Damage Control

Hemingway, a film in three episodes by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Ken Burns is demonstrably the most productive and arguably the finest documentary filmmaker in America. Along with various collaborators, he has made brilliant, multi-series documentaries on a range of complex subjects, including The Civil War (1990, nine episodes); Baseball (1994, nine episodes); Jazz (2001, 10 episodes); The War (2007, seven episodes); National Parks (2009, six episodes); The Vietnam War (2017, 10 episodes); and Country Music (2019, eight episodes).

Now he has made a six-hour-long, three-episode film about the life and art of Ernest Hemingway, the prose writer who dominated American letters from the mid-1920s when he published his first collection of short stories, In Our Time, and his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, to 1961, the year he committed suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. He had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for The Old Man and the Sea and had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954 for “his mastery of the art of narrative and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.” He had changed the way the short story, the novel and non-fiction prose could be written.

Hemingway’s life was a dazzle and a disaster, replete with fame and glamour, three wars and three houses, a 38-foot custom-made fishing boat, bullfighting, big-game hunting, life-threatening accidents, several traumatic and permanent brain injuries, a string quartet of wives and three sons—everything fuelled, as the film tells us, by alcohol.

Burns fashions a compelling story of the dangers that surface when art and life become indistinguishable. What the film demonstrates is that at every step of the way, Hemingway’s art was a mirror he held up to reflect his life. That overlapping provided him with material for his best writing, short stories like “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “Hills Like White Elephants”; the novels A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls; and A Moveable Feast, his memoir of Paris in the twenties. It also produced his failures: To Have and Have Not; Islands in the Stream, which was published posthumously; and, most damagingly, Across the River and into the Trees, a novel so self-indulgently awful that its publication in 1950 provoked some critics to argue that it threw into questionable relief his previous accomplishments. Martha Gellhorn, the only one of Hemingway’s wives to leave him rather than being left, said the novel had about it “the sound of madness and the terrible smell as of decay.” Characteristically, in telling the story Burns does not shy away from the unpleasant sides of Hemingway’s behaviour and personality; it would be almost impossible to avoid them. He could be generous; he invites young Staff Sergeant JD Salinger for a drink in his hotel suite in Paris in 1944 and subsequently writes a letter admiring one of his stories. But his response to a request for a jacket blurb about From Here to Eternity, the debut war novel written by James Jones, was to say he hated the book and considered Jones a coward. Instead of simply telling Charles Scribner that he had nothing to say, he wrote a vituperative letter: “I don’t have to swim through a river of snot to know it is snot. I hope he kills himself as soon as it does not damage his, or your, sales.” The letter is inexplicably enraged and inchoate. “Hem,” as he liked to call himself, seemed to take pleasure in being both Jekyll and Hyde.

The trap of contradiction is easy to fall into with a personality like Hemingway and it is the frame within which Burns begins and ends his film. The frame maker in both cases is Michael Katakis, one of the collection of writers Burns includes to provide meaning and context for Hemingway’s life and art. Katakis’s opening assessment is essentially the same as his closing summary: “He happened to be an American writer, but his palette was incredibly wide and delicious and violent and brutal and ugly—all of those things. With all of his flaws … he seemed to understand human beings.” This is where Episode 1 starts; at the end of the final episode, he tells us Hemingway’s writing represents “all that we are; the dark, the light, the passionate, the petty, the ugly, the beautiful, the kind, the cruel. He was just writing about human behaviour and human beings.” From this combined perspective, the series could have been called “The Good, the Bad and the Redundant.”

When first identified, Katakis is called a writer, and he is that, as well as a photographer and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. What the caption doesn’t mention is that for 19 years he managed, along with Patrick Hemingway, the Hemingway Literary Estate. His observations are broad, enthusiastic and neatly packaged, but they are not as nuanced as comments made by Tobias Wolff, Mario Vargas Llosa, Amanda Vaill, Susan Beegel, Verna Kale and Abraham Verghese, novelists, critics, biographers and medical experts who have penetrating things to say about Hemingway’s stories and storied life. Katakis is just too conventionally tidy.

What is most interesting about Hemingway is that after watching all three episodes, you could understandably decide you like the writer less, but you will come to admire the writing more. (Burns divides the episodes into time periods: Episode 1, “A Writer, 1899–1929”; Episode 2 is “The Avatar, 1929–1944”; Episode 3, “The Blank Page, 1944–1961.”) The selections from Hemingway’s fiction and non-fiction are impeccably chosen and blend seamlessly with Geoffrey C Ward’s elegantly minimal script. Ward seems to have taken the advice of David Bourne, the writer in The Garden of Eden who tells himself: “Know how complicated it is and then state it simply.” Hemingway isn’t just the subject of the film; he is also the filmmaker’s literary standard-bearer. In praising the short stories, Edna O’Brien, one of the writers Burns turns to repeatedly, calls them “immortal, absolute miracles of being there.” She is emphasizing Hemingway’s own idea about what makes good writing: when you read it, it has to be so alive that you actually experience the thing. The best of Hemingway brings you fully into the lived experience, and in passage after passage the immediacy and clarity of the writing are undeniable.

