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New Documentary Examines Ernest Hemingway's Complicated Life


There will be few adjectives in this story. Ernest Hemingway avoided them. Hemingway was the writer who said he was looking for one true sentence. He wrote stories of war and love, bullfighters and boxers and fishermen. A PBS documentary argues Hemingway influenced all writers who followed, even those who hate him. The documentary features Jeff Daniels reading Hemingway's prose, like the ending of "The Sun Also Rises," where the narrator shares a taxi in Madrid with a woman who can't be in a relationship with him.


JEFF DANIELS: (Reading) We turned out on to the Grand Via. Oh, Jake, Brett said, we could have had such a damned good time together. Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton, the car slowed, suddenly pressing Brett against me. Yes, I said. Isn't it pretty to think so?

INSKEEP: The documentary "Hemingway" traces his life. He was wounded in World War I, lived in Paris in the 1920s and traveled through sub-Saharan Africa, all of which became settings for his stories. Co-directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick say he also invented myths about his heroism in combat and falsely suggested he'd once been a starving writer.

KEN BURNS: I think insecurity makes liars of us all at a petty, tiny, minuscule level and in grandiose ways. And Hemingway is guilty of the entire spectrum.

INSKEEP: One of the more troubling aspects of Hemingway's life is his treatment of women, both on and off the page. He was married four times and could be abusive or bullying. But Burns and Novick say his image as a man's man was part of his facade.

LYNN NOVICK: His whole code of conduct and the hunting and the fishing and the boxing and everything he seemed to stand for could be very problematic for us today. And it was problematic for some people, you know, back when he was alive. But what we found in working on the film was that it doesn't take too much to penetrate through that and to see inside or behind that persona a much more vulnerable, complicated person who has great empathy for women, has relationships with women in his life that are problematic and complicated in some ways. But in his depictions of how men and women get along and don't get along, it's quite revelatory and quite different than the public persona of Ernest Hemingway.

INSKEEP: You said he was vulnerable. In what way was Ernest Hemingway vulnerable?

BURNS: I think he doubted himself all the time. I think he was always worried. You can hear it in the letters. You can hear it even in the prose that here is a boy born into a family with a history of mental illness. He's exposed with his father, who's a doctor, to unbelievable things happening in the doctor's office and in home visits. He is nearly blown up as an 18-year-old and clearly suffering from PTSD, has a series of at least nine major concussions. He's an alcoholic. There is a lot of stuff going on, and all of that permeates his work.

NOVICK: Hemingway, perhaps in an act of supreme hubris, saved every letter that he ever wrote. He made carbon copies. And so you can hear him writing to his parents when he's in World War I, writing to his - the women that he loved, the women that he fell out of love with, to his children, his publisher, his editor, his friends, his enemies over the course of his life. You really see a man who is working very hard to present this public persona. And right below the surface, there's a lot of anxiety and vulnerability.

INSKEEP: You note that when Hemingway was very young, his mother used to dress him and his sister alike, sometimes both as boys and both as girls. How does that emerge as a significant event?

BURNS: It's hard to exactly calibrate what it is. Twinning, as it was called, was not uncommon in the Victorian era and even extending beyond that. And so we do begin to see a gender fluidity and a curiosity in all of his sexual relationships and in a larger artistic sense. I mean, he is empathetic to the extreme in unbelievable stories, like "Up In Michigan" or "Hills Like White Elephants," sympathetic to the extreme for the woman's point of view,

INSKEEP: I was surprised to hear you make the argument that Hemingway, as a writer, got women and wrote from women's perspectives. But you mentioned the one story where there is what appears to be perhaps a sexual assault. You mentioned another story where a woman is being pressured to have an abortion, yet his image toward women is something very different.

NOVICK: Yes. I mean, right there, you put your finger on it. That's sort of a paradox, if you will, you know, that his image and the treatment of women in his life, especially his later marriages, could be abusive and he could be a bully. But, you know, we found in looking at the work and especially in talking to the writer Edna O'Brien, who is in her 80s and has been admiring and studying Hemingway for most of her life as a writer, she wanted very much to speak about how he has been misunderstood through a misogynistic lens, and that if you go below the surface, like Ken was saying, there's great empathy and understanding of what happens to women and what women's experiences are when they are presented with masculine assertion, masculine control, masculine desire to dominate all those things that we might see in Hemingway's life. But in his work, it's more complicated and more nuanced. And, you know, to me, it seems there's sort of an implicit critique of himself, of the culture and an understanding of what women go through or at least a very serious and sincere and determined attempt to represent that on the printed page.

BURNS: Well, I think that's exactly right. It doesn't excuse in any way - and I don't think Lynn or I would ever go to any place where we would want to excuse it or say that makes up for it. But we wanted to say in an era where we all are so reductionist or we wish to move towards a reductionist posture where we can find a good or bad or an on-off switch, we don't have to deal with Hemingway, we are permitted in public broadcasting to go out, to complicate, to tolerate contradiction, to try to come to terms with the fact that nothing will ever fit into a nice black-and-white box, that it is all very dizzying shades of gray. And with Hemingway, for us, it was the most complicated of processes to try to calibrate all of those different things without, A, letting him off the hook but also at the same time permitting his genius, his art and sometimes those moment when he transcended the petty to obtain. And that happens often.

INSKEEP: Well, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, thank you so much.

BURNS: Thank you.

NOVICK: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Their documentary, "Hemingway," begins tonight on many PBS stations.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJANGO REINHARDT'S "MINOR SWING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.