By presenting himself as an alpha male man who faced death and lived to tell the story, Ernest Hemingway created an impossible myth that would torment him for life.
This is one of the “Hemingway” takeaways. Airing today through Wednesday on PBS, the six-hour three-part documentary series by longtime collaborators Ken Burns and Lynn Novick paints an intimate portrait of one of America’s greatest writers, whose prose was economical but deep in novels such as “A Farewell to Arms”, “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man and the Sea”, and have influenced scribes for generations. But he was also a tragic figure haunted by mental illness, alcoholism, head trauma and depression before committing suicide in 1961 at the age of 61.
The story – told through storytelling by Peter Coyote with a star voice cast including Jeff Daniels (as Hemingway), Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Patricia Clarkson and Mary-Louise Parker – is the one who gesticulates with the two filmmakers for decades.
“It’s such a complicated story,” says Burns, “of a protean artist but also of someone who failed himself, a guy who believed his own PR and suffered for it. Necessary to create this PR in order to do its job. Did an amazing job, was very disciplined.
“You know, (he) had a huge sort of genetic disposition to insanity,” Burns continues, “had suicidal thoughts even before (when) his own father committed suicide; life and death experiences because her father was a family doctor, went to war as a teenager and was nearly killed and saw incredible horror. Has a nervous mother who instills in her a kind of self-dramatization but also this love of Bach and repetition and counterpoint. You have a guy who had … nine, 10, or 11 major concussions that created CTE, but it also produced dementia, mental illness, suicidal ideation.
For Novick, Hemingway was a case of art and creativity intersecting with celebrity culture.
“He lived as an artist and also as an extremely famous person for most of his adult life,” she says, “and what happens when you become as famous as you are young – what does it do to you? It’s the fascinating thing to just create your own myth and then try to live it and become that kind of albatross or burden.
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