Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Tackle Hemingway in New PBS Series

American novelist, short story writer, journalist and sportsman ERNEST HEMINGWAY (1899 - 1961) at his home in Cuba, circa the 1950s. Photo courtesy A. E. Hotchner.

American novelist, short story writer, journalist and sportsman ERNEST HEMINGWAY (1899 – 1961) at his home in Cuba, circa the 1950s. Photo courtesy A. E. Hotchner.

“Our intent is to offer viewers an honest portrayal of a complex and conflicted writer who left an indelible mark on literature.”–Ken Burns.

The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Novels, short stories, battlefield dispatches, magazine columns, newspaper reportage, and a raft of unpublished personal correspondence. Ernest Hemingway mastered them all, and has been deemed the “most revered American writer since Mark Twain.”

Ernest Hemingway’s distinctive pared down prose, deceptively masculine sensibility and impressive output during the first half of the 20th century grabbed the literary world and public by storm.  He garnered a Pulitzer, a Nobel Prize, a National Book Award nomination and a high profile celebrity presence, the latter ignited in large part by his troubled, testosterone and booze-fueled lifestyle that he fictionalized in his work and embellished into myth.  But, as is evident in the riveting new six-hour documentary miniseries, Hemingway, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and scripted by Geoffrey C. Ward, the lifelong mental and physical baggage festering just below the surface of his disciplined writing career not only informed his work but ended up destroying it and him as well.

Hemingway family portrait, circa October 1903, from left: Ursula, dad Clarence, Ernest, mom Grace and sister Marcelline Hemingway. Photo courtesy Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Hemingway family portrait, circa October 1903, from left: Ursula, dad Clarence, Ernest, mom Grace and sister Marcelline Hemingway. Photo courtesy Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick orchestrate an uncompromising look at the man behind the myth in Hemingway, debuting on PBS in three, two-hour installments, beginning with Episode 1: “A Writer (1899 – 1929)” tonight, Monday, April 5, 2021, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET.  Episode 2: “The Avatar (1929-1944)” and Episode 3: “The Blank Page (1944-1961)” follow at the same time on succeeding nights. (Check local listings and see below for complete screening info.)

Ernest Hemingway may seem like a surprising departure for filmmakers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Geoffrey C. Ward who have collaborated on such lofty historical and cultural subjects as the Vietnam War, World War II, the Roosevelts, prohibition and baseball, to name a few.  But, in fact, Hemingway’s timeline, albeit relatively microscopic by Burns’ recent standards, has all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy spanning multiple continents and an impressive array of transformative cultural, historical and socio-political milestones.

Ernest Hemingway in the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, Italy, 1918, recovering from injuries suffered as a volunteer for the American Red Cross during World War I. Photo: © Henry Villard.

Ernest Hemingway in the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, Italy, 1918, recovering from injuries suffered as a volunteer for the American Red Cross during World War I. Photo: © Henry Villard.

Traversing Hemingway’s 61-year life span, we thread through the Parisian ex-patriate art and literary scene of the 1920s; the gruesome battlefields of three major wars; the boudoirs of four wives and numerous mistresses; the high seas off the coast of Florida; the dive bars in Key West and Cuba; bullfighting rings in Spain; and big game hunts in Africa.  Add the upper middle class Midwestern childhood in Oak Park, Illinois, that unfolded idyllically at the turn of the 20th century, then turned sour, imprinting Hemingway’s facility for writing and fascination with pursuits that drew a flimsy line between life and death.

This is heady stuff.  Notable literary scholars, critics and authors provide ample commentary about Hemingway’s oeuvre and the lifestyle that informed it.  Actor Jeff Daniels initially seems an odd choice to voice passages from Hemingway’s work and unpublished correspondence.  But when we finally hear Hemingway’s actual voice via archival footage and audio clips (you’d think it would be huskier with all of his risky business, serial head injuries and heavy drinking), it’s clear that Daniels’ Midwestern twang was well cast.

Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in Chamby, Switzerland, circa 1922.

Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in Chamby, Switzerland, circa 1922.

“The effect upon women is such that they want to go right out and get him and bring him home…stuffed,” said Dorothy Parker.

Much of the film series is driven by Hemingway’s women… the ones that got away and the ones that didn’t and wish they had.  His four wives are major players… two of whom (Hadley Richardson and Pauline Pfeiffer) bit the dust when someone more alluring came along; one of whom (Martha Gellhorn) dared call it quits on her own; and his fourth and final wife, Mary Welsh, who stuck by him at the end of his life when he was at his most mentally unhinged and abusive.  His controlling, self-absorbed mom, who decided that he and his slightly older sister should dress as same sex twins, seems to have planted the seeds of Hemingway’s adult predilection for switching he/she roles with his female lovers.

