‘Hemingway’ Is a Big Two-Hearted Reconsideration

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From The New York Times:

One of the more unsettling moments in “Hemingway,” the latest documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, finds Ernest Hemingway, big-game hunter, chronicler of violence and seeker of danger, doing one thing that terrified him: speaking on television.

It is 1954, and the author, who survived airplane crashes (plural) earlier that year in Africa, had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He agreed to an interview with NBC on the condition that he receive the questions in advance and read his answers from cue cards.

The rare video clip comes after we’ve spent nearly six hours seeing the author create an image of virile swagger and invent a style of clean, lucid prose. But here Hemingway, an always-anxious public speaker still recuperating from a cerebral injury, is halting and stiff. Asked what he is currently writing about — Africa — his answer includes the punctuation on the card: “the animals comma and the changes in Africa since I was there last period.”

It’s hard to watch. But it is one of many angles from which the expansive, thoughtful “Hemingway” shows us the man in full, contrasting the person and the persona, the triumphs and vulnerabilities, to help us see an old story with new eyes.

. . . .

Now “Hemingway,” airing over three nights starting Monday on PBS, comes along as American culture is reconsidering many of its lionized men, from figures on statues to Woody Allen. And there are few authors as associated with masculinity — literary, toxic or otherwise — than the writer who loved it when you called him Papa.

It’s tempting to say that Hemingway’s macho bluster doesn’t hold up well in the light of the 21st century, but it didn’t go unnoticed in the 20th either. He embraced manliness as a kind of celebrity performance. He fought with his strong-willed mother, who accused him of having “overdrawn” from the bank of her love. He married four times, finding his next wife before leaving the previous one, wanting each to give herself over to supporting him.

He clashed spectacularly with his third wife, the writer Martha Gellhorn (played in voice-over by Meryl Streep), who matched him well, maybe too well to last. A free spirit who resisted marriage at first, saying “I’d rather sin respectably,” Gellhorn would not sideline her ambitions for his. (You might find yourself wishing you were watching her documentary.)

. . . .

This is true whether we sit easily or not. “Can you separate the art from the artist?” is a heated and dogmatic argument these days. You must sever the two, in a spirit of see-no-evil, to preserve the precious product; or you must handcuff them together, so that any judgment of a life becomes the judgment on the work, and the work a forensic rap sheet against its creator.

“Hemingway” doesn’t separate art and artist. Hemingway didn’t either. He created a public “avatar” that sometimes overshadowed his work (and threatened to make him a self-caricature) and wrote his life into his art (sometimes with cruelty toward friends and peers). But the documentary also recognizes that life and art don’t always correlate neatly or simply.

The resulting biography is cleareyed about its subject but emotional about his legacy. It celebrates his gifts, catalogs his flaws (which included using racist language in his correspondence) and chronicles his decline with the tragic relentlessness its subject would give to the death of a bull in the ring.

The biggest compliment I can pay “Hemingway” is that it made me pull my “Collected Short Stories” off the shelf after years, to read his piercing, full-feeling work in a new light. This life story is not entirely a pretty picture. But to quote its subject, “If it is all beautiful you can’t believe it. Things aren’t that way.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Although it’s not fashionable these days, PG is inclined to separate the author from the books, especially if the author is dead.

Who or what the author was is a question that is subject to debate, post hoc analysis that says more about the analyst than the subject, the latest fashions in cultural heroes and villains, etc.

PG has known or met a few people about whom news reports or articles have been written and has never found the reality of the individual accurately reflected in the written descriptions of them. There’s nothing wrong with writing or reading or creating a story about a person’s life, but those who see that creation are not, in fact, seeing or experiencing the real thing.

One aspect of Hemingway, the man, is, however, concrete – the stories and books he wrote. Certainly an editor may have tweaked this and that, but here is something personally created by that individual. While it may not be an autobiography and may clearly be fiction, the creation did originate from the individual’s self.

For PG, Hemingway’s creations are quite excellent and enjoyable and he expects them to remain that way to others for a long time.

The man is dead and will be judged by God. (Or not, depending upon your personal beliefs.) In any case, while PG does not object to new assessments or insights (correct or not) of Hemingway, he still believes what Hemingway wrote is the closest PG can come to understanding who he was.

5 thoughts on “‘Hemingway’ Is a Big Two-Hearted Reconsideration”

  1. “…while PG does not object to new assessments or insights (correct or not) of Hemingway, he still believes what Hemingway wrote is the closest PG can come to understanding who he was.”

