Ken Burns' 'Hemingway' Docuseries Dives Into The Writer's Complicated Life

Mar 30, 2021

Hemingway, the latest PBS documentary series from Ken Burns and company, has several names attached who have become a sort of repertory group. Lynn Novick, Burns' frequent co-director, is back. So is writer Geoffrey C. Ward, who helped make Burns a PBS phenomenon with the landmark non-fiction mini-series The Civil War. And the narrator, who has lent his voice to so many past productions, is Peter Coyote.

As always, Coyote calmly and clearly sets the table for everything to come — and why you might be interested. "The world saw him as a man's man," Coyote says, to quote one early example. "But all his life, he would privately be intrigued by the blurred lines between male and female, men and women. There were so many sides to him, the first of his four wives remembered, that he defied geometry."

In this new Hemingway documentary, the women around the author are as illuminating as the author himself. Each of his four wives has something revelatory to say — and these spouses are given voice by a quartet of wonderful actresses, who bring the women's private letters and other writings to vivid life.

Meryl Streep has the meatiest part as war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway's third wife. Her dispatches during the Normandy invasion rivalled, and arguably exceeded, his own. But the other wives are given voice by Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson. And Jeff Daniels supplies the voice of Ernest Hemingway, reading from his private letters as well as his published short stories and other writings.

There's so much to deal with regarding Hemingway. Professionally, there's the way he wrote, what he wrote, and the impact his writing had on modern literature. Personally, there's the relationships with women, the misogyny, the alcoholism, the depression — all of which found their way into his stories as well.

This new PBS biography doesn't shy away from any of it. It doesn't avoid or excuse Hemingway's excesses and betrayals and failures. Instead it enhances our understanding of the man by probing deeply into both his life and his writings. And whenever Daniels reads from Hemingway, as Hemingway, he does so in an understated tone as unadorned as the writer's own prose style.

Burns and Novick not only bring literary moments to life, using just the right sounds and images and voices, but also dive into Hemingway's complicated personal life: The suicide of his father. The upbringing by his mother, who dressed him in girl's clothes and encouraged his imagination. His experiences in several wars, and finding glory in such macho activities as hunting, deep-sea fishing and attending bullfights. From Paris to Spain, from Key West to Cuba, Ernest Hemingway lived in exotic locales during turbulent times — and wrote about all of it.

Whatever you already know, or don't know, about Ernest Hemingway and his work – and his life – the new PBS documentary Hemingway is certain to add more to that body of knowledge. And, very likely, it will make you reassess much of it. As a Ken Burns and company literary biography, Hemingway is even better than their previous documentary on Mark Twain. And my levels of praise don't get much higher than that.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who co-directed such PBS documentary series as "The Vietnam War," "Baseball" and "The War" have a new documentary project premiering April 5 on PBS. This one is a three-part, six-hour biography of Ernest Hemingway. Our TV critic David Bianculli has a review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Hemingway," the latest PBS documentary series from Ken Burns and company, has several names attached who have become a sort of repertory group. His frequent co-director, Lynn Novick, is back for "Hemingway." So is writer Geoffrey C. Ward, who helped make Ken Burns a PBS phenomenon with the landmark nonfiction miniseries "The Civil War." And the narrator, who has lent his voice to so many past productions, is Peter Coyote. As always, he calmly and clearly sets the table for everything to come and why you might be interested.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HEMINGWAY")

PETER COYOTE: For three decades, people who had not read a word he'd written thought they knew him - wounded veteran and battlefield correspondent, big game hunter and deep sea fisherman, bullfight aficionado, brawler and lover and man about town. But behind the public figure was a troubled and conflicted man who belonged to a troubled and conflicted family with its own drama and darkness and closely-held secrets. The world saw him as a man's man. But all his life, he would privately be intrigued by the blurred lines between male and female, men and women. There were so many sides to him, the first of his four wives remembered, that he defied geometry.

BIANCULLI: In this new "Hemingway" documentary, the women around the author are as illuminating as the author himself. Each of his four wives has something revelatory to say. And these spouses are given voice by a quartet of wonderful actresses who bring the women's private letters and other writings to vivid life. Meryl Streep has the meatiest part as war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway's third wife. Her dispatches during the Normandy invasion rivaled and arguably exceeded his own. But the other wives are given voice by Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson. And Jeff Daniels supplies the voice of Ernest Hemingway, reading from his private letters as well as his published short stories and other writings.

There's so much to deal with regarding Hemingway. Professionally, there's the way he wrote, what he wrote and the impact his writing had on modern literature. Personally, there's the relationships with women, the misogyny, the alcoholism, the depression, all of which found their way into his stories as well. This new PBS biography doesn't shy away from any of it. It doesn't avoid or excuse Hemingway's excesses and betrayals and failures, but it enhances our understanding of the man by probing deeply into both his life and his writings. And whenever Daniels reads from Hemingway as Hemingway, he does so in an understated tone as unadorned as the writer's own prose style - even when, in a letter to a friend, Hemingway is discussing his prose style.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HEMINGWAY")

JEFF DANIELS: (As Ernest Hemingway) Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, do not worry. You have always written before. And you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally, I would write one true sentence and then go on from there.

BIANCULLI: That approach led Hemingway to write in a manner that said so much while describing so little. For example, this fictional account drawn from Hemingway's own wartime experiences about being in a foxhole in Italy as shells exploded overhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HEMINGWAY")

COYOTE: While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces in Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed, oh, Jesus Christ, get me out of here. Dear Jesus, please get me out. Christ, please. Please. Please, Christ. If you'll only keep me from getting killed, I'll do anything you say. I believe in you, and I'll tell everyone in the world that you are the only one that matters. Please. Please, dear Jesus. The shelling moved further up the line. We went to work on the trench. And in the morning, the sun came up. And the day was hot and muggy and cheerful and quiet. The next night, back at Mestre, he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with at the Villarosa about Jesus. And he never told anybody.

BIANCULLI: Burns and Novick not only bring such literary moments to life using just the right sounds and images and voices, but also Hemingway's complicated personal life - the suicide of his father, the upbringing by his mother who dressed him in girl's clothes and encouraged his imagination, his experiences in several wars and finding glory in such macho activities as hunting, deep sea fishing and attending bullfights. From Paris to Spain, from Key West to Cuba, Ernest Hemingway lived in exotic locales during turbulent times and wrote about all of it.

Whatever you already know or don't know about Ernest Hemingway and his work and his life, the new PBS documentary "Hemingway" is certain to add more to that body of knowledge and very likely to make you reassess much of it. As a Ken Burns and company literary biography, "Hemingway" is even better than their previous documentary on Mark Twain, and my levels of praise don't get much higher than that.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed the new three-part PBS documentary "Hemingway."

On tomorrow's show, how giant tech firms led by Amazon are warping the economy and increasing inequality among population centers. ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis says some cities get robust job growth and soaring housing prices, while formerly prosperous areas are left stagnating. His new book is "Fullfillment: Winning And Losing In One-Click America." I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.