The most famous American writer of the 19th century was Mark Twain. The most famous of the 20th was Ernest Hemingway. The younger man much admired the older. Modern American literature starts with Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” he declared. Hemingway and Twain had much in common: sons of the Midwest (Illinois and Missouri, respectively); masters of idiomatic American English; fashioners, and prisoners, of an outsize persona. Even more than their books, those personas are why Hemingway and Twain remain so famous.
They now have something else in common: Ken Burns. “Mark Twain” came out in 2001. “Hemingway,” co-directed with Lynn Novick, airs on GBH Channel 2 Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, from 8 to 10 p.m. It can also be streamed at PBS.org and the PBS Video App.
Hemingway committed suicide in 1961. He was about to turn 62. For the last 15 years of his life, it was commonly said that he looked a good two decades older than his actual age. That made sense, since he managed to pack into his larger-than-life existence the eventfulness of at least that many additional years: four marriages, three wars (the two world wars, with the Spanish Civil War in between), a lifelong battle with manic depression, oceans of alcohol, big-game hunting and fishing, a bit of boxing, too, as well as famous friendships, and, not unrelated to the boxing, many feuds, often with famous former friends.
There was mileage to go with the eventfulness. No writer has more places more indelibly associated with his name: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Paris, Pamplona, Key West, Havana, East Africa, Venice. Any account of Hemingway’s life is as much itinerary as biography. His memoir of Paris in the ‘20s is called “A Moveable Feast.” Burns and Novick could have called their film “A Moveable Cornucopia.”
Writers lead lives that are primarily interior. What they write is more important than who they are. That’s why we care about who they are: because of what they write. Hemingway was different — or, rather, additional (that word again). He certainly led an interior life, and there’s a shelf of books and a Nobel Prize to prove it.
More important, there’s the literary influence to prove it. Loathe Hemingway or love him — it’s possible, probably even sensible, to do both — but none can deny that his emphasis on clarity, precision, and, for lack of a better word, solidity transformed how the English language was written. “He dared to impersonate simplicity,” the literary scholar Stephen Cushman says.
Interiority means that any film about a writer’s life is likely to be hard–pressed for visual material. It’s true that Burns and Novick do some of the standard writer-documentary things: readings of text (Jeff Daniels is the voice of Hemingway), shots of typewriters with keys clacking out letters on a blank page, interviews with other writers. Among them are Mario Vargas Llosa, Tobias Wolff, and Mary Karr. Biographers and scholars weigh in.
We also hear from Hemingway’s one surviving son, Patrick, and … John McCain? Yes, the late Republican senator’s hero, literary or otherwise, was Robert Jordan, the protagonist of Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Think of McCain as representing the millions of Hemingway readers, though few are as famous or could speaking as movingly or with such passion.
Mostly, though, Burns and Novick face the opposite challenge: an excess of material. The evidence of the eventfulness of that life — its exteriority — is extensive, to say the least. Meeting that challenge, they demonstrate a fine eye for detail. One example: Visible in some footage of London, where Hemingway briefly stopped on his way to France as a war correspondent, is a pub called The Rising Sun. Might the author of “The Sun Also Rises” have ever paid a visit?
Burns and Novick draw upon family snapshots, vintage photos, newsreels, television broadcasts, home movies, numerous magazine covers, and newspaper front pages. Hemingway, who started out as a newspaper reporter, was nothing if not good copy. He was as much celebrity as artist. Part of the enduring fascination of his life — also the vexation — is trying to square the two.
Hemingway did his best to confuse assessment. It’s not just that he was such a bundle of contradictions: sensitive and cruel, generous and selfish, acute and obtuse. It was as much how he presented himself. “There’s all that bluster,” says the novelist Edna O’Brien, who despite the bluster adores the writing. “He mythologized himself.”
It’s that self-mythologizing which gets in the way: the safaris, the bullfighting (the bull-slinging, too), the obsession with violence and death, the almost-parodic machismo. Burns and Novick make sure to include many women among the talking heads as an antidote to Hemingway’s thick streak of misogyny. Very much a man of his time, he was also a racist. This is all the more startling, and disappointing, because in other respects Hemingway could hold quite enlightened views. “I don’t think you can dry-clean Hemingway,” Cushman says, and the documentary doesn’t.
Among the many pleasures Burns’s work affords is continuity. Some of that is stylistic: the careful, expressive panning over photographs; the deft use of period music; the Dutch-interior lighting for interviews. Some is a matter of personnel. Peter Coyote, who has narrated so many of the documentaries, does so again. Geoffrey C. Ward wrote the narration. The novelist Tim O’Brien, a memorable talking head in “The Vietnam War” (2017), is also one here. Meryl Streep, the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt in “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” (2014), is the voice of Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn. Florentine Films, Burns’s production company, is also a kind of repertory company.
The most important sense of continuity comes of a four-decade-long engagement with the American past — and an awareness that it isn’t really past. History doesn’t just describe what we have been. The past inevitably shapes what we might become.
It’s a convention of English usage to refer to literary characters in the present tense. Robert Jordan is. What has done so much to enrich Burns’s body of work — what helps make him so unconventional — is his ability to turn the “was” of Huey Long and the Civil War and Twain and Jack Johnson and Prohibition and the Roosevelts and the Vietnam War and, yes, Ernest Hemingway, into an ongoing “is.”
Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
On GBH 2, April 5-7, 8-10 p.m.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.