Notes on the Ken Burns / Lynn Novick 6-hour documentary on Hemingway
The documentary aired over three days from April 6 – April 8, 2021 on PBS.
Moral of the story: don’t drink alcohol (straight or in any of its diluted forms), a tendency for ideation and alcohol don’t mix. It is—at the very least—a cautionary tale for male American writers and anybody who might wish to date or marry one.
Papa was a war profiteer. He used war far too much as a way to generate fodder for his stories. He didn’t write strenuously against it as did O’Brien, Vonnegut, or Heller. Instead, his mannish example seduced J.D. Salinger to volunteer. In his tour of duty, J.D. permanently and severely scrambled his brains. It was no doubt part of the reason he was unkind and such a creep to so many women. That’s part of Papa’s heritage too.
Papa created innumerable “echo” traumas like this.
The persons (more particularly, male writers) who profit from Hemingway’s example—either as a man or as a writer—and come out of it unscathed are scant in number. Tim O’Brien could be one. Salinger, most definitely, not. Elmore Leonard, for sure. Elmore Leonard copped Hemingway’s telegraphic writing style but recognized and avoided the deadly humorlessness in Hemingway’s writing. The emphasis here goes on “deadly”.
Hemingway did not die of a self-inflicted gunshot wound as has generally been reported; he died of conjunctivitis. (Ha-ha.)
Elmore Leonard, as a writer, is a stunning omission from the Burns / Novick series as is the impact of his example on other writers who drew inspiration from him or attempted to emulate any aspect of his persona. Mostly, he is a pathetic sot, boorish and abusive. It doesn’t look like he knew how to do anything with his hands other than work a fishing reel, fire a gun, clean a fish, lift a highball glass, or run his hand up a woman’s skirt. Could he cook, hang a painting, mow the lawn, change out a set of spark plugs, or unclog a sink? Naw.
If the series seems too quick and too laden with adulation, sympathy, and praise, it is also—it seems— part of a profiteering enterprise: the Hemingway industry. I know. I live in its midst. My apartment is on the same street, just a few short blocks away from his childhood home. His birthplace and a museum in his name are equally close at hand. Last night, in the early evening, I went to Hemmingway’s [sic] Bistro with my mother, Carolyn, to sneak in a meal before the final episode in the three-part, six hour series aired. The owners, Chris and Lucia, old friends of the family, dropped by to say hello. It was our first time back since the pandemic scared us off over a year ago. The bistro is an oasis in Oak Park, one of its finest eateries. We had escargot and whitefish. For a long time it has served as my—to borrow one of Papa’s titles—”clean well-lighted place”. Chris (who is also Hemmingway’s chef) reminded me how he was forced to bung an extra “m” into his restaurant’s name to evade further lawsuits emanating from “the estate” which owns the trademark for Papa’s surname. As the boxing promoter once said, “Only in America”.
Tobias Wolff’s rearranged the furniture metaphor, evoked to emphasize just how extensive Ernest Hemingway’s influence is on American arts and letters, doesn’t get the job done. It is far too gentile. Hemingway re-arranged the furniture, sure. But he busted up a lot of it, left a lot of broken glass on the floor, and a fornicating brood of six-toed, Lucifer worshiping cats overrunning his little hacienda.
Fighting, fishing, and fucking, the 3Fs, a couple of my college chums liked to call them. It’s too bad that “wallowing in self pity” doesn’t start with an “F”. Then we would have the 4Fs.
So, in addition to rearranged furniture, there is the broken glass, the devil’s brood of six-toed cats, the compromised or destroyed lives of his many wives and children and generations of poor dumb male writers who were seduced into adopting his idea of self-destructive “manhood”. (Man-hoodwinked is more like it.)
It is astounding—watching this series—how infrequently the word “pathetic” is used. Astounding how little misogyny—as a profound piece of his legacy—is dug into. Astonishing that the question is not even raised why, if we want an equanimous cancel culture (and I’m not saying that we do), his books aren’t getting chucked out of public libraries at a rate that does not equal or exceed the rate we are pitching out copies of The Cat in the Hat. Theodore Geisel mostly trafficked in unseemly imagery. The Hemster trafficked in, as the series reveals, liberal unironic use of the “N” word. Hell, we have trouble keeping copies of Papa’s beloved Huckleberry Finn in libraries, in which Mark Twain solely used the “N” word in an essential, historic context and in the interest of illuminating racial injustice and social hypocrisy. Why Hemingway should get off so lightly, the documentary never explains.
My father went to Oak Park River Forest High School where he took classes with the same teacher who taught English to Ernest. Dad liked to repeat the story of the day when his teacher pointed to the desk where Ernest Hemingway had sat, it was in a room called “the English room”, and boast that Hemingway “didn’t get any of those words from him”. After watching the documentary, I realize Dad’s old teacher could have been referring to Hemingway’s use of the “N” word.
It’s astonishing to see an image of Ernest Hemingway unfold over three days and six hours as a war profiteer, a person whose personal gain is so grossly tied to pain, suffering and death. The documentary makes it clear how much he reveled in the image of a hero but how little he lived up to the mark. It is difficult to associate his courage with sacrifice, the essential stuff that makes heroes.
“Isn’t it pretty to think so” is still a great line. “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” is still a brilliant line of dialogue. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is still my favorite Ernest Hemingway short story.