Revered documentarian Ken Burns (‘The Civil War’, ‘The Vietnam War’) again partners with Lynn Novick to bring us the story of one of the titans of 20th century American literature.
Travis Johnson

22 Jul 2021 - 1:59 PM  UPDATED 22 Jul 2021 - 3:54 PM

“Well, he had his demons,” we say when we get news of another brilliant artist gone to their grave, if not directly by their own hand, then by bad habits so thoroughly indulged that they might as well have.

The literary list is long: Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, and more. Towering over them all, of course, is Ernest Hemingway: terse modernist, wounded veteran, drinker, lover, fighter, hunter, suicide, and subject of master documentary maker Ken Burns’ latest offering. And if Hemingway is about the writer’s larger-than-life life, the series is also about his death.

Call me Papa

Of course, being a Ken Burns project, the series is hardly modest in its ambitions. Hemingway is an exhaustive biographical portrait of the man, each two-hour episode an exactingly thorough examination of Hemingway’s life and work.

Narrated by Burns regular Peter Coyote, with Jeff Daniels providing Hemingway’s voice, we cover every inch of ground from his childhood in Illinois to his death in Idaho. Along the way we take in his World War I service, his years in Paris, his literary successes, his many loves (Keri Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Mary Louise Parker, and Meryl Streep voice his four wives), his adventures on the hunt and on the front, his struggles with alcohol and depression, his decline, his death by suicide, and his legacy.

Even a hagiographic and uncritical account of Hemingway’s life would be fascinating, but Burns and co-director Lynn Novick go deeper, resulting in a much richer documentary experience.

Unmaking the myth

Ernest Hemingway didn’t just write stories, he wrote himself. The character of Papa Hemingway is as important to his story as the character of Nick Adams: a hard-drinking, two-fisted, womanising man of letters whose writing was “done by noon” so he could be “drunk by three”.

If it wasn’t entirely a lie, it was certainly an exaggeration, and while Hemingway the series is respectful of the man and his oeuvre, it’s not afraid to dispel some long-held falsehoods.

Some are merely biographical inaccuracies: the hardscrabble Parisian years when he honed his craft after the war weren’t nearly as hand-to-mouth as he described in his memoir, A Moveable Feast, for example.

Others delve into the contrast between Hemingway as he was and how he wanted to be perceived, examining the contradictions in his personality: the sensitive artist and the cruel brute, intertwined.

But most crucially, Burns’ series skewers the long-held but dangerous myth that madness and despair is the price of genius.

We know how this ends

It could be that we tell ourselves that to feel better about our own modest gifts. Sure, we might never reach the same dizzying artistic heights as Hemingway or Plath (or Hendrix or Hutchence or Cobain), but then again, perhaps that means we’re less likely to reach for the shotgun or the oven door.

That kind of thinking is comforting. But it’s wrong, and it’s dangerous. The danger lies mainly in getting the cause and effect reversed, and so we get emerging and ambitious artists thinking that if they want to be great, then they have to be depressed, self-destructive, abusive, and soon gone. Which is not to dismiss the actual and very serious problem of mental health issues in the arts, but let’s face it: too many young creatives reach for the bottle before the pen because, hell, that’s how Hunter and Hemingway did it.

Burns’ Hemingway thoroughly dispels this notion through its acute psychological portraiture, mapping out point by point the various traumas, anxieties, and insecurities that plagued him throughout his life, along with the physical and mental injuries he acquired along the way (his double-digit collection of concussions alone is jaw-dropping).

While the series stops short of pinpointing one direct cause for Hemingway’s decision to end his own life, it certainly takes pains to map out the various contributing factors, and not one of them was his skill with words. With that in mind, while Hemingway covers a great deal of territory, perhaps one of the key lessons to take away is that he was great not because of his flaws, but in spite of them.

Three-part documentary Hemingway premieres exclusively in Australia on SBS and SBS On Demand on Saturday. See it Saturday nights at 7.30pm from 24 July on SBS, or stream the full series at SBS On Demand from 24 July. 

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