Could there be anything more subversive than turning a spotlight, in this moment, on Ernest Hemingway?
Though his influence on generations of writers is inescapable, he has come to be seen as an avatar of toxic masculinity, the chest-thumping papa of American letters, sacrificing all to the work, headstrong and volatile, serially discarding one wife for another.
That Hemingway is a writer who has contributed so much to the form but who is also full of complexities — or, to borrow another electric word from our current moment, that he is “problematic” — only seems to have made him more of a draw.
Burns’s and Novick’s new three-part series on Hemingway, which begins airing Monday on PBS, approaches the man and the writer without trying to tidy any of it up. The alcoholism; the womanizing; the not-so-subtle anti-Semitism and racism; the many, many shot lions and elephants — it’s all there. But there is also reverence for his literary gifts, a desire to remind us of them and even introduce new dimensions, such as Hemingway’s apparent interest in gender fluidity.
In a video interview from their homes last month, Burns and Novick seemed to revel in the challenge of reviving Hemingway and allowing his “mysteries,” as Burns put it, to coexist alongside the enduring myth of the man. They also discussed his relationships with women, what parts of him they see in themselves and the Hemingway book they always come back to. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Why Hemingway now?
KEN BURNS Well, you know, we don’t have a “now.” We were talking about Hemingway as early as the early ’80s. I found a scrap of paper from after we decided to do the Civil War that said, “Do Hemingway, Baseball,” and then it showed up on lists through the end of the aughts and into the teens. We didn’t know it was going to take six years to do. We don’t anticipate the timing of it. We just know that every project we work on will resonate in the present, because human nature doesn’t change.
But you had to be aware that perhaps Hemingway wasn’t the sort of historical figure with whom a 2021 public would be eager to spend time.
LYNN NOVICK We’re aware of the fact that he’s a controversial figure. And that there are people who are so put off by his public persona that they haven’t read his work or don’t want to read his work. But we are living in times when we are re-evaluating all these icons from our past. And there’s no better way to do that than looking at Ernest Hemingway. Some of it is very ugly, and very difficult. And if you’re a woman or a person of color, or you’re Jewish, or you’re Native American, there are going to be things in Hemingway that are going to be really, really tough. But he is so important as a literary figure and in terms of his influence that to ignore him seems to just avoid the problem.
What remains most refreshing about his work was this ability he had to trust the reader so completely.
BURNS It’s a beautiful thing. And the thing I go back to often is that this is a guy who’s emerging out of a modernist tradition in which everybody is complicated. Joyce and Faulkner, they’re really super complicated. And he dared to impersonate simplicity. What he understood is that you could use these seemingly simple sentences, and they would be as pregnant as any long Joycean paragraph or Faulknerian sentence that goes on and on. So much was below the surface. And it requires you to go searching for meaning. It isn’t just how to order a French meal or fire a machine gun, it’s also about life and death and these fundamental human questions. And he’s saying, I’m not going to walk you through this. It’s mesmerizing to me, when it works. There’s nothing better.
The most surprising thing for me was the thread of gender fluidity that runs through the series and seems to upend everything we’ve come to think about Hemingway — the fact that he was willing to experiment with his sexuality and take on what he thought of as a female role.
NOVICK I think the world first got a hint of this when the family published “Garden of Eden” posthumously in the 1980s. But I don’t think we fully appreciated what this said about him. Even when that was published. Now we have the framework to talk about it that we didn’t have as a culture then. There’s a reason he never published “Garden of Eden.” It’s a dangerous topic for him to go into. Even in an unpublished manuscript, even in his private life, given who he is. And then there were the huge problems he had with his son who was also interested in the same things. It caused an irreconcilable conflict between them, which is so sad.
BURNS It’s pretty interesting that he is pursuing this all the way through and, and not blindly, that is to say, I think there’s a consciousness to it. It’s in him asking all his wives to cut their hair short, in his sympathy for female characters in stories like “Up in Michigan” and “Hills Like White Elephants.” I don’t think it’s like, Oh, I can’t let this out of the bag. I think he’s moving toward it. And he’s exploring it all the time.
The wives also punctuate the entire series, becoming a big part of the structure as he moves from Hadley Richardson to Pauline Pfeiffer to Martha Gellhorn to Mary Welsh. It’s clear that he always needs a woman in his life as both an anchor and a foil.
BURNS You got to have her and you got to leave her or you got to be bad to her. Edna O’Brien [an Irish writer who appears in “Hemingway”] says in the opening: I love that he fell in love. But she also knows that he has to escape all of that, too, in order to provide himself new material.
NOVICK You do feel that somehow there’s some kind of arrested development or something where he’s just sort of stuck in this place of needing to have this great romance. And then when ordinary life or tensions or problems come up, he’s out of there. To me, the most fascinating is the relationship with Martha Gellhorn because she can hold her own with him. It’s so exciting when they get together, even though he’s cheating on Pauline. But there’s something really interesting about their professional connections. And then he can’t deal with it.
If Hemingway is one of our great archetypes of the artist, is there anything you recognized of yourself in him?
BURNS Only one thing. I think that we have, and have always had, a really strong work ethic and a discipline. And not being satisfied until it’s really done. And we’re not afraid to take a scene that is already working and dismantle it because we learn new information. Our scripts are just filled with that same sort of crossing out and emendations that Hemingway did.
NOVICK Hemingway has you in the palm of his hand from the very first word. And you know, I feel personally I should be so lucky to ever be able to do that. So we are storytellers, and the obsession and reworking that Ken is talking about is in the service of trying to tell a good story. And that’s an example that he left for us when he’s at his best, with all his flaws.
So have you emerged from this process with a favorite Hemingway work?
NOVICK It’s the same work that was my favorite when we started, which is surprising because I read or reread almost everything. I started with “A Farewell to Arms,” and I ended with it. I love the short stories, but I really love diving into a great novel. And that, that is one of the all-time great novels for me. It’s pure poetry from the very first words. It’s not the classic Hemingway minimalist take. It’s a big epic story, and it gives you everything you need to know. And even though I know how it’s going to end, obviously, I love to reread it because I see different things every time I go through it. It’s beautiful. It’s devastating. It’s epic. And it’s timeless for me.
BURNS What she said. I champion the short stories, and I can list the 10 that really float my boat, like “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and the two parts of “Big Two-Hearted River.” But if it’s a favorite novel, then it has to be “A Farewell to Arms.”