The opening sequence of Episode 1 puts in play his effective employment of meta-pictures, so we see Hemingway’s pencilled script writing out the first sentences of A Farewell to Arms, one of the most perfectly cadenced opening paragraphs in the English language. Burns will do the same thing with shots of typewriters, pens and notebook pages, the simple tools of the writer’s craft. Or he will show the sheets and pillows of an unmade bed in the Finca Vigía in Cuba, where Mary and Ernest lived and fought, and through those unoccupied, crumpled bedclothes will intimate a writer’s danger and desire.

Burns is also unequalled in his ability to use camera movement as a way of transforming still pictures into moving pictures, as well as in his use of archival footage. There is a section in Episode 3 where Hemingway is covering the US Army’s offensive in the Hürtgen Forest near Aachen. One of the fiercest and deadliest battles of the war, it was fought for control of 70 square miles of evergreen woods. (The 22nd Infantry Regiment lost 2,733 soldiers over two months.) At one point during the advance, Hemingway went from being a war correspondent to becoming a combatant. The voice-over for this sequence is one of the despatches he wrote for Collier’s, describing shell bursts above the closely planted fir trees, which sent splinters, “like javelins in the half light of the forest,” onto the troops below. What we see is exactly what Ernest is writing: a pair of fir trees broken and toppled by a mortar shell in the dense and deadly forest. He writes of a charred German soldier being eaten by a dog, and we see the blackened body. The correspondence between word and image is uncanny and unsettling. In his art form, Burns has an ability to create a sense of being there that is as acute as Hemingway’s ability in his.

Burns gets the right details of sound, music and language in his documentary making, but his larger creative talent is a flawless narrative judgment. You see evidence of his control of the story in his weaving of the idea of suicide through all three of the episodes. It is an inescapable presence. As one critic points out, of the eight members of the Oak Park household where Ernest was raised, four died at their own hand. The subject turns up as an inventory of methods in To Have and Have Not, his proletarian novel published in 1937; among the choices are leaping from buildings, in garages with the motor running, or firearms, “those admirable American instruments so easily carried, so sure of effect, so well-designed to end the American Dream when it becomes a nightmare.” In Cuba he would invite friends over for dinner and rehearse his suicide. “I have nothing in my head,” he told an old friend, “I’m fed up with living. I can’t write.”

Episode 1 ends with Hemingway meditating on his father’s death. Clarence shot himself in the late fall of 1928 and it caused Ernest to consider what he thought about the act. “I am prejudiced against suicide,” he wrote. “The real reason for not committing suicide is because you always know how swell life gets again after the hell is over, so you have to resolve in advance to last out the time when you don’t believe that.” His rumination goes back to “Indian Camp,” a short story written in 1923. Nick Adams accompanies his father on a late-night emergency, who performs a C-section on a woman, without any anaesthetic. Her husband, who can’t stand the sound of her screaming, slits his throat with a razor in the bunk above. On the way back Nick asks his father if dying is hard and his father says, “No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.” The answer leads the boy to an innocent reverie: “In the early morning on the lake in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure he would never die.”

There is no small irony in the fact that the consolation the father provides the son in the story was not transferable to the grown-up man in his life: “My father was a coward, he shot himself without necessity. I knew what it was like to be a coward and what it was to cease being a coward. I loved my father until he embarrassed me with his cowardice.” Hemingway blamed his mother, whom he detested: “My mother is an all-time, all-American bitch and she would make a pack mule shoot himself, let alone poor, bloody father.” As Hemingway became more depressed and paranoid near the end of his own life, there was no reason for blame and no embarrassment. In Ketchum on the morning of July 2, 1961, he realized the swell life would never return and the hell would never leave. His death was reported by Edwin Newman on the NBC Evening News as “a hunting accident.”

The measure of a life lived is how far you can take it; or how far it takes you. It is an idea that floated around Hemingway’s consciousness throughout his life. He makes it something that Santiago, the old fisherman, admits when he apologizes to the caught and shark-destroyed marlin lashed to the side of his skiff. “Half fish. Fish that you were,” he says. “I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both.” Hemingway raises the idea of risk himself in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out, far past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.”

But when he was sound his desire was to push the boundaries of what fiction could do and how it could do it. The “how” was a question of style, and Episode 1 provides a piece of useful information through the style sheet of the Kansas City Star, the newspaper where 17-year-old Ernest went to work because he was too young to enlist in the First World War: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use rigorous English. Avoid the use of adjectives.” The style sheet promoted crisp, clear and immediate reporting, and Hemingway spent his entire career refining how that pragmatic aesthetic could be put to use. The “what” of his writing was equally demanding and difficult to realize.

