Most major literary figures are subject to re-examination about every 20 years or so. Sometimes the writer and work are rescued from the fads and fashions of what is taught in universities. Sometimes the work is condemned and sometimes the writer is rescued. Ernest Hemingway’s work has been going in and out of fashion for decades. Mostly, these days, it’s unfashionable to revere him and his writing.
Hemingway (starts Monday, PBS, 8 p.m.) is a new and major re-examination. At six hours over three consecutive nights, Ken Burns (this time with frequent collaborator Lynn Novick) sets out to put Ernest Hemingway the man, myth and writer, in a new context – that context is Hemingway’s life as seen and influenced by the women in that life. As such it’s a bracing, often agnostic examination and bound to cause trouble.
The Burns style is all there – the series is rich in visuals and the search for Hemingway’s soul, and his importance is done through his letters, which are read with eloquence by Jeff Daniels. (Letters from the women in his life are read by Meryl Streep, Patricia Clarkson, Mary-Louise Parker and Keri Russell.) The narrator is Peter Coyote and his voice sets out early the kind of examination this will be. Of Hemingway he says, “The world saw him as a man’s man. But all his life, he would privately be intrigued by the blurred lines between male and female, men and women. There were so many sides to him, the first of his four wives remembered that he ‘defied geometry.’”
And so Hemingway is, in a way, put on the psychiatrist’s couch. The way to understand him is to grasp the complexity of his upbringing, his relationship with his mother and the suicide of his father, who suffered long bouts of depression. At the same time, Burns and his team are out to discover why Hemingway, often seen as an intrinsically American writer, had universal appeal, and why the themes he developed made him a world-influencer as a stylist and a model for others.
Although he savoured a hyper-masculine persona, the writer’s mother dressed him as a girl in his childhood and sometimes conducted the fantasy that he and his sister were twin girls. Further, it is asserted that fantasy was a major part of Hemingway’s modus-operandi. He embellished everything and came to know the value of embellishment from the time he returned home from working for the Red Cross in the First World War but painted himself as a war-damaged, battle-hardened hero. He liked the adulation and sometimes the avatar he had created for himself became more convincing than the man.
He just lied a lot, too. Often he told stories of barely being able to eat and survive when he decamped to Paris with his first wife, Hadley. But in truth she was well-off and they lived very comfortably. He cheated on Hadley and married her friend Pauline Pfeiffer, who was even wealthier than Hadley. His attitude toward women, in both his work and life, is a recurring theme here. Irish writer Edna O’Brien is eloquent in defending female characters in his work and dismisses the accusations of misogyny that are levelled at the short stories and novels. At the same time, O’Brien is careful to praise his early work and is dismissive of his later work, scorning The Old Man and the Sea as “schoolboy writing.”
It’s the early writing that emerges truly unscathed in the series. The clarity of it changed American writing. But the quality of it is hard to pin down. I know about this – I remember the difficulty of teaching his short stories to undergraduates who could not see the depth that was beneath the surface. O’Brien calls some of those stories, “miracles of prose.” One revelation in the series is how much he was influenced by the style imposed by his first editors at The Kansas City Star. When the paper’s style guide is read aloud you could imagine someone shouting, “That’s Hemingway!” And anyone expecting much about his time in Toronto, writing for the Toronto Star, will be disappointed. What’s said is basically this: he hated his editors and longed to return to Paris.
The truly distinctive element of the six-hour re-examination is its lack of definitive statement. It neither seeks to bury Hemingway nor to revive him. It puts his work in the context of his personal life as expressed through his personal writing – some of it revealing a bitter, racist, mean-spirited figure who betrayed many people – and asks what it matters now. It dismantles the myth but at the same time allows such writers as Mario Vargas Llosa, Tim O’Brien, Abraham Verghese, and Leonardo Padura to praise the work. Hadley was correct when she said he “defied geometry” and could not be parsed as a person. Other women felt the same and their voices are crystal clear. What happens here is a journey toward the man’s psyche and it is a gripping but uneasy journey.
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