Hemingway’s American Life and Death
Ken Burns’s six-hour PBS documentary on the master of sparing prose misreads his relation to the nation and the world.
Michael Katakis, the manager of Ernest Hemingway’s literary estate and a photographer who fancies himself a writer, opens Ken Burns’s ambitious documentary on the last century’s great prose artist with a sweeping declaration:
Hemingway was a writer who happened to be American. But his palate was incredibly wide, and delicious, and violent, and brutal, and ugly. All of those things. It’s something every culture can basically understand. Every culture can understand falling in love with someone, the loss of that person, how great a meal tastes, how extraordinary this journey is. That is not nationalistic. It’s human. And I think with all of his flaws, with all of the difficulties—his personal life, whatever—he seemed to understand human beings.
Ninety-two-year-old Patrick Hemingway, the last surviving of the man’s three sons, offers a similar explanation for his father’s love of Cuba: “He could really insulate himself from being an American. He could just completely leave that behind—enter a world where he had no loyalties, he had no regrets, nothing.”
I cannot claim to know the subject any better than his own son, but the central assertion made by each of these two men (which guides a good part of the six-hour study’s overarching framing) is not just wrong but necessarily so: That a writer’s nationality—the physical world he inhabits, the culture he was raised in, the traditions most immediate to his experience—can be merely incidental to the art he produces is absurd on its face and fundamentally impossible.
Hemingway was not just “a writer who happened to be American,” but “an intensely American writer,” as newscaster Edwin Newman called him in NBC’s announcement of his death in 1961, which nearly bookends the documentary with Katakis’s opening statement. (As is often the case, the matter was much better understood before anyone had time to think about it.) He could not have been anything else. Even, say, a T.S. Eliot, who fully expatriates and tries actively to scrub out his Americanisms, can never be successful in doing so; we still hear the waters of Cape Ann and the Mississippi in “The Dry Salvages.” Likewise, despite the globetrotting nature of his later life, Hemingway remains indelibly a son of Oak Park, Illinois, an heir of Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt, and a forebear of something darker. In fact, Hemingway is a particularly fascinating case study in the American writer as such, because his American identity is evident not just in his work—though you would admittedly have to be dense to miss it there—but in the way his own life tracks the national story in the years through which he lived.
Born in the last year of the 19th century, Hemingway reached maturity just as the United States was wading into the First World War. Eager to join the action but plagued by poor eyesight, he volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver and was sent into the conflict in the summer of 1918. It was not just Hemingway’s but America’s first real experience of the scale and stakes of global war. Of course, 1918 could hardly have been a more inopportune time; for both the newly adult Hemingway and the newly mature nation, it must have been a great disappointment to arrive, finally ready to engage with the world, and find that it had already ended.
Even more jarring was a serious injury from mortar fire, which found the young Hemingway recovering for half a year in a hospital in Milan before being sent home in January of ’19, two months after the war had ended. He returned to Oak Park jaded, with an awareness of death and a near-fixation on it that would never leave him, that haunts nearly every sentence of his work. He was 19 years old.
The next phase of Hemingway’s global engagement was less brutal. In 1921, 22 years old and newly married, he headed to Paris as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, where he spent most of his time drinking and a portion of it writing. The period would produce his first masterpiece, The Sun Also Rises (1926), a novel about bullfighting, impotence, and romance that is as much an elegy for the prewar order (and an ode to the natural one) as a study of his own Lost Generation.
This first expatriate period is one piece of evidence to which critics might point in characterizing Hemingway as incidentally American, but the community of expats he was a part of in Paris—including Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and (eventually) F. Scott Fitzgerald—was, like Hemingway, quintessentially American. American culture is fundamentally a frontier culture. The first great works of American literature had been James Fenimore Cooper’s frontier Leatherstocking Tales, followed by Mark Twain’s writings from the Mississippi; Hemingway himself idolized Jack London, who had ventured off to the Klondike in search of gold before penning such works as The Call of the Wild, and Rudyard Kipling, who though only briefly a Vermonter shared the classic American thirst for the frontier. By 1921 the whole continent had been conquered, and the best the heir of the frontier writers could do was a distant little colony in Paris.
Hemingway’s very transience, then, is a paradoxical sign of his deep American character. It was not just the physical frontiers of Paris and Spain or his eventual African safaris that defined this transience. Every place he found himself in was a place to push through, a place to come to in an instant and just as quickly leave. Hemingway—the writer as much as the man—abhorred stagnation. (This is one reason he never kept one wife for very long.)
Burns’s documentary describes Teddy Roosevelt multiple times as Hemingway’s hero, which was true when the latter was very young. Perhaps Henry Adams’s famous description of the former as “pure act” could apply just as aptly to Hemingway himself—a kinetic bundle of energy that could not bring itself to stop moving. For Hemingway, though, the description is less flattering, and it is worth asking how much of his dynamism was simple arrogance: a sense of superiority that discouraged attachments, a sense of importance that compelled him to leave his mark as widely as humanly possible.
