The idea of a Ken Burns documentary on Ernest Hemingway seems both obvious and a bit absurd. Burns’ long project of celebrating the most dad-friendly pillars of American culture and history—the Civil War, baseball, jazz—makes Hemingway (after Mark Twain, covered by Burns in 2002) almost inevitable. Hemingway’s life was full of exciting adventures, and, not incidentally, he is surely the most photographed writer of the 20th century, so there’s lots of visual material to draw from. Yet after decades of dominating ideas about how a writer should live and work, Hemingway feels increasingly irrelevant today, his influence diminished to a vanishing point, his reputation corroded by a dated personal mythos. According to the Chicago Tribune, even in Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park, Illinois, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby alone outsells all of Hemingway’s work combined, and the Hemingway Foundation had to launch a GoFundMe campaign to keep the museum at his birthplace open.
Hemingway promises to refresh the author’s image by uncovering “the man behind the myth,” as if the two could ever be separated in this relentlessly self-mythologizing figure. Even for the casual Hemingway follower, there are few revelations in the PBS documentary, which premieres on Monday. Although much is made of the fact that the author had an erotic interest in swapping gender roles with his female partners, that came out with the posthumous publication of The Garden of Eden in the 1980s. I learned exactly two things from the very leisurely six hours of Hemingway. One was the profusion of serious head injuries the author sustained over his lifetime, particularly in the years leading up to his death by suicide at the age of 61. The other was that, even in his heyday, the punishing ideal of masculinity that Hemingway embraced raised the eyebrows of critics and acquaintances alike. The notion that his machismo was sentimental and over the top, that it damaged his work and was really pretty ridiculous—that criticism was made from the very start.
So what can Hemingway tell us about what American writers owe to Hemingway? Whatever that debt is, it’s a lot, according to the various writers and literary scholars who appear as talking heads in the documentary, but they (Edna O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, Mario Vargas Llosa) are fairly long in the tooth, and few young fiction writers would now claim him as a star to steer by. In comparison, the influence of William Faulkner, transfigured in the crucible of Toni Morrison’s genius and legacy, can be detected everywhere.
The documentary, which Burns co-directed with Lynn Novick, does excel at putting Hemingway in his historical context, which may be the best way to appreciate what he achieved.* His spare style, an adaptation from his early work as a newspaper reporter, registered as sensational in the 1920s, when everybody had spent their lives reading novels clotted with the elaborate conventions and overbearing narrators of 19th-century British fiction. Like all of the early modernists, Hemingway struggled to represent how the vast, meaningless carnage of World War I (in which he served and was wounded as an ambulance driver) had utterly transformed their lives. Hemingway is at its strongest when conveying the author’s quest to hack his way out of an old way of writing about the world, a rhetoric that had come to seem bankrupt. In voiceover, Jeff Daniels reads Hemingway’s own works and letters with a piercing calm, including this beautiful passage from A Farewell to Arms:
I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything.
Other modernists—James Joyce, Virginia Woolf—broke out of the authoritative voice of the 19th-century novel by turning inward and trying to capture the fluid, fragmentary nature of personal experience. Hemingway obsessed about producing work that was “real,” that had the objective, implacable quality of the material world. He mostly avoided describing his characters’ subjective emotional states, encouraging his reader to infer what they’re feeling from how they behave. One of the writers interviewed in Hemingway, Amanda Vaill, compares the contrast between the fat, multicharacter novels of the previous era and modernists’ innovations as a move from panorama to “close-up,” and in Hemingway’s case, the choice of metaphor is more significant than the metaphor itself. Part of what made his fiction feel modern and American is not only its similarity to journalism but the way its attention to the exterior world resembled the movies.
