I chose to watch all three episodes, equaling about six hours, of Ken Burns latest documentary, Hemingway. First impression: I watched all three episodes. I must have found something compelling in it, right? I wanted to understand why he was considered so great, especially since I’m not a huge fan. I’ve read some of his short stories and two novels when I was quite young, too young and naïve and limited to really understand literature (something I’ll write about at another time).
We all know the Ken Burns style. It hasn’t changed, although of course with Hemingway the narration and photos can be interspersed with moving pictures—of the streets of Paris, of war time newsreels, of home movies of the Hemingways, or he himself talking, quite stiltedly, on camera, about winning the Nobel Prize.
I do not recommend things, though. It’s too big a burden. If you know little about Hemingway and want to spend six hours learning about him, this is a good start. It focuses on his family and his love affairs; his travels and fighting in wars; his life in Cuba before Castro and his slow mental decline from genetic predispositions, alcoholism, and traumatic brain injury. Burns and Novik spend considerable time on bull fighting and hunting and the mythologies and mythologizing.
His son, Patrick, is one of the interviewees, and that’s fascinating; born in 1928, he would be 92 now, and he does not seem so in the documentary, although I realize some of this footage is from years back. John McCain is also an interviewee, because he loved For Whom the Bell Tolls so much. Mary Karr, whose book on memoir I recently read, is featured, mostly to talk about alcoholism and writers; Abraham Verghese and Tobias Wolf and some literary critics I don’t know (one of whom should have had her hair done for the shoot). And famous actors narrate.
What cannot be totally explored is his writing. Writing must be read. You can’t just talk about it if the talkers don’t have an experience of the text in common. The story I know best, “Hills Like White Elephants,” because I taught it once, is considered at some length, but one has to read it. All you can get from a documentary is that it’s about a guy pressuring a girl into an abortion. As Roger Ebert used to say about movies, “It’s not what a story is about, it’s how it is about it.” And the how of that story is chilling.
It also does not really explain the Paris in the 1920s thing sufficiently, and I have an interest in that and will study it independently. It sounds like a bunch of people with independent means playing at being starving artists. Hemingway and his first wife pretended to live in poverty, but she was from a wealthy family that supported him. He was smart enough to get another wealthy wife when he dumped Hadley, the first one. How many writers have really lived off their writing? Far fewer in history than we think. Most either were from wealthy families, married money, or had other jobs. Even today, there is a very limited number of artists living only by writing.
So, what did I learn from this documentary?
1. Hemingway was more than flawed. Everyone is flawed. He was intentionally amoral or immoral or post-moral.
2. He sure liked having his photograph taken. I also felt the same watching a documentary about Joan Didion. Oh my word, how many black and white photographs can be taken of people whose work is essentially limited in action? I need to hire someone to start taking photos of me and then photoshopping them b&w.
3. He worked as hard at the mythologizing as he did the writing.
4. People will probably argue about his literary legacy for a long time, and today he’s probably not aligned with prevailing sensibilities, due to some racism, a lot of objectivizing of women, and mostly the cruelty to animals people see.
5. It’s rather amazing he didn’t commit suicide earlier than at 61, considering all the factors and how prevalent it is in his family. His son and granddaughter killed themselves, as did his own father.
6. Despite my third observation above, one thing that did speak strongly to me is my severe lack of discipline as a writer. I’m in a writing funk right now, and it’s simply not a priority time-wise, which means it’s not a priority or passion. Too many people are writing too many things right now, and finding an audience is harder and harder. I have ideas for ten novels in addition to the eight I already have out there and as many short stories and plays and blog posts and no one reads them.
The ultimate question: Does the documentary make me want to go back and read some Hemingway? Maybe a short story. Maybe. But not any time soon.
Addendum: Mary Karr says in the documentary that “writers are narcissistic;” not narcissists, necessarily, but people who spend most of their times in their own thoughts. Is she right? Possibly. Writing a memoir makes one self-focused, surely. One could go in with the desire to explain the “message” of one’s life, but that is fraught with mishaps. I don’t know that a person’s life if about lessons or moral or messages. “This life teaches you that you should ….” Or “you shouldn’t.” We don’t live to be cautionary tales or moral exemplars. We either live to please God or please self or please someone else.