Busting the Hemingway myth

A new documentary breaks new ground by exploring the American writer’s mental health and gender fluidity—but it still doesn’t go far enough

June 29, 2021
Hemingway and his fourth wife Mary. Credit: BBC
Hemingway and his fourth wife Mary. Credit: BBC

In 1949, Ernest Hemingway took the journalist Lillian Ross on a whistle-stop tour of New York. “Want to go to the Bronx Zoo, Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art, ditto of Natural History, and see a fight,” Hemingway insisted. “Want to see the good Breughel at the Met.” In the event, they went to almost none of those places. They went to a bar to talk about hunting. They went to lunch with Marlene Dietrich—nicknamed “the Kraut”—to talk about the war. They went to Hemingway’s hotel lobby. They went to a different bar. At the suggestion of Mary, Hemingway’s fourth wife, they went to Abercrombie and Fitch to buy him a coat. Hemingway eyed himself in the mirror. “Hangs like a shroud,” he said bitterly.

Seventy years later, Ross’s irreverent profile remains one of the best pieces written about Hemingway. It shows a different side to the writer who is still so often shrouded in macho myth. Drinkin’, shootin’, fishin’, bullfightin’: we all know the Hemingway legend. The shadow of his legacy is so bulky, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to consider his work without addressing the personality behind it. Reactions to Hemingway the man can be tediously defensive: He might have been a goddamn son of a bitch—but hell! Could he nail a sentence! So how to approach him in 2021?

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new three-part documentary series Hemingway claims to “bust the myth.” It airs tonight on BBC Four in the UK, but has already been released in the US, where it attracted criticism before it was even broadcast. Questions were raised about Burns’s old-fashioned output at PBS and the traditional direction of our cultural focus generally. Do we need another documentary about an abusive dead white man? Do we really?

The question of whether Hemingway is a worthy subject is a valid one. Yet this mammoth documentary (six hours long) unpicks the more problematic aspects of Hemingway’s character, and on the whole Burns and Novick do so with sensitivity.

Born in 1899, Hemingway lived in Illinois before being posted to Europe during the First World War (he drove ambulances for the Red Cross, never actually fighting). On the western front he fell in love with a nurse, got dumped and began writing. He published The Sun Also Rises and then A Farewell to Arms at the age of 27, which catapulted him into the limelight. He had a string of turbulent relationships, lived in Cuba, Spain, France, Canada and Florida, struggled with alcoholism and depression and committed suicide in 1961.

Hemingway remains iconic: mention his name to a young male writer and watch the images glitter across his eyeballs. A fish-hook dunking into the surface of Cuban waters. Cigarette smoke puffing across the typewriter. Hairy knuckles gripping a pencil as he writes out his goddamn soul. But anyone coming to this documentary for a macho fantasy will be disappointed.

One of the most surprising aspects of Hemingway’s life was his relationship with gender. When Hemingway was a child, his mother used to dress him and sister as identical twins. (Mary Dearborn, who features in the documentary, wrote a fantastic biography exploring this a few years ago.) Though as an adult his public persona was a tightly controlled masculine stereotype, he was eager to flex gender boundaries in private. He would ask his wife Mary to call him Katherine in the bedroom, and he called her Pete. He and his first wife Hadley would cut their hair to match, a habit he documented in A Moveable Feast. His second wife Pauline would often dye her hair to please him. “Like having a new wife every day,” he wrote delightedly to a friend.

Hair sexiness crops up in Hemingway’s fiction too. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan’s encounter with Maria climaxes with him touching her hair: “He had wanted to do it all day, and now he did it.” At the moment of heightened sexual contact, it isn’t Maria’s body Robert’s interested in. Instead, he strokes her soft, short hair, which earns her the androgynous nickname “rabbit.”

Hemingway was obsessed with rejuvenation. He moved countries every time he got bored and followed political conflict like a moth to a flame. In his fiction too, he returned to the same character type time and again as though, as scholar Marc Dudley says here, he was trying to revise his life. To some extent, all writers do this. But Hemingway was extreme and destructive in his self-reinvention. His frenemy F Scott Fitzgerald once described him as “wanting a new wife for every book”—a new life for every book would also be accurate.

His life is fitting for a documentary. Hemingway was born 10 years after the first ever motion-picture was made, and he died the year Breakfast at Tiffany’s came out. Unlike Fitzgerald, he didn’t write for the screen, but there’s a sparseness to his writing (especially in his dialogue) which evokes the precision of a screenplay. Here the 20th century flicks by like a picture book: we see the First World War, the roaring twenties, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the cusp of the Cold war. It’s well paced (particularly the second episode) and subtly scored.

There’s another reason why Hemingway’s life suits the screen. “Young women are all a quiver for information,” wrote Dorothy Parker, speaking of Hemingway’s author photo. Yes, he may have had ugly qualities, but looks-wise, let’s be honest, the man was a slice. The hunk of chin poking out above his fisherman jumper. The imposing height and humorous dark expression. It’s an underrated aspect of many 20th-century writers—Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac and Ted Hughes included—that their good looks contributed significantly to their success. In this increasingly image-centric period, hot literary men were able to establish a brand. Hemingway rose to prominence at exactly the moment when technology and photography were becoming more central to the book industry, and the two women who launched his career—Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach—were undeniably drawn in by his physical charisma as well as his writing. (Obviously women’s literary opinions are not often swayed by looks. Beach published Ulysses, and James Joyce was a 6/10).

If fame came easily to Hemingway, it was an albatross. This documentary does a good job of unpicking how his suffocating self-image furthered his mental health problems. “His masculinity must have been very restricting,” says poet Mary Karr. As he grew older, he seems to have been increasingly lost in his own narcissism. When he committed suicide, shooting himself with a Civil War-era pistol, Hemingway left behind three children, and one of the most touching aspects of the documentary are the interviews with Patrick Hemingway, now in his nineties. From Patrick’s anecdotes, you get an acute impression of the kind of father Ernest was—affectionate, violent, endearing, bullying—as well as the impact of his suicide on his family. Another of his children, born Gregory but who later became Gloria, committed suicide mid-way through gender reassignment surgery in 2001. There was an opportunity here to explore the impact of Hemingway’s distressing behaviour towards other people—those closest to him, yes, but also in the wider culture in which he both participated and helped to shape. Here the documentary falls short.

The worst aspects of Hemingway’s personality are treated far too shyly. There is little discussion of his racist attitudes, for example—Marc Dudley’s confession: “I don’t know if he can be redeemed” is about as far as it gets—and Edna O’Brien is periodically wheeled in to absolve him of misogyny. (He writes about women who enjoy sex? Ah, a true revolutionary.) This is a shame, because there’s almost enough material here to build a new interpretation of Ernest Hemingway. As it is, the myth still hangs around him uncomfortably, like an ill-fitting shroud.