Filmmaker Lynn Novick, like a lot of us, first read Hemingway when she was in high school: "I was a little intimidated to pick up a book by Ernest Hemingway," she said, adding, "I just got sucked into it immediately. [I was] mesmerized by the writing and the characters and the world."
Four decades later, Novick has joined Ken Burns to make a new six-hour documentary about Hemingway for PBS. It follows their films on other not-so-small topics: the Vietnam War, baseball and jazz.
"He is the seminal writer in the 20th century for Americans," said Burns. "Those of you who know Hemingway, or think you know Hemingway, will get a new aspect to it. Those of you who don't, buckle your seatbelt!"
We all know the Hemingway image, the very definition of macho: war correspondent, deep-sea fisherman, bullfighting aficionado, big-game hunter.
Correspondent Mark Whitaker asked Novick, "Hemingway is so much the poster boy for toxic masculinity and misogyny and a little bit of racism kind of thrown in there, too."
"Yeah, well, you know, his public image is really a problem in a lot of ways, for this moment," she said. "I think a lot of us will look at a man who seems to be glorifying bullfighting and killing animals for sport, and being dominant in physical conquest, and having women be subservient to you. His public persona is challenging at best, and problematic."
He could be the life of the party, but also treacherous, to his friends and during his four marriages. His third wife was Martha Gelhorn. She was a war correspondent in her own right, who convinced Hemingway to join her in going to Europe to cover World War II.
Burns said, "He gets a ticket on a plane, but he said, 'Oh, no. They're not letting any women,' even though there were two British women on that plane. She had to take a Norwegian cargo ship and go across the North Atlantic, a very dangerous thing to do in the days leading up to D-Day. And, as she said, nothing beats it for sheer bitchery.
"That really, at times, characterizes Ernest Hemingway in all sorts of ways – he could be a real bitch!" Burns said.
The documentary examines Hemingway's relationships with women, in real life and in the pages of his writing.
"Here he is, this misogynist, macho guy – the kind of toxic masculine character who nonetheless, in stories like 'Up in Michigan' or 'Hills Like White Elephants,' is able to put himself into the mind and the experiences of a woman and do so in an incredibly surprising way," Burns said. "And at other points, he's, himself, interested in role reversals. He wants all of his four wives to cut their hair short, like boys. He wants to grow his long. He wants to change things up."
In life, and in novels like "The Garden of Eden" (which was published after he died), Hemingway seemed to have a fascination with androgyny and sexual role reversals.
From the documentary "Hemingway":
"Hemingway wanted his wife to be both completely obedient and sexually loose, she confided to her diary. She enjoyed the sexual part, cut her hair short and bleached it platinum because it excited him, and sometimes pretended that she was a boy and he was a girl."
Novick said, "Beneath this sort of masculine facade, he seems really drawn to a more complicated sexuality and sexual experience and intimate life than many of us would have thought."
Whitaker asked, "So ultimately, what are you trying to say? Like, does Papa Hemingway secretly want to be a Mama Hemingway?"
"I don't think we really know that. I mean, he and his fourth wife, Mary, go to Africa in the '50s. He writes something in her diary, and he says that, 'Mary is a prince of devils and anywhere you touch her can kill both her and me.' He's writing to her in her diary. And then he says, 'She wants me to be her girl, which I love to do. And she will be my boy. And we've solved all our problems and have never been happier.'"
"What does that mean?" Whitaker asked.
"I don't know! What do you think it means?"
"It definitely means that he wasn't just, you know, the macho man that everybody kind of thinks of him as being."
" I don't think we should imagine Hemingway in the missionary position all the time," Novick said.
Then there's the question of racism. He occasionally drops the "N-word," and his depictions of Native Americans, African-Americans and Jews have been criticized.
Was Hemingway ignorant? Or were his characters ignorant?
"His characters were ignorant," said Marc Dudley, an English professor at North Carolina State University who has written about Hemingway.
"But he himself knew what he was writing about and was trying to convey a message that might not have been immediately obvious?" asked Whitaker.
"Always," Dudley said. "Nobody's perfect. I'm certainly not going to stand out front and center and try to be a Hemingway apologist for some of those things that he does in his writing. I would say, push pause before we want to indict this artist."
The headlines are filled these days with stories of so-called "cancel culture," as history is reappraised.
Whitaker asked, "We live in an era where a lot of powerful figures of the past – most of them White men – some statues are being taken down, their names are being taken off of buildings. Writers are being taken out of curriculums. Why hasn't Hemingway been canceled? And why shouldn't he be canceled?"
"That is the best question," said Dudley. "I've thought the very same thing over the last couple years. When is Hemingway and this discussion of his so-called cancellation going to be on the table? But I say that he has lasting power or staying power for a reason. And it's not simply because of the color of his skin; it's because he's a master craftsman. He is around because he means something as an artist."
Hemingway led a vibrant life of worldwide fame and soaring literary success. But he was also haunted – by alcoholism, a family history of mental illness, and, as the new documentary lays out, a series of concussions suffered during war, accidents and plane crashes. It was a complicated life, and Ernest Hemingway died, by suicide, at the age of 61.
Whitaker asked, Novick, "After spending all of this time with him, did you like him more? Did you like him less?"
"I feel like I got to know him as a person, and I didn't expect that – he's so larger than life – and had his own really deep struggles," she replied. "I mean, he really suffered a lot emotionally in ways that I would never have understood. I also find parts of him and parts of his behavior just awful, truly awful. I would never have wanted to be married to him!"
- ("Sunday Morning")
For more info:
- "Hemingway," a new series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (PBS)
- Marc Dudley, professor, North Carolina State University
- "Hemingway, Race, and Art: Bloodlines and the Color Line" by Marc Kevin Dudley (Kent University Press), in Hardcover and eBook formats, available via Amazon and Indiebound
- The Hemingway Society
Story produced by Alan Golds. Editor: Ed Givnish.