Hemingway review – a gripping portrait of a literary legend

Those familiar with the Ken Burns style – memorably put to use to unpick such varied topics as the Vietnam war, jazz and baseball – will expect a certain standard from the renowned documentary-maker’s take on Ernest Hemingway (BBC Four). With his regular partner, Lynn Novick, Burns offers a meaty and impeccably researched look at perhaps the most famous American writer in literary history. Over six episodes, it examines the author’s life in chronological order, recruiting top-flight actors – Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels and, later, Meryl Streep as his third wife, the foreign correspondent Martha Gellhorn – to read his work and his letters, as well as letters sent to him by friends and family. It also circles the themes that came to define his work and the myths around the man that have led him to be considered, in more recent times, a controversial figure.

“He made himself the most celebrated American writer since Mark Twain,” says the narrator, just as the story begins. That “made himself” makes it plain that this is not a hagiography. This is as much about the creation of the Hemingway myth, by him and others around him, as it is the myth itself. Though as one contributor, the writer Michael Katakis, puts it, “the man is much more interesting than the myth”.

What a myth it is. The stories that made the man are fascinating, though the film-makers resist the urge to be lurid about them. This first episode digs into Hemingway’s “idyllic” childhood as one of six siblings in a well-to-do and church-filled suburb of Chicago. His mother writes that she once asked young Ernest what he was afraid of. “’Fraid o’nothing,” came the reply. The psychological portrait is better still, particularly given the context of Hemingway’s later reputation as a man’s man. His mother liked to dress Ernest and one of his sisters as twins, either in frocks or overalls, depending on what might amuse her. His relationship with his mother became complicated, to say the least. We are told he blamed her for the unhappiness of his father, who was moody and violent, and later correspondence from her – claiming an emotional debt from her son that must be repaid – does little to de-ice the air between them.

It whips through Hemingway’s younger years, then his time as a reporter in various North American cities, landing with a thud on his time in the Red Cross during the first world war, when an enemy mortar exploded next to him, leaving hundreds of bits of shrapnel embedded in his leg. “It has been fairly conclusively proved that I cannot be bumped off,” he wrote home, drily. But his uneasy return to his family suggested he was left with lasting psychological trauma. It picks up pace again upon his first marriage, to Hadley Richardson, and their subsequent stints in Paris (though the first trip, as Hemingway charms Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, sounds more appealing than the second, when he moved his wife and infant son into an apartment above a noisy sawmill). The infamous incident in which Richardson lost two years’ worth of her husband’s manuscripts while trying to bring his work to him on the train is told coolly, but the sting of it remains strong.

The biographical work is skilfully done, and with great generosity to all participants in the myth. This paints as vivid a picture of Richardson, for example, as it does her soon-to-be-famous then newspaperman husband. The analysis is the real treat. In this first episode, Edna O’Brien talks of Hemingway and romance. “I liked that he fell in love, and he fell in love a few times,” she says. She thinks he needed to impress an audience, but “ruined himself” to do so. This documentary is as elegant as it gets.

The real test is whether it works as well for people who know every line of Hemingway’s work intimately as it does for those who have never read a single short story, even the apocryphal six-word “baby shoes” story so often attributed to him. It is easily gripping enough to hold the attention of devotees and refuseniks, and it covers all the ground.

Later readings of Hemingway’s work have sometimes accused him of misogyny, or homophobia, and he has come to represent a brutish machismo that has been out of vogue for some time. This acknowledges those readings while going deeper, and attempting to craft a story that may explain this “brute, and lover and man about town”. In the US, this was aired in three episodes. Here, it is broken into six, which makes it feel more slight; it cuts off at the end of this opening episode just as it really gets going. At its best, it drove this viewer back to the stories, to string together the man and the myth, and it does an excellent job of it.


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