Ernest Hemingway's second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, cutting his hair.

Ernest Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, cutting his hair.

“Many women feel that Hemingway hated women and wrote adversely about them,” said Edna O’Brien. “I would ask his detractors, female or male, to read this story: Up in Michigan.  Could you in all honor say that this was a writer who didn’t understand women’s emotions and hated women?”

The exhaustively researched vintage footage and photos, passages from his work and correspondence are all wonderfully evocative.  I was especially taken with the rare clips of his pal Sylvia Beach, the proprietor of the legendary Parisian bookshop and literary hangout, Shakespeare & Company; and the many comments from 90-year-old Irish author Edna O’Brien, who touched me with her insightful and sensitive remarks about Hemingway’s work.

I also applaud the inclusion of Hemingway’s middle son Patrick Hemingway, who has some surprisingly positive things to say about his peripatetic childhood, his serial moms, and especially his dad.

The only visual downside here?  Hemingway’s obsession with bullfighting and big game hunting is covered extensively with graphic photos and film footage, especially in Episode 2. Animal lovers beware!

Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, en route to China in 1941.

Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, en route to China in 1941.

Hemingway aficionados and individuals with little previous knowledge of Ernest Hemingway will find much in this miniseries to incite revisiting and reading of his work. It will be an evergreen and indispensable asset in high school and college classrooms as well.

Hemingway Episode 1: “A Writer (1899 – 1929)” premieres on PBS tonight, Monday, April 5, 2021, 8:00 -10:00 p.m. ET.  Episode 2: “The Avatar (1929 – 1944)” debuts on Tuesday, April 6, 8:00 -10:00 p.m. ET.  Episode 3:  “The Blank Page (1944 – 1961)” follows on Wednesday, April 7, 8:00 -10:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, and ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.)

Hemingway will be available to stream for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including www.pbs.org and the PBS Video App, available on iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV and Chromecast.  PBS station members can also view the documentary via PBS Passport, as part of a full collection of Ken Burns’ films.–Judith Trojan

About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited more than 1,000 film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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7 Responses to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Tackle Hemingway in New PBS Series

  1. Maryann Chach says:

    I found the documentary fascinating and illuminating for all the things I didn’t know about Hemingway. Especially how his many concussions may have exacerbated his depression and inflamed his mental illness. We know so much more today about concussions and traumatic brain injuries from all the research on football players and injured veterans. The doc was intriguing enough to make me want to re-read some Hemingway and see if my lack of enthusiasm for his writing had changed. So I reread The Sun Also Rises which still impresses for its capturing of the hedonistic unfocused lives of the Lost Generation.. Hemingway’s hard drinking, whoring characters are fascinating and unloveable. It’s hard to overlook the racist and anti-Semitic comments casually tossed off. I went on to read, less enthusiastically, A Farewell to Arms. I’m still looking for what the talking heads described as Hemingway’s greatness. One other point — Michael Katakis was identified as a writer but not as the manager of Hemingway’s literary estate (appointed by his son Patrick).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lynn Spatzer says:

    I found this a fascinating documentary. I compare Hemingway to a glutton…for writing, women, adventure, misery, hunger for life and thrills and death, when the former cease to exist for him.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Donnabordo says:

    Documentary depicts Hemingway’s personality- well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anita McG says:

    JUDY, I saw the Hemingway special. Gil and I visited his Key West home with all the stray cats occupying it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bruce Michael says:

    So looking forward to watching this. Your review as always is excellent!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Diane says:

    Well written, but I am not a fan of Ernest Hemingway.
    No way would I watch any episodes about him.

    Like

    • I thank you for the compliment for my writing, but am distressed that you feel so strongly about Hemingway and haven’t indicated why. Hemingway’s life and body of work raise issues not unlike Woody Allen, the subject of my recent piece about HBO’s ALLEN V. FARROW @ https://judithtrojan.com/2021/02/21/ While their work is and was critically acclaimed and beloved in certain circles, their dissolute lifestyles (potentially felonious in Allen’s case) are nothing to emulate or applaud. How do we separate an appreciation for an artist’s work from one’s personal and societal condemnation of the artist’s life choices? In the case of both men, their lifestyles and points of view clearly impacted and informed the themes and content of their craft, work that elevated them to icon status and garnered many highly respected honors and Awards. It’s a tough row to hoe.

      Like

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