This past week I twice watched the full six hours of the new Lynn Novick / Ken Burns documentary about Ernest Hemingway. Several years ago an English instructor at my college explained to me and a class how the criticism and historiography about Hemingway has evolved in the twenty-first century. Out are the paeans to Hemingway the hyper masculine hunter, fisherman, boxer, and adventurer; in are explorations of the great writer’s alcoholism, PTSD, concussion-induced mental health issues, and other vulnerabilities. “Hemingway” fits neatly into these academic trends. Watching the story unfold over the course of several evenings was unsettling and emotionally exhausting. There were a few people with whom I was texting and emailing after having watched each installment. One friend was so distraught as to question the necessity of the entire project. I must say I really had no good answer or reply. Part of the reason for my unsatisfactory responses was that I too was trying to process the life and disintegration of Ernest Hemingway myself.
In addition to the documentary, I have been listening to serval podcasts and virtual events with Novick and Burns over these past several days. Burns in particular has turned several times to the evolving nature of celebrity itself in the now six decades since Hemingway’s suicide. We know more about public figures today than was possible decades ago in the time before the internet and other communication advancements. It was easier then for a figure like Hemingway to craft a persona. I would argue that personas are not lies and that public figures have a right to create a public-facing identity. How could they not do so? That the myth and reality inevitably fail to align neatly and perfectly is not something to unduly concern us. There is room for both. Ultimately it is the work that matters.
Of course none of that makes it any easier to watch the physical and mental breakdown of a man, let alone a great artist like Hemingway, so unblinkingly. I totally understood what my friend was getting at. The truth though has a value all its own. One thing I noticed in the interviews with Novick and Burns is that they repeatedly mentioned the importance of self-care and told listeners that if they felt they too might be suffering from chemical dependency or mental health issues to seek help.
(image/Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)