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Watching the doc, I was reminded of Virginia Woolf who wrote in A Room of Her Own, that she wanted to read a narrative about “the girl behind the counter.” She added, “I would as soon have her true history as the hundred and fiftieth life of Napoleon or seventieth study of Keats and his use of Miltonic inversion.” Once an industry gets going it’s nearly impossible to stop it, whether it focuses on Napoleon, Hemingway, or Jack Kerouac.
The Napoleon of the American Novel
Hemingway is the Napoleon of the American novel. There are dozens of biographies of him, including those by Jeffrey Meyers, Carlos Baker, James Mellow and Mary Dearborn’s from 2017 which is described as “the first biography of Ernest Hemingway from a woman’s point of view.” Why did it take so long? Perhaps because men patrolled Papa’s estate and posted “No Trespassing” and “No Hunting” signs. Perhaps, too, because no woman author before Dearborn had the balls and the temerity.
Papa’s novels, including To Have and Have Not with Bogart & Bacall, and stories like “The Killers” have been made into riveting films. A Farewell to Arms arrived on the big screen twice: the first time with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes the second time with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. Hemingway’s life with his third wife is the subject of the 2012 feature, “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” starring the Australian Nicole Kidman and the Brit Clive Owen. I wish the producers had found Americans to play Americans.
Burns and Novick’s doc may say more about pandemic-weary America and neurotic Americans today than it does about Hemingway. It may also say more about Burns & Novick and their taste for morbidity that it does about Hemingway who lusted for life, longed for happiness and for patches enjoyed family and friends and the thrill of writing.
In The New Yorker, Hilton Als writes that the film “makes less of a case for what he did on the page than for what he was doing off the page.” In The L.A. Times, Mark Athitakis observes that “Ken Burns’ new Hemingway documentary doesn’t give you a reason to read Hemingway.” It did make me want to reread some of Hemingway’s short stories, especially “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” where he’s a master of dialogue who suggests, intimates and enables the reader to see and imagine what’s not visible on the surface, or heard via the spoken words. I read that story first when I was in college. It’s well crafted, and it’s also the sort of story a college English major would revere in 1961.