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Reserves of Imagination

The new PBS Hemingway documentary brings to light some surprising elements of the author’s literary greatness.

Matt Hanson

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see why Ernest Hemingway became a household name. Aside from his obvious talent and stylistic innovation, his writing climbs the expected rungs of the ladder of literary popularity. It’s accessible, often action-packed, and filled with exotic locations; and the author’s hypermasculine public image allowed your average mid-century white male to read a piece of serious literary fiction without fretting about looking like a sissy. Hemingway’s philosophy of “grace under pressure” neatly complemented the image of postwar manhood presented mainly by the movies—stoic, world-weary, lighting the romantic cigarette with a nihilist match.

Any aesthetic style that begins as fresh and revolutionary inevitably runs the risk of verging into self-parody. I was awed by The Old Man and the Sea (1952) when I read it in high school, but I think I learned something valuable about life—i.e., not to take it so seriously—when I eventually discovered how much eye-rolling the book’s grandiosity caused in Hemingway’s peers when it was first published. As one later critic remarked, “Hemingway’s characters can’t shut up about how tight-lipped they are.”

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new three-part PBS documentary, Hemingway, the third and final episode of which airs tonight and which is available to stream in its entirety, respects Hemingway’s literary accomplishments but wisely avoids promoting the heroic myth-making that Hemingway knowingly courted and which eventually overcame him. The film succeeds when it reminds the viewer of Hemingway’s willingness to explore characters and situations that didn’t feed his own insatiable ego or satisfy his audience’s desire to live vicariously through Hemingway’s genuine love of what his hero Teddy Roosevelt called “the strenuous life.”

It might sound a bit counterintuitive, but the film perceptively highlights some of the unexpectedly progressive and even feminist aspects of Hemingway’s stories, which is some of his best work. Writers like Edna O’Brien and Mary Karr remark on Hemingway’s willingness to examine the various ways in which men betray women, his appreciation of women who break out of the confinement of traditional gender roles, and his intense curiosity about gender-bending, both in his fiction and in his private life.

Consider “Up in Michigan,” one of the first stories he ever published in 1923. Gertrude Stein, who helped teach him about how to write in a new way, warned that it was impossible to publish. It’s about a date rape told from the woman’s perspective, and we are put right in the middle of her anguish: “Jim had her dress up and was trying to do something to her. She was frightened but she wanted it.… She was cold and miserable and everything felt gone.” After reading this passage aloud, O’Brien states, very confidently and clearly, that it is impossible to say this was an author who didn’t understand women’s emotions.

“Hills Like White Elephants” (1927) is one of the greatest things Hemingway ever wrote, a masterpiece of concision—and evasion. One of the scholars commentating in the film describes the protagonist’s masculine insistence and assertion as an attempt to manipulate a woman into having an abortion, awkwardly referring to the topic, which is obvious but never explicit. He tries to weasel out of the jam he’s in by telling her of the procedure, “It’s just to let the air in,” which is his attempt to absolve himself of guilt. As he does so, the woman utters one of modern fiction’s great lines of dialogue: “Will you please please please please please please please stop talking?” The irritation and exasperation at male perfidy ring out loud and clear in those seven repetitions, which say more than any ordinary expository writing could.

Then there’s the awful cluelessness of an abandoned young woman, in “One Reader Writes” (1933), who desperately writes to an advice columnist after her caddish lover gives her an STD; or the agony of childbirth seen through a child’s eyes in “Indian Camp” (1924); or the sexual repression in “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot” (1924); or, in The Sun Also Rises (1926), the pride of Lady Brett Ashley, who openly toys with her lover’s affections to show that as a thoroughly modern woman she will not be beholden to any man, thank you very much. The film makes clear that Hemingway appreciated strong women yet never seemed to be capable of loving anyone on any terms but his own. His neediness was the reef on which his respect for female independence crumbled.


The film takes a sensitive approach to Hemingway’s lifelong obsession with gender-bending. It may have been a result of his mother’s dressing him and his sister in the same clothes when he was an infant, it might have been a kinky attribute of his hidden vulnerability, or maybe he just happened to dig women with short, boy-like hair. His yen for adopting his lover’s appearance and switching pronouns in the bedroom was most intensely explored in the manuscript of The Garden of Eden, which he worked on intermittently for fifteen years and eventually stashed in the back room at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, one of his favorite watering holes. The massive manuscript was shortened and eventually released in 1986. Maybe he was too embarrassed, or too shy, to finish or publish it. The uneven narrative that survives suggests how awkwardly intriguing the subject remained for him.

Of course, the vista of an author’s work is usually set at a sharp angle from his personal life. The audience tends to get the best of what the artist has to give, while those closest to him are left to sift through the dregs. This certainly seemed true in Hemingway’s case. Each of his four wives was very devoted but inevitably either couldn’t or wouldn’t put up with his constant neediness, self-absorption, and bullying, or they ended up getting dumped whenever he fell hard for someone new. F. Scott Fitzgerald is quoted remarking that his old friend seemed to need a new woman for every book.

Hemingway was cruel to Fitzgerald’s reputation years later, as he was to many who had vouched for him when he first arrived in Paris as a dashing but unpublished young man. In the 1950s he seemed especially bitter toward the new crop of novelists who he feared started to eclipse him in terms of public regard, and we hear a particularly rancid note in a piece sent to a blurb-coveting publisher, a grotesque and racist example of his mean streak. It seems that whenever Hemingway felt insecure or needed to overcompensate, he didn’t hesitate to caricature those around him to elevate his own status. As the years progressed, and his talent waned, acute depression, psychotic paranoia, and relentless boozing eroded his usual robustness. When he finally took his own life in Idaho, a couple weeks shy of his sixty-first birthday, we’re almost relieved that it’s finally over.

The more we read Hemingway with a skeptical eye, the easier it is to see that Hemingway’s obsession with measuring up to his own idea of a true man, with all the fighting and drinking and hunting and so forth, was fed by the fear of his being haunted by a deep sense of inadequacy. This vulnerability paradoxically makes him compelling while offering an implicit critique of the machismo for which he was naively celebrated. Striving can be a fine thing, especially in art, but constantly trying to achieve an impossible ideal of rugged manhood can prove toxic and, indeed, fatal. Insecurity will get its hooks into you and kill you if you let it, even if you’ve already achieved more than most ever dream of. This may provide a useful lesson that Hemingway can unintentionally teach us all these years later. We ought to heed it, even if he was never able to learn it himself.

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor of American Purpose and The Arts Fuse, Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine. His work has appeared in The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and Three Quarks Daily.

Photo: Unattributed, Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11539695

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