Friday, April 9, 2021

Hemingway, Ken Burns and the Age Old Question

"Writing, at its best, is a lonely life."
--Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Ernest Hemingway

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Can an immense jerk be an important artist? How do we separate the artist from the art?

I have struggled with this many times over the years, most recently while reading Earle Labor's Jack London: An American Life. There are more than a few people in Hollywood whose bad behavior has tarnished their stars in my estimation. If you want to thoroughly enjoy their performances or what they've produced or directed, it's almost better not to know too much.

The same goes for rock stars. To enjoy their music it's almost best not to know too much about their personal lives. 

For this reason I was a bit surprised when I saw that Ken Burns had produced a six-hour documentary on the bigger-than-life Nobel Laureate Ernest Hemingway. His influence on literature was, and remains, undeniable. His reputation "off the screen" left something to be desired. Thus I was curious how Burns would present the man.

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I am more than a little familiar with Hemingway's story, having read most of his books and a few books about him. I was aware of his father's suicide, and the manner in which he burned through four wives -- Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer, Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welch. I was also keenly aware of his commitment to the craft of writing. And, of course, I was aware of his death by suicide at age 62 after years of struggle with personal demons.

In this last of three segments, it was painful to learn how much he verbally abused his sons and how much he hated his mother, whom he never saw yet supported till her death. 

I could relate to his struggles as a writer on at least one level. As one who has achieved monumental heights, I can imagine it to be quite the burden to feel the weight of expectation to climb yet higher. He observed that Nobel Prize winners seldom produce anything better afterwards, though I suspect he was overstating the case due to his speculative fear that he was a has-been. (I've heard that Ishiguro's latest novel, post Nobel, is quite remarkable, which goes contrary to the dictum Hem pronounced.)

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Hemingway at 50
Here are a few observations I made on the third night of the Burns documentary.

I was unaware of how many concussions Hemingway experienced. The correlation to his mood swings is logical, though his lifelong alcoholism certainly played a role. And perhaps there was an underlying root of bitterness that infected him as well. 

Not all of his books were critically acclaimed. Across the River and Into the Trees received the worst reviews possible. And though Old Man and the Sea became an immediate bestseller, critics homed in on the mannered "Hemingway style" as if it had become a parody of himself.

Hemingway's injuries through the years were common occurrences it seems -- concussions, blurred vision, throbbing headaches, battered knees. He had more than his share of physical maladies, though simultaneously his choices helped put him in harm's way on some of those occasions.

I was unaware that he covered D-Day as a journalist from a landing transport, and his soon to be wife was taking photos right on the beach.

Some reporters admired him for his bravado, other couldn't stand it. He actually got involved in the fighting in the war itself (WW2), which was against the rules of journalism.

One of his favorite homes -- if not his favorite writing place -- was in the hills overlooking Havana. Eventually, after Castro took over Cuba, Hemingway had to abandon this idyllic place. 

Chief character traits used to describe Hemingway included masculinity, stoicism, idiocy, mortality, and drinking, drinking, drinking. He could be exceedingly hurtful in his letters. When his mother died, he said he hated his mother and she hated him. He inflicted 100,000 cruelties on people who were part of his life.

I found it interesting that the documentary cited Shakespeare's King Lear at one point, when he said, "What's going on here? Aren't I king?" This was a late in life development where others had to step in to keep. him from self-destruction. 

Another pair of incidents were somewhat unusual. During a trip to Africa with his wife the plane they were on faltered and crashed. The rescue plane failed to see them initially, so Hemingway was presumed dead and media all over the world published obituaries and tributes. As luck would have it, they were rescued after all, but on the return flight were involved in a second crash. His wife broke ribs and he cracked his skull using his body and head to smash his way out of the burning plane.

While recovering from the second crash he read the obituaries and tributes to his greatness and influence as a writer. (Have you ever wondered what they will say about you and your legacy when you die?)

His last years, after leaving Cuba, were spent in Ketchum, Idaho. It was not a happy time as he struggled with concentration and internal turbulence. He'd crossed too many boundaries, and as Dylan would one day sing, "You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way."

In his last days, he would write a sentence, cross it out, try another and quit. Later he would try again, wrote a sentence and quit yet again. "Unable to write a good sentence after four hours he gave up."

For what it's worth, the number of writers influenced by his stories and novels is impossibly great. I count myself as one of these, inspired to excel as a writer by his first book of short stories, In Our Time. He was a master of the craft, and his prose struck me like a punch to the solar plexus.  That's an experience I can never deny.  

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YouTube Videos

Orson Welles on Hemingway

Ingrid Bergman on Hemingway

Andy Rooney on Hemingway

Interview with Hemingway in Havana, 1954
(EdNote: Read the comments to catch why their recitation from cue cards is so stilted.) 

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Related Links

Ernest Hemingway's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

PBS's Hemingway is an immersive portrait of the author's brilliance and cruelty

Channeling Papa: Scott Stavrou's Collected Blog Posts of Ernest Hemingway

A Visit with M Denise Costello: Hemingway Aficianado from Dallas

Throwback Thursday: For Whom the Bell Tolls

1 comment:

Ed Newman said...

Thank you to the anonymous reader who posted a comment reminding me that Ketchum is in Idaho and not Montana. I have corrected it in the text, lest I be guilty of spreading misinformation.