Stories & Heroes: My Reflections on Ken Burns’ Hemingway Documentary

Last week I finished watching Ken Burns’ recent documentary on the life of Ernest Hemingway, which was honestly a match made in heaven for me. Burns is my favorite documentary filmmaker and Hemingway is one of my favorite novelists.

Whenever I hear that Ken Burns is releasing anything, I get excited. The quality never dips an inch, and each one feels like the result of years upon years of painstaking effort. His 17-hour epic on the Vietnam War took Burns 10 years to make. And just as the quality remains the same, so too does the style. Together, his 30-plus films can be seen as a grand narrative, defined by archive photography, musical leitmotifs, and that infamous rostrum camera. Burns is as much a storyteller as a historian, and I feel like each documentary tells the story of America in some way.

Hemingway isn’t just the story of Hemingway- it’s a chapter in Burns’ grand narrative of America. Just like Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, or Michael Jordan, Hemingway is America. He embodies the American experience. He’s vulnerability wrapped in myth. He’s genius wrestling with darkness. He’s the American Dream and the American Tragedy.

What I love about Ken Burns (who is a descendent of the poet Robert Burns by the way) is the way he peels back the layers of mythos to get to the real story. He can find the story in anything. He’s not interested in the journalistic reporting of facts, but the raw emotive power that lies at the heart of human experience. The story of Hemingway is a story of ambition, death, gender identity, fame, mental illness, loneliness, family, violence, and language. It’s as much about the stories he told himself as the ones he told others. It’s about image versus reality. It’s about the nature of truth. Like so many larger-than-life personas throughout history, Hemingway seems to encapsulate the best and worst of humanity.

Upon finishing the documentary, I thought about how it might have changed my view of someone I consider one of my favorite writers. My appreciation for his work has only deepened. But Hemingway the person? I wouldn’t say my opinion of him changed so much as it broadened. It’s like my view of him prior was blurry, and watching the documentary was like putting on a fresh prescription of lenses. I’m aware by this point in my life that it’s not a good habit to idealize people. It’s something I’ve always been prone to doing, whether I know the person or not, whether they’re alive or dead. I’ve often felt this inexplicable need to make people into heroes, instead of just seeing them as people. And what’s great about Burns’ new series is that it helps you see Ernest Hemingway as a person just like the rest of us, a product of his traumas.

I first discovered Hemingway when I was fifteen years old, and we were studying The Old Man and the Sea for our GCSE exam in English Literature. At the time I didn’t appreciate him very much. I thought the novella was pretty boring and couldn’t get into it. It was a few years after that that I rediscovered him through his short fiction and he fast became one of my favorite writers. At the time I was also reading a lot of Raymond Carver, who I quickly learned was the bearer of Hemingway’s legacy. I deeply admired their terse, understated style and tried to replicate it in my own writing. During my time at the University of Winchester and the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire I wrote and submitted a lot of short stories that were consciously written to be very Hemingwayesque. In 2012 I visited Hemingway’s birthplace in Oak Park, Illinois and in 2020 I visited his house in Key West, Florida. I treated both trips like a kind of literary pilgrimage, since I considered him a personal hero of mine. I didn’t think too much about Hemingway as a person- not until I watched the Ken Burns documentary last week.

Hemingway’s boyhood home in Oak Park, circa August 2012
Hemingway’s house in Key West, taken in March 2020

There were moments during the documentary where I felt disappointed, angry, or simply sad. Even though most of the revelations weren’t inconsistent with the things I already knew, hearing anecdotes about someone I admired so much being so cruel nevertheless felt like a punch to the gut. I was already familiar with the braggadocio, the womanizing, the hyper-competitiveness, and the toxic masculinity. The three things that bothered me the most were his anti-Semitic characterization of Robert Cohn, his cold opportunism in the Spanish Civil War, and the James Jones letter. The first made me angry- aside from perpetuating racist stereotypes, the character was a complete betrayal of Harold Loeb, who considered Hemingway a genuine friend. The second left me disappointed, because it felt like he was prioritizing his art over everything else, at the expense of his humanity. The third just left me bereft. I was disgusted with the language of the letter but at the same time I felt a lot of pity for him. Given the context of his depression in the early 1950s, I interpreted the letter as a reflection of his own self-hatred. That’s not an excuse for it, but the longer the insults went on, the more you get the sense of how sad he must have been. I read a wonderful article written by the daughter of James Jones in the Daily Beast, who says that her father never held a grudge against Hemingway for the vile things he said about him. Kaylie Jones quotes her father as saying “He was not well. And who can blame a man for that?”

I’m not sure I could be so gracious if I were in a similar situation, but I aspire to that level of compassion. I like that none of the people interviewed in the documentary tried to defend the letter. They all looked as heartbroken as I felt. This was the reality of Hemingway’s dark side, and in true Ken Burns fashion we’re spared no angle of the subject. It was embarrassing to see the guy who wrote “The Killers” being so…petty. It’s strange to think that a biographical documentary could take me on such an emotional journey, but I think that’s a testament to the complexity of Ernest Hemingway as a person and the skill of Ken Burns as a storyteller.

Given my own struggles, mental illness is something that particularly resonates with me. The footage of Hemingway struggling to speak in front of a camera really got to me. It was just bizarre to see the same person infamous for challenging people to box him being so petrified of speaking on camera to the point he was reading tonelessly from cue cards. This time my pity wasn’t mixed with anger. All his life he had worked hard to maintain this alpha male persona, but beneath it all he was as vulnerable, sensitive, and fragile as everyone else. The act of playing the tough guy in conjunction with not knowing how to engage with his vulnerabilities obviously took a huge toll on his mental health. The subject of pedestalizing and hero-worship is interesting, because Hemingway’s own hero was Theodore Roosevelt (who Ken Burns has also produced a fantastic documentary on by the way). I feel like he tried to embody the popular image of Teddy Roosevelt his whole life and, in the end, it destroyed him.

19 year old me, posing w/ Hemingway’s birthplace (2012)

Watching Hemingway has definitely reinvigorated my desire to revisit the author’s work, as it’s been a while for me. In the last few years, I’ve been prioritizing new releases and publishing trends. My favorite Hemingway book is The Nick Adams Stories, which is a collection of short fiction- centered on the life of Hemingway’s alter ego- that I bought at his birthplace museum in Oak Park. It was a short story from that collection, “Ten Indians”, that I chose for the reading experiment I conducted in my local area in 2018, which you can read about here.

I would encourage almost anyone to watch Hemingway. Much like The Last Dance in 2020, its focus on human nature gives it a universal appeal. Let me know in the comments what you thought of the series!

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