faintly surprising figure of Ernest Hemingway. Both came to prominence in the 1920s writing observational fiction that resembled reportage, combining flatness and vividness to startling effect. This approach made sense coming from Hemingway, a former reporter. Hammett, however, had worked as a Pinkerton detective until he was so disgusted by their strikebreaking services (often involving murder) that he quit. Like Hemingway, he eventually embraced hard left politics, leading to trouble with the American government later on.
Both writers preferred exteriority to interiority. They refused to describe their character’s psychologies, which in their works had to be gleaned from often terse dialogue and the descriptions of physical attributes and actions, the way objects like cigarettes, tools, or glasses were handled.
At least one implication of this writing style was pretty clear — the world only seemed obvious in its showy presentation, but was fantastically difficult to read. People were hard to understand, couldn’t even understand themselves most of the time. In The Maltese Falcon, Hammett’s private detective, Sam Spade, offers what might be a clue to his slippery nature, to the woman he may or may not love, in a story famously known as the Flitcraft parable. It’s about an insurance salesman named Flitcraft who’s walking down a city street and nearly gets killed by a falling construction beam, and in reaction makes a series of dramatic life-altering shifts — deserts his family, changes his name, and moves to a different city. There, after a few years, he gets the same kind of job, marries a similar woman to the one he’d been with before, has the same number of children.
“He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling,” explains Spade. Reams of literary analysis has been generated trying to fathom how the Flitcraft parable represents Spade’s philosophy of life.
Hemingway’s haunting short story “The Killers,” which upset Ken Burns so much he claims it inspired his initial interest in the writer, also inspired a great 1946 film noir adaptation advertised as “Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers,” though Hemingway hated it. Two gangster goons show up at a small-town diner, terrorizing the unfortunate employees and patrons for information about the Swedish ex-prizefighter Ole Anderson, who usually eats there. Hemingway’s alter ego Nick Adams manages to warn the Swede that hit men are after him, but he refuses to run and lies passively awaiting his own murder.
But long before we encounter the mystery of the Swede’s indifference to violent death, Hemingway has established a pervasive state of unease about even the simplest facts — what time it is, what people’s names are, what’s on the menu at the diner versus what can actually be eaten at the diner — exacerbated by the threats of the goons, who speak in rhythmic patter, constantly deploying the insult “bright boy” like some demented comedy routine.
The anxiety about being caught inside some dangerously incomprehensible system characterizes some of the best of Hemingway’s early short story work, including the sense of male helplessness at the center of it. It’s a shame there’s so little emphasis on this pulp-fiction crossover and film noir–like point of view in the documentary.
The Burns-Novick documentary also predictably sheds too little light on Hemingway’s left-wing politics. Their documentary stresses the way Hemingway is falling apart at the end of his life, presumably from a combination of inherited factors — nine concussions over the course of his lifetime and worsening alcoholism. While Hemingway was convinced during this time that he was being watched by the government, Burns and Novick dismiss it all as simple paranoia.
But, as it turns out, he was being watched by government agents, and there was a fat FBI file on him dating back decades. As David Masciotra of Salon argues,
Burns did interview the late A. E. Hotchner, a journalist and longtime friend of Hemingway who wrote three books on the author, but never acknowledges that Hotchner expressed remorse over not taking Hemingway’s claims of FBI surveillance seriously. The exposure of the FBI file led Hotchner to write that he “regretfully misjudged” his friend’s fears, and that the FBI’s persecution of Hemingway contributed to “his anguish and suicide.”
The surveillance of Hemingway began, unsurprisingly, back in the 1930s:
Hemingway first drew the attention of the FBI decades earlier, because of his support for the Republican (i.e., socialist) government in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. . . . [J. Edgar] Hoover denounced Hemingway as a “premature anti-fascist” — a bizarre but accurate label of the author’s lifelong political commitment to the destruction of fascist forces.
Imagine how much FBI surveillance must’ve increased late in Hemingway’s life, with his outspoken support for Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, support that is only briefly mentioned in the Burns-Novick documentary. However, they don’t mention Hemingway’s financial support and activist work on behalf of the revolution, which must’ve done a lot to build up the hundred-plus page FBI file at the time of his death in 1961:
[It] included longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s order to monitor Hemingway, details of plans to tap his phones and even information on how Hemingway’s doctor at the Mayo Clinic was reporting on the author’s condition to the FBI field office in Minnesota. There are also memos from agents offering proposals for how the bureau could destroy the beloved writer’s public reputation.
In an appalling act of journalistic malpractice, the Burns and Novick series never even mentions the FBI file.
It seems that Hemingway’s support for Castro didn’t waver, even after the Bay of Pigs disaster and the US travel ban on Cuba cut the author off forever from returning to his beloved Cuban house where he’d lived for twenty years. Burns and Novick toured the house in preparation for the film, and found “bottles of alcohol half drunk, his records strewn around the record player, and little notations of weight noted in pencil on the wall by his scale in the bathroom.”
Yet the documentary’s emphasis is on the bits of evidence that counter Hemingway’s leftist politics, such as his libertarian-sounding declaration at one point:
I cannot be a communist now because I believe in only one thing: liberty. The state, I care nothing for. All the state has ever meant to me is unjust taxation. I believe in the absolute minimum of government.
It’s not that the documentary is uninformative — Burns and Novick seem to have access to every pertinent location, letter, photo, film clip, and interviewee related to their subject. But the overall tone and approach tends to remain no matter what the subject, whether it’s the Civil War, jazz, baseball, the Dust Bowl, or Ernest Hemingway. As always, there’s Peter Coyote’s warm narration, elegiac music, and a fairly simple narrative arc. What it adds up to, though, is a tendency toward depoliticization, but by now Burns is renowned for his ability to sand off the spikier, more interesting parts of his subjects.
Hemingway, despite what you might think of all his bluster, deserves better. And so do we.