Ernest Hemingway: Few writers have had a greater impact on American letters. Trained as a journalist, Hemingway developed and popularized terse prose, the theory of omission, and an obsession with capturing that which is true. And it didn’t matter the subject he wrote about or the form he used. Take this exchange from “The Killers:”

“Got anything to drink?” Al asked.
“Silver beer, beyo, ginger-ale,” George said.
“I mean you got anything to drink?”
“Just those I said.”
“This is a hot town,” said the other. “What do they call it?”
“Ever heard of it?” Al asked his friend.
“No,” said the friend.
“What do you do here nights?” Al asked.
“They eat the dinner,” the friend said. “They all come here and eat the big dinner.”

Words spit out like machine gunfire. Then there’s this passage from Green Hills of Africa:

Now, looking out the tunnel of trees over the ravine at the sky with white clouds moving across in the wind, I loved the country so that I was happy as you are after you have been with a woman that you really love, when, empty, you feel it welling up again and there it is and you can never have it all and yet what there is, now, you can have, and you want more and more, to have, and be, and live in, to possess now again for always, for that long, sudden-ended always; making time stand still, sometimes so very still that afterwards you wait to hear it move, and is slow in starting.

In the first extract, written in 1927, Hemingway pours hard-boiled dialogue from the mouths of two hitmen and lets the words cinch around poor George’s neck. In the second, written in 1934/35, Hemingway falls so in love with Africa that he cannot bring himself to end the thought. He’s there hunting big game, which isn’t something I’m keen on, even if I do like the book. And there’s a good deal of casual racism in “The Killers,” which I’m also not keen on, even if I do like the story.

1935 Ernest Hemingway stands with sons on the docks at Bimini, Bahamas. (L-R) Patrick Hemingway, John “Bumby” Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway, and Gregory Hemingway. Photographer unknown. Papers of Ernest Hemingway. Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Therein lies the paradox of Hemingway: The man was a bully, a braggart, a drunk, and a beautiful writer. Many considered him to be the influential American writer of the 20th century, and practically every student in public school reads (or pretends to read) at least one of his books for English class. Biographies about the man are numerous, as are acolytes.

That’s changed some in recent years, and Hemingway types are no longer rewarded, or excused, simply because the quality of their art surpasses the depravity of their deeds. So, there is a desire to separate the art from the artist—to dismiss anything unsavory and retain everything else. But can you extricate the artist when they are their art?

In short: No. As documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick show in their latest documentary, Hemingway, to appreciate one is to confront the other. Broadcasting in three installments on PBS, April 5-7Hemingway is a cradle to grave look at the author with a bevy of interviews championing, challenging, and contextualizing Hemingway’s work and life. The Irish novelist Edna O’Brien has an unapologetic appreciation for the man, even going so far as to say Hemingway could slip inside the skin of a woman and give voice to her deepest emotions (I have a cousin who begs to differ).

Though O’Brien is not alone—another interviewee explains Hemingway’s curious predilections toward women like a man who views himself as a lesbian. There’s a good deal of gender fluidity in Hemingway’s upbringing, his heroes and heroines, and in his four marriages.

There are plenty of contradictions in these interviews, particularly when discussing the quality of each book. For some, For Whom The Bell Tolls is his greatest work. Senator John McCain modeled himself after protagonist Robert Jordan. Others claim it’s his worst. How about The Old Man and the Sea, for which Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature? Many adore it. O’Brien calls it childish. The extracts Burns and Novick pull from the book and present in voiceover by Jeff Daniels support both.

Daniels’ voiceover is among the stronger aspects of Hemingway. His measured and somewhat flat readings allow the words to sing for themselves and the ideas contained within:

To really love two women at the same time, truly love them, is the most destructive and terrible thing that can happen to a man. You do things that are impossible. When you are with one, you love her. And with the other, you love her. And together, you love them both. You break all promises and you do everything you knew that you could never do, nor would want to do. You lie and hate it and it destroys you. And every day is more dangerous. Everything is split inside of you and you love two people now instead of one. And the strange part is that you are happy.

Those lines come from the reconstructed text of A Moveable Feast—written and somewhat edited by Hemingway but not published until after his death. Burns and Novick present them as audio over archival images. In other parts of the documentary, the words appear on the screen as Daniels reads them. And in other parts, writings from Hemingway’s four wives: Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfieffer, Martha Gellhorn, and Mary Walsh, are recited by Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker, and Patricia Clarkson, with Peter Coyote providing the voice of the unifying narrator.

Ernest Hemingway at his home Cuba, late 1940s (Courtesy of Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

It all works. Burns and Novick keep Hemingway front and center in defiance of those who would separate him from his work in hopes of finding something neat and tidy. There’s nothing tidy about Hemingway—especially the end. It was a long, slow slide of depression, schizophrenia, and paranoia—exacerbated by a lifetime of heavy drinking and multiple concussions. Here, Burns and Novick hold their gaze. In these sections, the interviews with son Patrick Hemingway hit the hardest, as Hemingway turned on him and his other children. Hemingway also turned on Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast. Why is a mystery, but since both Stein and Fitzgerald were long gone by the time A Moveable Feast found readers’ hands, Hemingway got the (unearned and unnecessary) final word.

But it’s far from the final word on the legacy of Ernest Hemingway. Not that Hemingway needs any help solidifying his place in the literary canon—if anything, the canon could use an earthquake or two to shake things up. But Burns and Novick’s documentary does manage to confront a complex figure at a time when reexamination is the first step toward elimination. Art is often messy and complicated, made by messy and complicated people. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Hemingway (2021)
Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
Written by Geoffrey C. Ward
Produced by Sarah Botstein, Ken Burns, Lynn Novick
Featuring the voices of Patricia Clarkson, Peter Coyote, Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Keri Russell, Meryl Streep
PBS, Not rated, Running time 360 minutes, Broadcasting April 5-7, 2021.
Header photo: Ernest Hemingway at his home in Cuba, circa 1950s, credit A.E. Hotchner.