In 1949, Ernest Hemingway took journalist Lillian Ross on a whirlwind tour of New York. “You want to go to the Bronx Zoo, the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, natural history ditto, and see a fight,” Hemingway insisted. “I want to see the good Breughel at the Met.” In fact, they haven’t been to almost any of these places. They went to a bar to talk about hunting. They went to lunch with Marlene Dietrich – nicknamed “the Kraut” – to talk about the war. They walked into the lobby of the Hemingway Hotel. They went to another bar. At the suggestion of Mary, Hemingway’s fourth wife, they went to Abercrombie and Fitch to buy him a coat. Hemingway looked at himself in the mirror. “Hangs like a shroud,” he said bitterly.
Seventy years later, Ross’s irreverent profile remains one of the best plays written on Hemingway. It shows another side of the writer who is still so often shrouded in macho myth. Drink, shoot, fish, bullfight: we all know the legend of Hemingway. The shadow of his heritage is so voluminous, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to consider his work without addressing the personality behind it. Reactions to Hemingway man can be tediously defensive: He might have been a fucking son of a bitch, but damn it! Could he nail a sentence! So how to approach it in 2021?
There are compelling arguments for revising Hemingway’s image in the light of contemporary debates. Mental health, gender fluency, repressive masculinity, and suicidal ideation were central to her life story, and using a literary icon to recontextualize these issues can be a useful way to understand them from a different perspective. .
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new three-part documentary series Hemingway claims to “break the myth”. It airs tonight on BBC Four in the UK, but has already aired in the US, where it drew criticism before it even aired. Questions have been raised about the old-fashioned production of Burns at PBS and the traditional direction of our cultural orientation in general. Do we need another documentary on a violent dead white man? Really ?
The question of whether Hemingway is a valid subject is valid. Yet this massive (six-hour) documentary deciphers the more problematic aspects of Hemingway’s character, and overall Burns and Novick do so with sensitivity.
Born in 1899, Hemingway lived in Illinois before being posted to Europe during World War I (he drove ambulances for the Red Cross, never fighting). On the Western Front, he falls in love with a nurse, gets dumped and begins to write. He published The sun is also rising so what A farewell to arms at the age of 27, which catapulted him into the limelight. He had a series of turbulent relationships, lived in Cuba, Spain, France, Canada and Florida, struggled with alcoholism and depression, and committed suicide in 1961.
Hemingway remains iconic: mention his name to a young writer and watch the images sparkle in his eyes. A hook plunging on the surface of Cuban waters. Cigarette smoke rises from the typewriter. Hairy knuckles gripping a pencil as he wrote down his damn soul. But anyone coming to this documentary for a macho fantasy will be disappointed.
One of the most surprising aspects of Hemingway’s life was his relationship to the genre. When Hemingway was a child, his mother dressed him and his sister like identical twins. (Mary Dearborn, who features in the documentary, wrote a fantastic biography exploring this a few years ago.) Although as an adult his public figure was a tightly controlled male stereotype, he was eager to flex the boundaries. gender in private. He would ask his wife Mary to call him Katherine in the bedroom, and he would call her Pete. He and his first wife Hadley cut their hair to match, a habit he documented in A mobile party. His second wife Pauline often dyed her hair to please him. “It’s like having a new wife every day,” he writes with delight to a friend.
The sensuality of hair also appears in Hemingway’s fiction. In For whom the bell ringsRobert Jordan’s encounter with Maria culminates with him touching her hair: “He had wanted to do it all day, and now he did. At the time of the intensified sexual contact, it is not Maria’s body that interests Robert. Instead, he strokes her soft, short hair, earning him the androgynous nickname “bunny”.
Hemingway was obsessed with rejuvenation. He moved countries whenever he was bored and followed political conflicts like a moth. In his fiction too, he returns to the same type of character over and over again as if, as academic Marc Dudley says here, he is trying to overhaul his life. To some extent, all writers do. But Hemingway was extreme and destructive in his reinvention of himself. His brother F. Scott Fitzgerald once described him as “wanting a new woman for every book” – a new life for every book would also be right.
His life is worthy of a documentary. Hemingway was born 10 years after making the very first film, and he died the year Breakfast at Tiffany’s came out of. Unlike Fitzgerald, he didn’t write for the screen, but there is a rarity in his writing (especially in his dialogue) that evokes the precision of a script. Here, the 20th century scrolls like a picture book: we see the First World War, the Roaring Twenties, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the start of the Cold War. It’s well paced (especially the second episode) and subtly marked.
There’s another reason Hemingway’s life is suitable for the screen. “Young women are all keen on information,” Dorothy Parker wrote of the Hemingway author’s photo. Yes, he might have some nasty qualities, but in terms of looks, let’s be honest, the man was a slice. The piece of chin sticking out of his fisherman’s sweater. The towering height and humorous dark expression. It’s an underrated aspect of many twentieth-century writers – Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, and Ted Hughes included – that their beauty contributed significantly to their success. In this period more and more centered on the image, the hot men of letters were able to establish a mark. Hemingway rose to prominence exactly as technology and photography were becoming increasingly central to the book industry, and the two women who launched his career – Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach – were undeniably drawn to his physical charisma as well as by his writing. (Of course, women’s literary views are not often influenced by appearance. Beach posted Ulysses, and James Joyce was a 6/10).
If fame came easily to Hemingway, he was an albatross. This documentary does a good job of understanding how her suffocating self-image made her mental health issues worse. “His masculinity had to be very restrictive,” says poet Mary Karr. As he got older, he seems to have become more and more lost in his own narcissism. When he committed suicide by shooting himself with a Civil War pistol, Hemingway left three children, and one of the most touching aspects of the documentary are the interviews with Patrick Hemingway, now in his 80s. From Patrick’s anecdotes you get a vivid impression of what kind of father Ernest was – affectionate, violent, endearing, intimidating – as well as the impact of his suicide on his family. Another of her children, born Gregory but later Gloria, committed suicide halfway through gender reassignment surgery in 2001. There was an opportunity here to explore the impact of the distressing behavior of Hemingway to other people – his closest, yes, but also into the larger culture that he has both participated in and helped shape. Here, the documentary is lacking.
The worst aspects of Hemingway’s personality are treated far too timidly. There is little discussion of his racist attitudes, for example – Marc Dudley’s confession: “I don’t know if he can be redeemed” is about all it is – and Edna O’Brien is periodically brought to absolve him of misogyny. . (He writes about women who love sex? Ah, a true revolutionary.) It’s a shame, because there’s almost enough material here to build a new take on Ernest Hemingway. As it stands, the myth still hovers around him, uncomfortably, like an ill-fitting shroud.