Caught the new Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary on Hemingway and ended up enjoying it, though it contained moments of painful bathos in the commentary. The film could have better reconciled the apparent contradiction between Hemingway’s direct “declarative” style and the subtlety of a story’s unseen action. Such insights are valid and valuable, and a part of Hemingway’s signature aesthetic, but the film repeated these motifs without explaining their coexistence. Also, at the risk of digression, I think it’s worth pointing out that the assertion “what’s left unsaid is important” is no longer a surprising truth or unusual angle in literary criticism. Whether one agrees with it or not, it is a common viewpoint championed much more often than the promotion of spectacle and detail.
I was more interested in the way the documentary presented the timeline of Hemingway’s life. They made the case a few times that he relied significantly on his second wife’s family fortune to finance his adventures. I have not read any Hemingway biographies, but having read many of his novels and their introductions, gathered that once he’d published The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, he had become financially independent. I saw him as a figure similar to J.K. Rowling or Stephen King in his financial success, yet the film hints that this was not the case. I was intrigued by this point and wish the directors had further explored this aspect of his career.
For all my reading life, I have had a strange relationship with Hemingway’s work. I first encountered most of his stories through the lens offered by undergraduate professors. They tended to spin the myth of his life and work in a way that the Burns documentary attempts to mitigate and, to some extent, unspin. But I didn’t have a problem with what has come to be known as his “masculine” style. I did not struggle with his approach to the morality of combat, hunting, fishing, philandering, and drinking. Instead, I tended to dislike the standard interpretations of his work. And when I voiced this disdain, I encountered the second problem of being lumped in with those who saw him as an old-fashioned, violent, egotistical bully.
I’m not saying those (to the extent true) are good things, but they weren’t the main issue. I was more concerned with how Hemingway’s art was often presented as realistic and juxtaposed with writers like Algernon Blackwood, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft, whom many considered less able to imitate real emotions.
The idea of “Hemingway as Realist” proved problematic as, over time, I read more of his work and got really into the writing. I read For Whom the Bell Tolls a few times, and while I felt spellbound by the characters and style, the real revelation came from discovering its utterly idealistic views on love, war, and survival.
Instead of seeing Hemingway as a Realist with a sentimental touch, I began to see him as a Romantic intoxicated by earned sentiment. I saw him as an idealist who understood that you could only reach the sublime when you acknowledge stark realities. The Burns documentary purports to try and get around these issues, but with limited success. While it touched on ideas that Hemingway’s views on love and the erotic were more fluid and imaginative than classic interpretations offered, it didn’t go far beyond. With an overconcern regarding the themes of suicide and “masculine” bravado, the film made too much apology to break into new territory. I still recommend giving it a view, because as always, Burns is on his game when it comes to weaving in authentic texts—excerpts from letters, novels, and early articles—with photomontages in a way that creates a memorable and intriguing portrait of his subject.
Carl R. Moore is the author of Chains in the Sky and Slash of Crimson and Other Tales (published by Seventh Star Press)