    Pausing for just a moment to say Bravo, PG.

  2. PG quote: “Who or what the author was is a question that is subject to debate, post hoc analysis that says more about the analyst than the subject, the latest fashions in cultural heroes and villains, etc.”

    This, all of this, and I couldn’t agree more.

    When I was younger and training to be a mental health nurse, and later a cognitive behavioural therapist, the one question people who met me who asked after finding out what I did was, “Are you analyzing me?” (or variants to that effect).

    My reply was that analyzing a person took at least a month of weekly face-to-face sessions and was much more involved than a mere chat. As for literary analysis of writers through their writing, my disdain for all such works is not fit for public consumption.

    • Fern seed and elephants, Ma’am; fern seed and elephants. Which is to say I agree emphatically.

      As C. S. Lewis said:

      These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight.…

      Until you come to be reviewed yourself you would never believe how little of an ordinary review is taken up by criticism in the strict sense; by evaluation, praise, or censure, of the book actually written. Most of it is taken up with imaginary histories of the process by which you wrote it. The very terms which the reviewers use in praising or dispraising often imply such a history. They praise a passage as ‘spontaneous’ and censure another as ‘labored’; that is, they think they know that you wrote the one currente calamo and the other invita Minerva.

      What the value of such reconstructions is I learned very early in my career. I had published a book of essays; and in the one into which I had put most of my heart, the one I really cared about and in which I discharged a keen enthusiasm, was on William Morris. And in almost the first review I was told that this was obviously the only one in the book in which I had felt no interest. Now don’t mistake. The critic was, I now believe, quite right in thinking it the worst essay in the book; at least everyone agreed with him. Where he was totally wrong was in his imaginary history of the causes which produces its dullness.

      Well, this made me prick up my ears. Since then I have watched with some care similar imaginary histories both of my own books and of books by friends whose real history I knew. Reviewers, both friendly and hostile, will dash you off such histories with great confidence; will tell you what public events had directed the author’s mind to this or that, what other authors had influenced him, what his overall intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why – and when – he did everything.

      Now I must record my impression; then distinct from it, what I can say with certainty. My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record of 100 per cent failure. You would expect that by mere chance they would hit as often as they miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can’t remember a single hit.

  3. Lewis was not alone in dismissing critics.

    Exhibit One: The Immortal Bard


    “The Immortal Bard” is a science fiction short story by American writer Isaac Asimov. It was first published in the May 1954 issue of Universe Science Fiction, and has since been republished in several collections and anthologies… ”

    “It is likely that Asimov wrote this short story after seeing how literary academia viewed his own writing. His autobiography, In Memory Yet Green, describes how science fiction gradually became more “respectable”, while at the same time, professors of literary studies wrote things about SF — even about Asimov’s own stories — which he completely failed to grasp. “The Immortal Bard” is an expression of Asimov’s own deep admiration for William Shakespeare which also satirizes the interpretations built upon Shakespeare’s work — such as symbolic, Freudian, and New Critical. ”

    The physics professor, Dr. Phineas Welch, has gotten himself slightly drunk and begins speaking with Scott Robertson, a young English teacher. Welch announces, “I can bring back the spirits of the illustrious dead.” He goes on to explain that, via “temporal transference”, he can bring people from the past into the present. At first, Robertson treats Welch’s story as an amusing, alcohol-induced fantasy, and he begins to enjoy the conversation. Welch says that he first tried bringing eminent scientists from earlier eras—Archimedes, Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei. However, none of the scientists were adaptable enough to handle twentieth-century society; Welch realized that he needed to find an adaptable, universal mind.

    “So,” he continues, “I tried Shakespeare.” This startles and incenses Robertson, since it strikes “closer to home”. Shakespeare, according to Welch, was flexible enough to understand human beings of every era, and he adjusted to the modern world much more easily. Welch reports that Shakespeare was eager to find what future generations thought of him. When Welch finds him a book of literary criticism, Shakespeare cries in exasperation, “God ha’ mercy! What cannot be racked from words in five centuries? One could wring, methinks, a flood from a damp clout!”

    Eventually, Welch says, he enrolled Shakespeare in a night school class on Shakespeare’s plays—taught, as it happens, by Robertson. At this point, Robertson begins to become genuinely worried. He recalls a bald man with an unusual accent, and starts to doubt whether Welch’s story was all alcoholic fantasy. Timidly, he asks Welch what happened, and the physicist explodes with anger. Shakespeare had been humiliated, he says, and Welch had to send him back to 1600: “You poor simpleton, you flunked him!”

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