I don’t watch much television, but last night I turned on the set. Between checking out Aaron Rodgers hosting Jeopardy and waiting for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final, I tuned into the Ken Burns documentary, “Hemingway,” a 3-part series that is airing on PBS.
I thought I’d watch for a few minutes and ended up staying for two mesmerizing hours, missing a good chunk of the basketball game. The first episode covered Hemingway’s childhood, his early work as a reporter for the Kansas City Star, his experience as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I when he was badly wounded, and his early published fiction, including the Nick Adams stories and the novels “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms” (which is on my list of The Most Important Novels in My Life).
The timing for an in-depth study of Hemingway may seem odd during this era of reckoning about racism and misogyny. Hemingway demonstrated both racist and misogynistic tendencies at times, and his macho big-game hunting and fascination with bullfighting turn many people off.
But the documentary doesn’t shy away from painting a complete and complex picture of the man and the writer, and its focus on how his life informed his work is insightful and powerful.
Perhaps more than any writer, Hemingway influenced a generation of writers, many of whom tried to adopt his deceptively simple, rhythmic prose. He was a daring stylist whose work was easy to read compared to contemporaries such as William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce. He said he was going to “write with no boundaries, no restrictions.” He drilled into the dark sides of people. He wrote what no writer had written before.
Part of my fascination is the personal connection, writer to writer. Is it just me, or does everyone imagine what it would be like to be one of the greatest in their chosen art or profession? To be so accomplished, so critically acclaimed, so adored by many and reviled by some?
What would that be like? I can’t help but wonder.
I’ve come across a lot of quotes from Hemingway over the years, but there was one in this documentary I’d never heard before. It perfectly sums up how I feel:
I have always had the illusion that it was more important, or as important, to be a good man as to be a great writer. I may turn out to be neither but would like to be both.Ernest Hemingway
I’ll be streaming the second two episodes the first chance I get.