Ernest Hemingway

The full story has finally been told. The fullest to date anyway. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have looked at Ernest Hemingway from both sides now in the three-part series, Hemingway, which aired on PBS last week.

While he was alive, the story was of a larger-than-life, high-living, celebrity author. Since his death, he has become a symbol of overblown, toxic masculinity. Because he wrote in simple, declarative sentences, people assumed he was a simple, declarative man. The simplicity of his prose has been mistaken for shallow and his work misjudged as overrated. This series captures his complexity.

Because he caroused and passionately pursued pleasure, he couldn’t possibly be a disciplined writer and serious artist, could he? But he was up early and writing every morning. The work kept him alive. “The great thing,” he said, “is to last and get your work done.” Many of those who venture back to his work — and learn more about him — change their mind about Hemingway.

That’s how it was for me. There is a clarity to his writing. You can see the brook trout in the stream. It’s like reading in sunlight. All the edges are distinct.

Hemingway rose to great heights, and his fall from grace-under-pressure wasn’t pretty. It was his destiny, but his choices certainly accelerated it. His strengths, as a person and a writer, were outsized. His flaws were enormous and, ultimately, decisive.

Part 3 of the series raises the Hemingway story to the level of classical tragedy, but you need to see parts 1 and 2 for the full effect.

Awareness of the inevitability of death is the thread running through both his writing and his life. There are no happy endings in Hemingway stories. He comes closest in A Moveable Feast, a love letter to Paris with an elegiac tone, looking back on youth near the end of life. It was his last great book, written in spite of his advanced decline. Amazing that he could write anything at all at that point.

His fascination with bullfighting in Spain and big-game hunting in Africa, which, understandably, turns many readers off, can only be understood in terms of his obsession with death. What was it about bullfighting that fascinated him enough to write a book-length treatment titled, Death in the Afternoon? Bullfighting only makes sense as a primal, quasi-religious ritual that incorporates considerable artistry — a ballet of life and death performed by the matador (with help from picadors, who lance the bull, gradually weakening him). Hemingway admired the matadors, but I suspect he identified with the bull — a powerful force of nature, disabled and brought low by a system rigged against him. 

An apt metaphor for someone so enormously gifted and enormously cursed, undone by the daggers of his demons: his inherited mental illness, long years of alcoholic self-medication, PTSD from close involvement in three wars, and numerous concussions causing brain damage, including two plane crashes in two days in Africa near the end of his life.

Hemingway’s only surviving son, Patrick, compared his father as he neared the end to Shakespeare’s King Lear, howling on the heath. According to Greek — and Shakespearean — tragedy, a person of high station in life is undone and brought low by his own actions. That is Hemingway’s life story. Tragedy traditionally plays out against the backdrop of the chorus, a stand-in for the audience, which is not a passive voyeur so much as an active witness to the hero’s demise. The experience instills an elevated form of pity, seasoned by sympathy. When it works, we leave the theater sensitized, more closely in touch with our shared humanity. 

Tragedy fails if we leave the story feeling dismissive: “He had it coming,” as the young revenger in Clint Eastwood’s film, The Unforgiven, says after he kills a man. “We all have it coming,” Eastwood replies.  

The end of Hemingway’s story was in many ways pre-ordained, but even in the disintegration and degradation of his last few years, he managed to rise above it with the aforementioned Moveable Feast as well as The Old Man and the Sea, the myth of his life stripped to its bare essentials. He hooked the big fish, but the sharks feasted on it before he got it home. Though easily parodied because of its ultra-simplicity, it tells a great truth about him when the old fisherman, speaking for the author, says in the end, “I went out too far.” 

By 1961, Hemingway could no longer write, due partly to electro-shock therapy. Only one form of agency remained and he placed a gun barrel against his forehead and pulled the trigger. The bull became his own matador. 

In a Zoom discussion, one of a series of conversations held by Burns and Novick with guest authors and scholars in the weeks before the series ran, author Joyce Carol Oates had this to say: 

“I think we are expecting something of him that he was not able to provide. … His father had committed suicide. He was deeply insecure. He made out of the material of his life a very beautiful and lasting monument to just getting through it. He lived to be about 62 and then he killed himself. But he might have died much younger. … There is something heroic in these people enduring as long as they did — especially Hemingway, who was haunted by the possibility of dying by suicide all through his life.”

Hemingway himself once said, “I have always [felt] it was more important, or as important, to be a good man as to be a great writer. I may turn out to be neither but would like to be both.” 

He wasn’t always a good person, but he was a great writer and he was eminently human. He captured in the “lasting monument” of his work the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful.

When it comes to Hemingway, too many Oak Parkers are indifferent or dismissive, turning a blind eye to the treasure that his growing up here represents. As this series shows, it is worth getting re-acquainted. 

It would be easy to reduce Ernest Hemingway to a cautionary tale, but if, in our Greek Chorus, we aren’t moved by the story of his life, or the stories he wrote during his life, then we miss his heroism — as well as the heroism of other tragic figures like Oedipus and Lear. 

And we miss the lesson tragedy teaches: that facing the truth — about living and dying — is what makes us truly human. 

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