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A Tragic Destiny

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A Tragic Destiny

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Hemingway penetrates a formidable myth to make room for something true. April 9, 2021
Arts and Culture

Myths, received ideas, and ancient controversies tend to obscure the work of a great writer, making it almost superfluous to the legend. This is especially true of Ernest Hemingway, whose myth has proved particularly seductive to those who make movies and commercial television. Hemingway’s work is understood almost entirely in biographical terms, as an extension of his personal virtues or, less charitably, as a product of his pathologies. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s mission, in their three-part, six-hour Hemingway, airing nationally on PBS affiliates, is to provide a more naturalistic portrait of Hemingway the man and thereby return us to the indelible work itself. They have succeeded marvelously.

Burns’s recent films, including The Vietnam War (2017) and Country Music (2019), have moved in sweeping arcs of national and cultural history. With Hemingway, Burns returns to the biographical mode of Huey Long (1985), Thomas Jefferson (1997), and Mark Twain (2001). These films are glimpses through opposite ends of the same telescope rather than fundamentally different styles. Country Music succeeded partly because it told the history of the music through deft individual portraits; Huey Long found its pathos in merging the great man with the mythos of Louisiana itself. Hemingway presents a driven, fractious, and isolated individual—a man often terribly lonely, even in a crowd—but moves that man securely through the currents of collective experience.

Crucially, Hemingway returns again and again to the words themselves. The first episode is so astute on Hemingway’s language and his influence on American prose style that later, when he begins to lose control of his aesthetic, we understand exactly what is happening and the weight of the loss. Hemingway was trying, with other modernist figures like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, to break down established ways of seeing. (Burns notes these influences but does not push them.) Reality itself seems to be at stake, both in the writing and the life, especially in the final hour of the series, when Hemingway descends into psychotic depression.

Hemingway divorced his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in 1927, thereafter marrying the wealthy Pauline Pfeiffer, who promised greater freedom. He knew that he was doing wrong, but he did it anyway, and the more rooted existence he might have had with Hadley and their young son became a kind of shadow life that haunted him thereafter. (Pfeiffer would become the villain of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir of this period.) Pfeiffer had won Hemingway away from Hadley in part by enabling him in his betrayal of his first publisher, Horace Liveright, with the cynical production of the novella The Torrents of Spring, a bitter satire of the work of their mutual friend, Sherwood Anderson.

Hadley told Ernest that the book was a disgrace, which he must have known was true; Pauline told him that it was marvelous, which was what he needed to hear. The Torrents of Spring got Hemingway out of his contract with Liveright, and he quickly moved to Scribner’s, which could support his career better. After that, Hemingway no longer spoke as much of wanting to be a good man as well as a great writer. Indeed, he would go on to betray almost everyone who ever helped him in his early years in Paris.

Hemingway gives us a man who was frequently dishonest, bullying, and abusive, even in his prime. He made devoted enemies, but many people loved him in spite of these flaws. He remains a sanctified figure in Spain, for instance, for risking his life to confront fascism in the Spanish Civil War, the subject of one of his best-loved novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls. (He did not always behave honorably even in Spain, as the film makes clear.) His physical charisma was extraordinary, apparent even in photos. He was a loving if inconstant presence in the life of his three sons. To feel the warmth of his approval must have been marvelous, however long it lasted. It often didn’t last long. He lived a life of creative destruction.

Burns’s film embeds a theory of suicide: that it is seeded early. This was certainly true in Hemingway’s case. His father, Clarence, died by his own hand at 57. Ernest was physically reckless his whole life, cultivating on battlefronts, in boxing rings, and with ruinous drinking the capacity he would need later in life to inflict violent self-injury. It would not be accurate to speak of Hemingway’s suicide as inevitable, because we do not understand suicide well enough, but the film makes it clear that Hemingway was running from his own death, beginning at least with his return from the Italian Front in 1918. He ran as hard as he could for 40 years. Given the intensity of his suffering, his suicide is forgivable, even blameless. For his fourth wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway, it must have been a deliverance as well as a tragedy.

Our understanding of Hemingway’s terrible decline benefits from our new sensitivity to traumatic brain injury, of which Hemingway had several, and which burdens the middle and later years of many retired athletes. Ironically, one of Hemingway’s fine early stories, “The Battler” (1925), centers around a retired boxing champion robbed of dignity, impulse control, and even the ability to care for himself by the beatings he took in the ring. I have defended boxing and football, but the later images of Hemingway—not just diminished but terrorized by his brain injury—will stay with me.

Hemingway’s elegant and moving six hours remind us of the privilege it has been to observe Ken Burns’s career in real time. (In this, I mean the entire Florentine Films enterprise as much as Burns individually.) It may be that no American documentarian will ever equal his cumulative achievement. The eternally youthful Burns is now, at 67, older than his latest subject ever lived to be, but he has several ambitious projects underway, including a promising series on Muhammad Ali that somehow seems the twin of Hemingway.

We should remember that what Ernest Hemingway did more than anything else was to read and to write. He was widely conversant in Continental literature, and, while he often spoke of the great Russian and French novelists with studied jocularity—“I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant”—he read them closely. It may be that, his own denigration of the merely bookish notwithstanding (“the boys from the quarterlies”), Hemingway’s cultivation of danger was in part an effort to find in life the intensity of thought and feeling he experienced at his writing desk. And in the end, what bothered him most as a once-crowded and eventful life dwindled away—what he finally could not abide—was losing the ability to write. He was indeed a brave man, at times even a hero, as when he lovingly cared for his son, Patrick, after the latter’s own psychotic break in 1946. But it is his writing that made his life a triumph, even as he did his best to give that life away.

Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

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