When I learned of the new Ken Burns special on the life of Ernest Hemingway, I perked up. Hemingway’s life and work looms large for many writers of a certain age, especially those of us who write about the outdoors. I was excited to see what the master of television documentaries conjured up.
While I can’t cite any major faults, the three-part documentary was something of a letdown. I don’t get the point of revisiting the Hemingway story if you’re only going to hang ornamentation on the otherwise well-known historical record. You’ve got to add something of substance.
This is the first time I’ve sat through a Burns project and didn’t learn anything new. It was well done and thorough, but I assimilated the basic Hemingway narrative decades ago.
Well, there is Edna O’Brien, the Irish novelist and playwright, who explains how the old macho, misogynist Hemingway stereotype is really just literary profiling. “Up in Michigan” or “Hills Like White Elephants” are short stories in which Hemingway confronts the troubling issues of date rape and abortion. He does so from the woman’s perspective, honestly and accurately.
This is a literary legacy of nuance, not formula.
My sense is that Hemingway began to slip into the abyss in the late 1930s. He had achieved fame and fortune as a writer, even if he was in something of a drought. He was soon to divorce his second wife, then marry a third, and that wasn’t going to go well. The short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” was one of the bright spots of this dry period. First published in Esquire magazine in 1936, it depicts a married couple, Harry and Helen, on safari in Africa. Harry is sick, dying of gangrene.
Despite the dramatic backdrop, this is the kind of inward looking theme Hemingway’s work often explored: anguished mental and emotional interiors.
Harry renounces his love for his wife, but steadies his thoughts long enough to apologize. He drifts in and out of consciousness and we learn through flashbacks the many stories he’ll leave unwritten when he dies. Africa is central to the “Snows” mostly in plot and setting. The thorn that lacerates Harry’s leg is in Africa, as is the broken down truck that has left them stranded, along with the medical supplies inadequate to halt his spreading infection.
The story really takes place in Harry’s fevered mind.
It’s easy to see Hemingway’s own insecurities reflected in Harry’s deathbed fixation with failure. After his cruelty to his wealthy wife, Harry silently admits he is responsible for his own decline. He gave up writing to become something of a gigolo — Paul Varjak on safari. But there’s no Holly Golightly in this story offering Harry absolution. There’s only the specter of death, in the form of a hyena, lingering at the edge of camp.
Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker suggested “Snows” was a statement of sorts for its author. In his prose, Hemingway conjured up a fictional doppelgänger and left him dying on the plains of Africa. Unlike Harry, however, Hemingway slayed his hyena, writing three more classics.
The writer slayed the hyena, but the man slayed only himself. “Feast” was released posthumously, after Hemingway’s suicide, and Burns’ retelling of the Hemingway story seems as much a symptom of our romantic obsession with gifted-but-troubled artists as it does revelation. Part 3 of “Hemingway” was like rewatching a tragic old movie and this time pulling for a happier ending.
“Hem! Put the bottle down! Finish off that hyena! Redemption is the story! Tortured self destruction is just a purple passage!”
Yet no matter how loud we shout, the rescue plane never strays from course. Its destination? A final resting place near the frozen summit of Kilimanjaro.
Rob Breeding writes and blogs at www.mthookandbullet.com.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.