I am critical of the film’s sticking so closely to a binary reading because Hemingway’s resistance to its confining frame is much more interesting than his operations inside it. Nowhere is that compulsion clearer than in his continuous exploration of a malleable sexuality. Burns’s documentary provides ample evidence that Hemingway was prepared to ride that wave further out than was permitted by the standards of the time. He ran risks in his fiction from his earliest writing. Gertrude Stein said that “Up in Michigan,” a startling short story about a rape, was too obscene to be published; Boni & Liveright agreed and refused to include it in his first story collection in 1925. When A Farewell to Arms was published in 1929, it was banned in Boston because some passages were considered salacious.

In 1946 Ernest began writing a novel to which he would return, off and on, for 15 years; it remained incomplete at the time of his death. It was the story in which he would explore more frequently, and in more detail, the sexual role shifting and androgyny that were a lifelong fascination. It is one of the below-the-surface narratives that Burns introduces in the first program and then picks up again as the story continues. As children, their mother dressed Marcelline, his older sister, and Ernest alike, pretending they were twins. She cut their hair the same way and she would alternate dressing them both as boys one day and girls the next. An interest in that reversal stayed with the writer, whose public persona was a hyper-masculine brawler and adventurer. But his books and his life tell a completely different story.

In The Garden of Eden, Catherine Bourne plays at being a boy and a girl; she and David, her husband and a writer, tan darkly and get very short, matching platinum haircuts. They look like androgynous twins. She tells him one morning, “We don’t always have to do the Devil things,” and he nicknames her “Devil.” When Marita enters the story, the Bournes set up a provisional ménage à trois; she becomes separate lovers to both husband and wife. Her encounters with David involve some role switching, “her head moving from side to side and her breathing” and “the feel of his belt against his belly and in his hands.” It’s never actually clear what is going on in the novel, but The Garden of Eden was his most elaborate journey into mysterious, unexplained sex practices. It was not Hemingway’s first flirtation with the idea of gender shifting and androgyny, which he fetishized through hair length. Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, 1926, was “built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht,” but she wears her hair “brushed back like a boy’s—she started all that”; the doomed lovers in A Farewell to Arms, 1932, have matching haircuts; in the deathbed argument between Harry and his wife in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” she defends herself saying, “You liked to do many things and everything you wanted to do I did,” and he responds by telling her not to brag.

But art and life were interchangeable in Hemingway’s sexual world as well. In A Moveable Feast he wrote that in Paris he and Hadley, his first wife, matched their hair length and “lived as savages and had our own secret taboos and delights.” His second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, dyed her hair blonde when they were living in Key West. But it was with Mary Welsh, his fourth and last wife, that the gender-switching games occurred most often and most satisfactorily. She cut her hair short and bleached it white because it excited Ernest and he also dyed his. Hemingway called Mary “the Prince of Devils,” a real-life variation on the play name of the fictional Catherine in The Garden of Eden; “Mary has always wanted to be a boy and at night we do every sort of thing which pleases her and which pleases me. Her embrace came to me as something quite new and outside of all tribal law.” On the night of December 19, Ernest wrote, “We worked out these things and I have never been happier.” Mary’s enthusiasm was reciprocal: she called the sex the best she had ever had.

The biographer Mary Dearborn says in Episode 3 that “they switched roles because Hemingway wanted to be a woman who loved another woman. Now it’s all on a spectrum but then it was unheard of.” Michael Katakis regards Hemingway’s sexual experimentation as radical: “He was doing things that people would find shocking and he is not hiding himself very much in it. I think this is really quite something for a man who has been trying to maintain a certain public persona for the majority of his life. Maybe he wasn’t trying to maintain it. Here we go with the enigma again.” He may not have been hiding it, but he regarded the novel as too sexually adventurous to be published during his lifetime. He and Mary did indeed work it out: what couldn’t be published found a way to be practised.

The ending that Burns chooses for his series is a mixture of respect and sadness. What we see is a photograph of Hemingway on his last African safari in 1953. He is walking in the scabrous landscape, alone, overweight, his handsome features blurred, and carrying a rifle. The film begins a slow, 60-second pan up from the photograph and covers the ascent with a reading from the end of Hemingway’s superb short story about a writer who has squandered his talent and is dying from gangrene. In his painfilled delusion he imagines he is escaping with the pilot, who is his friend. They move into a storm; as they climb the rain is so thick, “it seemed like flying through a waterfall,” and then they are out and what he sees, “as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.”

This description picks up and transforms Hemingway’s famous pronouncement about fiction being like an iceberg because its meaning is mostly below the surface. The ending speaks to a simple transcendence; in its scale and beauty and danger, the mountain is the iceberg doubled and revealed. Burns and Novick have shown us so much of Hemingway’s life in this remarkable documentary series that the highest mountain isn’t just where Harry, the fictional character, was headed in the written story. It is the place where Hemingway, the fiction writer, arrived at the end of his writing life. ❚