‘Hemingway’ Review: Ken Burns’ Exhaustive Look at the Archetype of the White Male Western Canon
Ernest Hemingway means different things to different people. To some, he’s little more than a name on a required reading list in school, one of those white males whose work makes up the canon of Western literature. To others (and thanks to “10 Things I Hate About You”) he was an “abusive, alcoholic misogynist.” As directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick lay out in their six-hour documentary for PBS, “Hemingway,” he was all of those things.
Per Burns’ reputation for thoroughness, “Hemingway” is one of the most comprehensive examinations of the man and the myth around him. Each episode, clocking in at nearly two hours over each of three episodes, isn’t just a historical biography of Hemingway’s life and relationships. It’s also an exploration of his writing process, how his life influenced his art, and a critical reexamination of how his literary endeavors hold up in a world that is more attuned to spotting racism and misogyny.
When it comes to the biographical elements, Burns and Novick weave a compelling tale. With Jeff Daniels as Hemingway’s voice reading excerpts from the author’s texts and private letters, we meet a man desperate to be all things to all people. He’s virile, boastful, and yet a hopeless romantic who held people to impossible standards. Almost immediately the two halves of Hemingway are presented: a man who could be a good father and husband, but could just as easily be violent and cruel; a man who took pride in his work and just as quickly felt he was a failure and entertained thoughts of suicide.
What Burns and Novick pull off is conveying Hemingway’s big feelings. His utter adoration for the four women who would become his wives is told in numerous letters, with Daniels’ soft, melodic voice the perfect way to convey the lyricism and romance of Hemingway’s writing. At the same time, Keri Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Mary Louise Parker, and Meryl Streep offer differing tones for each of Hemingway’s wives. As far as his relationships go, this element is the most fascinating as Hemingway’s wives and lovers did influence his novels.
The various actresses convey the type Hemingway went for: all strong women who worked in dangerous locations. As the documentary lays out, Hemingway’s tendency was to fall hard for his wives, only to always eventually move on. In the case of second wife Pauline Pfeiffer, she regularly changed her hairstyle and emphasized that Hemingway was more important than their children and it wasn’t enough to keep him from wandering.
His relationship with war correspondent Martha Gellhorn is easily worth its own documentary; it does make up the majority of Episode 3. Despite being equally tenacious personalities, both drawn to the power and destruction of war, their relationship was also fraught with violence. As it turns out, Hemingway resented Gellhorn the rest of his life for being the one to leave him.
The exploration of his novels opens the door towards an in-depth discussion of Hemingway’s connection to war and death. The various experts and writers assembled for this project all share a reverence for Hemingway’s prose, but also point out how so much of his work is tragic. His short stories explore everything from the brutality of war, to abortion, to date rape. Of course, these latter topics often lead to discussion of Hemingway’s antipathy towards women, a fact only exacerbated by his abuse of Gellhorn. There’s also discussion of overt anti-Semitism in “The Sun Also Rises.”
Because everyone assembled as a talking head to guide the series is a devotee of Hemingway, there’s a tendency to apologize for Hemingway’s failures in his writing under the guise of educating. In the case of female depictions in the likes of “Hills Like White Elephants” or “Up in Michigan,” it is proffered that the work doesn’t feel it’s written by a man who hates women, but one curious about them. In the discussion of the anti-Semitism in “The Sun Also Rises,” there is confusion over how Hemingway could base the character on a Jewish man he was friends with and be so cruel; the concept of him just being a bigot doesn’t factor in. The lack of voices contrasting these assertions (or any critics of color) probably won’t do much to move Hemingway away as the problematic archetype of the white male Western canon.
“Hemingway” won’t do much to entice new fans of the author — certainly not enough for them to commit to six hours about his life. But if you’re a literary fan and have connected with any of the author’s works, you’ll find something that resonates. It’s a documentary interested in showing the author, warts and all, and giving audiences the opportunity to look at how all these elements made up a man whose works are pieces of art.
“Hemingway” airs on PBS April 5. It will be streaming on the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel starting April 5 and an exclusive 4K UHD version will be available only on the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel starting April 11.
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