The Story Behind Ken Burns’ Newest Documentary: ‘Hemingway’

Series of Panel Discussions Previews PBS' April 5 release

By Ryan Woodard
Good news for literature enthusiasts: America's most famous documentary filmmaker is tackling the life of one of its most famous authors. Hemingway debuts on PBS April 5.

PBS is offering a series of free panel discussions, Conversations on Hemingway: A Virtual Event Series, leading up to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's three-part, six-hour documentary series coming to PBS April 5-7, 8–10 pm ET (check local listings).

Joined by 2017 Festival presenter and National Book Award-winning author Tim O'Brien, associate editor of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway Verna Kale and host Paris Schutz of WTTW in Chicago, Burns and Novick discussed the film's impetus and content during the first panel Feb. 23, Hemingway and Childhood. What can viewers expect to learn from the film? It is, in a word, complicated.

The Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author is an appropriate choice for a documentary: his image is deeply rooted in the mystique of America, home of the "American Dream" phraseology and hoped-for happy endings in narrative and life.

When asked by Schutz why he made the documentary, Burns' initial answer reflected this inevitable association between the A Farewell to Arms author and America. Burns said he was amused to have found an old scrap of paper from the 1980s that said, "do baseball, then Hemingway."

Though both baseball (on which Burns released a documentary in 1994) and Hemingway are often considered "as American as apple pie," Burns made it clear the new film is as layered as the foundation beneath the Empire State Building.

"It's in some ways the deepest psychological kind of portrait that we've been able to do without ever once having to say 'good/bad,' which is the great stain of kind of human activity — to just think you can nail it by understanding the simplistic morality," he said.

The result is a film that promises to mirror the study of humanities: there is no moral to the story; there is only the discovery of what it means to be human. Hemingway the human was as complicated as he was talented, and the conflict that lived in his mind drove his narrative. That conflict also drives the story of Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway

A Complicated Man

A short clip from the early part of the documentary, which covers the first 20 years of Hemingway's life in Chicago, considers the impact of childhood events on his writing. His mother outfitted him and his sister in "twinning" fashion as a child, sometimes putting them both in dresses, sometimes putting them both in boys' clothing. The panelists discussed the cognitive effect this had on the author, as well as other contradictions that would ultimately define his career.

He wanted to write simply about things that were complicated. He wanted to be successful like other authors, but he did not want to write like them. It's safe to say he achieved both. With his trademark direct, simple prose, he eclipsed the writers of his era and forever redefined American literature.

"He wants popular success, but he doesn't want to fit the mold to get it," Kale said of Hemingway's time in Paris in the 1920s, when he interacted with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, eventually producing his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.

But the dominant theme of the panel discussion was Hemingway's obsession with mortality.

Hemingway's 'Ground Zero'

"As was said in the introduction, his stories run the gamut of human emotion," said panelist Tim O'Brien, a 2017 Festival of Books presenter whose keynote session focused on how Hemingway influenced the National Book Award winner's writing about the Vietnam War.

"For me, if I were to say one single thing that I bring out of Hemingway, is that his ground zero, as I read it, his passion, his obsession was not boxing or fishing or hunting. It was the finality of death itself."

It was another contradiction-driven obsession: Hemingway was fascinated by death yet obsessed with making his writing come alive. In one of his letters shared during the preview of the film, Hemingway said his goal was "To actually make it alive, so that when you've read something by me, you actually experience the thing."

From A Farewell to Arms, in which Hemingway desperately tries to escape death while seeing it everywhere, to The Snows of Kilimanjaro, which draws out the final living moments of a dying man, death is a prevalent theme.

O'Brien noted that death dominates many of Hemingway's short stories, which O'Brien referred to as "miracles of economy" with "such breadth and such depth" beneath the surface.  

"Hemingway embraced that which most of us want to push away. That what's going to happen to all of us," said O'Brien, who faced mortality as a soldier in the Vietnam War. "It's one of his most famous lines, in fact. 'Death is what all of us face.'"

While confronting death is, on its surface, the grimmest theme an author could embrace, Burns said Hemingway's "head on collision" with World War I and the era that would emerge from it is where the "sparks fly" in his writing.

Burns said the author's obsession with creating living prose in a world where everyone dies is an inspiration to all artists.

"As pessimistically horrible as that sounds, it's so enlivening to have that. Because, of course, if none of us get out of this alive, then why aren't we all rolled up on the floor in the fetal position? But we're not. We're writing short stories. We're writing novels."

Kale said her study of Hemingway's letters reveals the man in ways his fiction cannot, and that appears to be Burns's goal: to show what it means to stare hard at death while writing with a vitality that fights the very idea of finality.

"This is what human beings do with that material," he said.

Learn More

Interested in watching the series of conversations leading up to the Hemingway premiere? Click below for the full schedule and links to the Conversations on Hemingway: A Virtual Event Series videos.