In 1937, concerned about the rise of fascism and convinced that he could play a part in stopping it, Hemingway headed to Spain to write about the ongoing civil war there. This third period abroad resulted in one of Hemingway’s worst novels, the sentimental and overwrought For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), which Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa rightly and amusingly pans in the documentary. But it also gave Hemingway another chance to test his frontier mettle, which he relished. What’s more—somewhat paradoxically, given his obvious enjoyment of the adventure—the suffering he witnessed in the midst of an ideological war deepened his own political commitments.
A letter he had written to Soviet academic Ivan Kashkin in 1935 gives some idea of what those commitments actually were. American is one word for them, though one could think of a few others: “I cannot be a communist now because I believe in only one thing: liberty. First I would look after myself and do my work. Then I would care for my family. Then I would help my neighbor. But the state I care nothing for. All the state has ever meant to me is unjust taxation. … I believe in the absolute minimum of government.”
If Hemingway was an old-school libertarian, he had the antiwar streak to match it: “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” But this too is somewhat contradictory to what we know about his life, especially given the timing. These words were written in 1946, not long after Hemingway returned from the Second World War, where he was ostensibly serving as a journalist again. On top of his duties as a correspondent, though, the writer took to actually engaging as a combatant, even commanding an informal band of fighters he had gathered around himself. Hemingway was charged for this violation of the Geneva Convention, but managed to “beat the rap,” in his own words. (This chapter receives careful attention in Burns’s treatment.) For someone who professed to hate war, he did not seem to mind it much—and in fact could not help but engage in wars thousands of miles from his home.
At least one person who grew up reading Hemingway decided to watch what he did and not what he said. The late Senator John McCain, an avid fan of Hemingway’s, appears repeatedly in the Burns documentary, in footage from interviews recorded not long before his death. The late senator names For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s unimpressive novel of the Spanish Civil War, as his personal favorite. His explanation as to why he admires the novel’s protagonist is telling: “He decided to go and fight on behalf of people he had never met and he did not know. Even knowing that that cause was a flawed cause. But he was willing to fight and do whatever he thought he could for the cause of justice and freedom. I always wanted to be Robert Jordan.”
Jordan, an American professor who has come to Spain to serve as a demolitions expert for the Communists, ends the novel as a suicide bomber. McCain waxes poetic about the virtue of “serving a cause greater than yourself” without worrying much about what that cause might actually be. Pick a cause, any cause. This same indiscriminate excitement, of course, was one of the chief vices of McCain and his zealous comrades in real life. But it was a real problem for Hemingway too: He had passion and explosive energy, but he was by heritage and nature unrooted and unmoored. That explosive energy had no definite direction, and was dangerous for that; call it morbid irony that his weapon of choice was a shotgun.
McCain never became the suicide bomber he had hoped to be as a boy (he never became president either), but Hemingway did achieve his dream. He produced some of the finest short stories in the English language, and was recognized by many as the 20th century’s master of the novel. His impact on the prose style of successive generations was greater than perhaps any other writer in the American tradition. What he said of Ezra Pound—that the best of his writing “will last as long as there is any literature”—is even truer when we speak of Hemingway.
And yet the costs were immense. The public persona he crafted, both to sell himself and his work and to distance himself from his audience, became a difficult load to carry, as the Burns documentary considers well and at length. His political activities and high profile made him both an FBI asset and a surveillance target, the latter of which fueled a spiraling paranoia in his later years. (This Burns treats less seriously.) He had done horrible things in life, driven no doubt in part by the same dynamic energy that had enabled him to do great ones. All these and more contributed to the man’s now-famous suicide—his collapse under the burden of himself. He became what he wanted, but he did not survive it.
His close association with the ’20s, when he was young and at the first peak of his literary powers, can sometimes make us forget how much later Hemingway actually lived. When his obsession with death finally reached its consummation, John F. Kennedy had been president for six months; the Bay of Pigs invasion had been launched and failed, while the Cuban Missile Crisis was just over a year away; American involvement in Vietnam would soon escalate into full-scale war, cementing the precedent that still finds us engaged worldwide in 2021; at home, racial discord was boiling over and the social rot of the Sexual Revolution and the counterculture were nearly in full swing. The youthful, eager hero of 1918 lived just long enough to see his country—every bit as ambitious as he himself had been—reach its own peak and begin its own decline. For both the man and the nation, the reason for that decline is offered by the titular fisherman of The Old Man and the Sea, who, recognizing his failure, asks himself what caused it and provides himself the answer: “Nothing … I went out too far.”
If Hemingway just “happened to be American,” he was American as apple pie: the last heir of a humble but an estimable tradition, endowed with brilliant natural gifts, who—through arrogance, ambition, ability, and luck—managed to stretch his hand out over the whole world, then rose early one morning, pressed a shotgun to his head, and pulled the trigger.