Hemingway also solved a long-standing American uneasiness with fiction writing itself. American writers, like all Colonials, at first felt dominated and overshadowed by British and European culture. Furthermore, what was believed to be distinctive about “the American character”—its active, optimistic nature, the gumption required to build a nation out of an ostensible wilderness, etc.—seemed incompatible with sitting in a room scribbling all day. Writing, particularly the writing of fiction, was insubstantial compared with laying railroad track across the prairie, inventing the cotton gin, and founding a family fortune on steel foundries. Plus, writing novels meant catering to women, then (as now) the form’s primary readership.
The “myth” of Hemingway that Burns and Novick’s documentary purports to dismantle squared this circle by promoting the argument that a real writer needs to go out into the world seeking adventure, rough-and-tumble companions, tragic love affairs, and close brushes with death in order to produce work of lasting value. That work must, naturally, take as its subject such experiences, the most important of which is war. This myth, which obviously excludes many writers from the pantheon of so-called greatness, dominated much of the 20th century by reimagining novel-writing as a heroic activity fitting for bold, manly men.
The personal motives behind Hemingway’s devotion to this ideal aren’t necessarily clear. He was notably lacking in self-awareness when it came to his own anxieties about masculinity, and as with so many of his characters, we can only speculate about the turmoil inside him by observing his actions, which were often deplorable. He abused those close to him, got into countless stupid fights, and participated in the torment and slaughter of hundreds of blameless animals, from the bullfights he spectated in Spain to the big game he hunted in Africa. None of it did him any good, of course, and by the final hour of Hemingway, it’s impossible to regard him with anything but pity despite all of the harm he caused.
But there we go again, focusing on Hemingway’s character and his glamorous, misbegotten life and the four wives and the picturesque tropical villas and the drinking and finally his death in Idaho, instead of on his contribution to American letters.* The urge to cut our prose down to the bones has proved to be a lasting, if intermittent, one. In the late 1970s, the legendary editor Gordon Lish helped make Raymond Carver a literary star by insisting that he pare his stories of excess adjectives, clauses, and sentences, thereby launching the predominant literary trend of the 1980s, minimalism. All of those writers (who included Frederick Barthelme, Ann Beattie, and Wolff) were Hemingway’s heirs, and Lish, whether he admits it or not, was a priest in Hemingway’s temple. This latter-day minimalism often shared some of Hemingway’s significant faults, such an absence of humor or sense of play. But glumness isn’t obligatory, and in a world filled with new media that perpetually deluge us with ill-chosen words, the grace of well-executed verbal economy can be very welcome, indeed. In this, Hemingway’s influence has been benign.
In the end, however, it’s impossible to separate content from style, and while Hemingway wrote many passages of surpassing power, his work always tended to drift toward sentimentality and self-pity. We’re meant not only to have our hearts rent by the sufferings of his stoic heroes but also by the stoicism itself. Hemingway’s ethos demands silent endurance from men and then asks us to feel sorry for their inability to express their pain. He utterly fails to make a plausible case for such practices as bullfighting—which is, to be sure, indefensible—by summoning up a lot of nonsense about it being a “a tragedy” that “symbolizes the struggle between man and the beasts.” The tragedy, he claims, lies in the “death of the bull,” but like the deaths of so many soldiers in the world war he condemned, this one is unnecessary. The pleasure Hemingway took in bullfighting seemed more vicariously masochistic than sadistic, but what does it matter why a man fetishizes the engineered misery of others? It is this lack of imagination, Hemingway’s inability to see beyond the solipsism of his own needs, that has caused his writing, for all its strengths, to fall more and more by the wayside over the decades. Unlike The Great Gatsby, which has proved to be a remarkably flexible reflection of American striving, Hemingway’s novels feel stuck in their own time, a rebellion against a long-dead literary order and the articulation of an obsolete code of manhood nobody misses. He changed American literature, as Hemingway correctly proclaims, but it has gone on changing, leaving him behind.
Correction, April 6, 2021: This article originally omitted the name of Hemingway co-director Lynn Novick. It also originally misstated the method Hemingway used to end his life. That reference has been removed.