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Ken Burns on getting beyond the ‘toxic masculine’ myth of Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway at his home in Cuba in the 1950s. The new Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary about the writer premieres next week.Courtesy of A.E. Hotchner

Near the very start, writer Michael Katakis essentially lays out a thesis statement for the entire “Hemingway” documentary. “I hate the myth of Hemingway,” Katakis says. “It “obscures the man. And the man is much more interesting than the myth.”

That’s exactly what filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are poking at in their three-part, six-hour series on the life and work of Ernest Hemingway, airing April 5-7 on PBS stations.

Most are familiar with the one-dimensional crayon-sketch of the novelist famous for works including “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Sun Also Rises.” Big-game hunting. Fishing. Boxing. Womanizing. Hard-drinking.


“That doesn’t go anywhere near explaining it,” Burns said of the Macho Man clichés. Researching Hemingway meant peeling “layers of an onion — you’re peeling and peeling back, finding more and more information that contradicts what conventional wisdom says.”

After all, Hemingway was once a little boy whose mother occasionally dressed him like a girl, to “twin” with his sister. A husband who experimented with gender roles in the bedroom. A son whose father (and siblings) committed suicide. An alcoholic. A World War I vet who looked far beyond his years when he took his own life at age 61. (“I’m 67,” Burns said. “He looked like an ancient person. It’s kind of scary.”)

Through interviews with biographers, scholars, and writers — including Edna O’Brien, Mary Karr, Tim O’Brien, Akiko Manabe, and Tobias Wolff — “Hemingway” sheds new light on the man and his works. Boston plays a key role: Hemingway’s archives — including thousands of photos, manuscripts, correspondence, and scrapbooks — are housed here in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

I called Burns at his home in New Hampshire last week to talk Hemingway — the man, the myth, the documentary.

Q. So why Hemingway?

A. We’ve been talking about Hemingway since the early ’80s. I found a scrap of paper after we decided to do “The Civil War” in ’83 or ’84 that said: “Do Hemingway. Baseball next.” Each decade it would come up. And then we were diving in, and everything you thought you knew [about Hemingway] changes. The edifice of masculinity doesn’t crumble, but behind it is a much more complex story of someone actively curious in gender fluidity — in the bedroom, in his own writing, in his own art. At the same time, you have a person struggling with a family history of mental illness, suicide, alcoholism.


Ernest Hemingway and his three sons in 1935. Photographer unknown. Scanned fr

Q. You’ve talked about the myth of Hemingway. What did you want to say about that myth with this film?

A. The myth of Hemingway is one he invented and promoted to his artistic and personal detriment: The macho brawler, drinker, ladies’ man, big-game hunter, deep-sea fisherman. But there’s a fragility to him, and a constant understanding of mortality. [His writing] as one of our critics says, “dared to impersonate simplicity.” There you get the iceberg, the very sparse sentences. Nothing adorned. One of my favorite short stories is “Hills Like White Elephants.”

Q. Oh, I love that one.

A. ”Hills Like White Elephants” has depth beyond imagining. He’s able to inhabit what a woman thinks and feels. He’s aware of the toxicity and masculinity. That’s a spectacular thing for a guy we’ve been happy to classify as a toxic masculine figure. As Edna O’Brien says in our film about “A Farewell to Arms,” he gets the boy stuff right — meaning the war — but what do you remember? You remember the woman dying in childbirth.


Q. I’m fascinated by his dabbling with gender fluidity.

A. He certainly liked to role-play in bed. He liked his wives to cut their hair short. His fourth wife, he said, “She’ll be a little boy for me.” Maybe the macho thing is a defense against all these internal — they’re not necessarily struggles. To me, it’s endlessly fascinating. It’s our most adult film we’ve done.

Q. There were always rumors that he and F. Scott Fitzgerald were together. Did you find any evidence of that?

A. Not at all. What happens is you get inklings of pan-sexuality in the writing, you want to go back and fill it in with the lurid and the sensational.

Q. You’ve mentioned “the madness.” When did that start for Hemingway?

A. It’s hard to say. Does it start when he’s nearly killed in World War I, and comes home and can’t sleep alone, and his sister sometimes comes and settles into his room, and he has suicidal ideations? Does it come after his father [commits suicide]? When he begins to believe his own PR? [At one point] NBC comes to interview him, and he’s reading off cue cards, and he’s so out of it that he starts putting the punctuation in, reading “comma,” “period.” It looks like he’s dead.

Q. The archives at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library played a big role in looking at Hemingway’s writing and process.


A. The papers at the Kennedy Library, for us, were the liberation for this telling of the story. Our challenge as filmmakers was how do you make the story of a writer come alive? How do you make the words leap off the page? Boston was a chance to salute the idea of writing.


Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Learn more at www.pbs.org/kenburns/hemingway

On: GBH 2

Part one airs April 5, 8 p.m.

Interview was condensed and edited. Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.