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Ken Burns' "Hemingway"

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I enjoyed episode 1. I know little about Hemingway really, only the things most people know, and I've not read or been interested in reading much of his work. I recall only having read in college, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" - and that only because it was assigned - and several years ago, "The Killers" in a short story anthology.  I know how he died, and I appreciate how the documentary foreshadows it without revealing it. Years ago, I read Intellectuals by Paul Johnson (an odd book of dirty laundry airing) where I think I came across a quote by a friend of Hemingway saying something like, "He is the only man I've ever known who truly hated his mother." That exact quote didn't come up tonight, but the relationship is accounted for and I think that observation will turn out to be accurate.

Of his style I know he is often praised for a his sparse sentences and avoidance of what might be seen as decorative words, and the documentary suggests that came from, or was reinforced by, the style book at The Kansas City Star, where he first worked as a reporter. I enjoyed seeing the visual editing of his prose on screen and learning a little about how he approached the task of writing, such as how he would sit down to begin a writing session and first read all previous work from the beginning before adding that day's work, and not stopping until he knew what would happen next.

He must have been a difficult man to know and like, or at least I've always thought I would find him so. This film seems to present him dispassionately, neither flooding the screen with praise nor dwelling on his faults. I suspect I will come away from this finally wanting to read a volume or two of his work.

Hemingway's own words are spoken by Jeff Daniels, and there are interviews with current writers and scholars who know his work well. I'm looking forward to the next episode tomorrow. 

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Episode 2, "The Avatar" was painful to watch. So much to dislike about Hemingway is revealed. 

It begins in the early 30s and discusses his fascination with bullfighting, and Death in the Afternoon. Images of the picadors come. I'm with Max Eastman. I don't get it. It is not beautiful. It is ritualized cruelty. (But then I've never been to Spain.)

The focus shifts with the times and the rise of socialism. Here, I found his anti-communism refreshing to learn of. To the leftist critics who complained he was not supportive of their cause, he said, "There is no left or right in writing. There is only good and bad writing." But it was short-lived, and probably no more deeply felt than his love for any of his wives. He took the first opportunity to pander to the communists in New Masses by taking advantage of a natural disaster, a hurricane, that left 259 veterans dead, and laying if at the feet of Roosevelt.

He didn't want to fight the Nazis, but he went to Spain where he saw first-hand the Stalinist executions and agreed to say nothing. When John Dos Passos complained, Hemingway claimed that to do otherwise would run afoul of the left wing literary establishment in New York. Well, yes it would, of course. So much for the rugged individualist. 

He went to China to report on the war there with Japan, and oh yeah, he secretly agreed to supply information to Stalin, but as Geoffrey Ward's narrative is quick to point out, he didn't actually tell them anything. My guess is the Chinese weren't stupid enough to give him anything.

He actually got Roosevelt to let him play soldier off the Florida coast, hunting Nazi subs with all the equipment he asked for, including unlimited gasoline, though everyone else's was rationed.

Then he traded in a loyal, supportive wife for a slightly prettier and more adventurous one that he found he had to compete with. And he played dirty. When his bullying didn't keep her in line, he tried sulking. When that didn't get any better results, he got off his a$$ and weaseled his way ahead of her in Colliers by-lines.

Nobody is perfect, God knows, but he seems to have been, as Paul Johnson concluded, a shallow, self-indulgent opportunist. 

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Episode 3, "The Blank Page" begins with Hemingway's adventure as a war correspondent who also, despite the Geneva Convention's proscriptions, participated in the conflict as a combatant. He followed the 22nd Infantry Regiment, whose commander, Buck Lanham, would become a lifelong friend. During this time he suffered two more concussions before returning to help liberate Paris, where he was joined by Mary Welsh, who would become, however reluctantly due to his drinking and quick temper, his fourth and last wife. He would also witness scenes of wartime horror in the Hürtgen Forest.

We learn more detail of his marital bedroom proclivities involving gender reversal. Maybe he enjoyed being the passive partner, I don't know, but it doesn't seem to be anything he took great care to hide. We also learn of his son Gregory's proclivity for cross dressing. Gregory would later be arrested in a Los Angeles ladies room dressed as a female, and still later would undergo a sex change operation, though this is not mentioned.

The word schizophrenia is mentioned when his son Patrick is diagnosed, and treated with shock therapy, foreshadowing Hemingway's own medical treatment in the years prior to his death. 

After his marriage to Mary, the familiar pattern of spousal abuse appears, only with a new physical component. His tales become taller and his sexual adventures involve a teenage prostitute, and the company of a young woman he met in Venice, Adriana Ivancich, an 18 year-old he asked to call him, at 50,  Papa.  He would ask her to marry him, he told her, if he weren't certain she would say no.

He would suffer yet another concussion (I lost count, but he rivals Howard Hughes in this area) when he had a fall on his boat. Throughout this episode we see him drinking more and more, later taking pills, and we are often reminded of his father's suicide. Mary said she felt she was watching him disintegrate. 

His long awaited war novel, Across the River and Into the Trees, was published to unkind reviews, and critics suggested his best writing was behind him. Around that time, his publisher sent him a galley of From Here to Eternity, with a request that he provide a blurb. Instead, Hemingway responded with a particularly vicious diatribe  that writer Marc Dudley suggests he must have known would be widely read one day. In it, he called the author a coward who possessed the psychotic's urge to kill himself.

We learn of a little game he would play in front of friends that involved putting a shotgun to his mouth and pulling the trigger, only to make a clicking sound. 

When Adriana and her mother visited Hemingway at his home in Cuba, he was inspired by her, energized someone said, as if she were a muse, and in the space of eight weeks, he wrote The Old Man and the Sea. It was widely praised by critics. Indeed Mario Vargas Llosa tells us it his his favorite Hemingway novel, while Edna O'Brien, who up to this point has spoken highly, dismisses it impatiently as "schoolboy writing."

Hemingway returned to Africa where he would survive two airplane crashes in two days. The first of which prompted headlines around the world announcing his death, while the second resulted in still another head injury, after he butted it repeatedly and with enough force to open a door to escape a burning plane.

His head injuries by then, compounded with his drinking, were taking their toll. After he won the Nobel, he agreed to a television interview on the condition the questions would be submitted beforehand, and his answers could be read off cue cards. The film is shown of him reading aloud in a grade schooler's cadence, even pronouncing audibly the words "comma" and "period." It is difficult to watch.

Thereafter, Hemingway began but did not finish A Moveable Feast, where he wrote harshly of former friends Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and he  continued to work on The Garden of Eden, even while knowing it would be too sexually frank to publish, at least in his lifetime.

Of the revolution in Cuba, he said he was convinced of its "historical necessity," not foreseeing perhaps that it might cost him his Cuban home and everything in it, which after the Bay of Pigs, it did. Still, he'd had the foresight to buy a home in Ketchum, Idaho, where he spent his final days.

Treatments at the Mayo, ostensibly for his blood pressure but actually for his depression, followed and then, in the midst of alcohol abuse, over-medication with pills, and ever-increasing paranoia, the inevitable and pitiable end came. The room, or vestibule as it is described, where he pulled the trigger is shown, followed by the newscast of Edwin Newman delivering the news that Hemingway had "killed himself, the sheriff says, accidentally."

Even knowing it was coming, I found it tragic and, like all suicides, pathetic. I believe he knew he was losing the abilities to do the things he wanted to do with his life, and when it became clear that he no longer could live it on his terms, he ended it in the manner he had rehearsed. 

This was not I think one of Burns' more compelling or entertaining works, but I found it worthwhile, even if I'm not, as I expected I would be, eager to read more Hemingway. 

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