April 2021 will undoubtedly be the month of Ernest Hemingway, thanks in no small measure to the six-hour documentary produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and broadcast on the Public Broadcast System this week.
Indeed, if you look on the PBS website, it seems to be all-Hemingway, all-the-time.
Once again, Burns and Novick selected a topic with broad appeal and treated it with the depth and the courage that its complexity deserves. Ernest Hemingway was not simply a writer. He was a truly great writer whose life and whose work forces us to pay attention, no matter what his faults were.
His faults were legion and obvious. He exhibited himself boldly with what many today would term as “toxic masculinity.” He glorified big game hunting and bullfighting. He used and then discarded women. He took credit for bold deeds and actions that were not his. His racism and antisemitism we’re barely concealed. His consumption of alcohol and its impairment to his good instincts are difficult to excuse.
Yet Hemingway’s talent, his work ethic, and ultimately the books and the short stories that he produced rerouted the world’s literature into a modern era, and no writer who came after him has been able to escape his influence.
Hemingway pioneered a new type of prose that broke sharply with the loquacious language employed by 19-century writers. One of his guiding principles was the words have extraordinary power in and of themselves. Hemingway used short words in short declarative sentences to convey this power to the reader. He is often quoted as saying that the writer’s job was to find that “one true sentence.”
He spent his life and his extraordinary gifts trying to find that one true sentence.
The Burns-Novick documentary covers all of this ground, and that in itself would make it worth watching. In some circles, Hemingway has fallen out of favor, and young people today do not read his books and short stories as much as they once did. That is a shame because, if anything, Hemingway seems to be directing his prose and his ideas to young adults.
The producers of the documentary say they are often confronted but people who know of Ernest Hemingway but who have never read anything by him, and they are often asked, “Where do I start?”
It’s a good question. It has many answers. My answer is The Old Man and the Sea. What’s yours?
Hemingway on occasion could be an absolute jerk. His treatment of his wives was often devious and cruel. One of my favorite stories is about Martha Gellhorn, his third wife who as a writer and particularly a war correspondent was his superior in many ways. In this particular instance, Gellhorn turned Hemingway’s cruelty into an asset.
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