What We Can Learn About Ernest Hemingway From Everything He Didn’t Write

Lynn Novick talks about her new documentary with Ken Burns about the literary titan

April 5, 2021 8:15 am
Ernest Hemingway's signature style "didn't just emerge fully formed," says filmmaker Lynn Novick.
Ernest Hemingway's signature style "didn't just emerge fully formed," says filmmaker Lynn Novick.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

When fandom reaches a certain fervor, it becomes insatiable. Just look at the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League, a recent rerelease of the 2017 superhero film reimagined with the vision of the original director. When fans of Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and simply Snyder himself got word of his longer, darker, hopefully better blockbuster, they wouldn’t stop until Warner Bros. released it. So they did. And the fans are happy. 

As has been the case with Ernest Hemingway, the latest subject to get the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick treatment with a documentary premiering Monday on PBS. The American literary giant carefully crafted both his written works (his painstaking editing process was encapsulated in a Paris Review interview in which he admitted to rewriting the last page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times) and his hyper-masculine public persona (Hemingway’s gender fluidity, discussed in film, is still not common knowledge), so even as we approach the 60th anniversary of his death this July, there’s still plenty of material left on the cutting room floor that fans are happy to examine.

These scraps, in the wrong hands, aren’t always enlightening. When it comes to the alternate Farewell endings, as Novick tells InsideHook, “some of them are terrible, just horrible, just cringe-worthy.” But in the hands of Burns and Novick, who both directed and produced the new documentary, the pieces that Hemingway cut out to form his final drafts and his macho facade breathe new life into the story of a writer who previously seemed due for a moratorium. 

“Cringe-worthy,” “horrible” and “terrible,” it turns out, are also some of the more tame adjectives used to describe Hemingway in the modern era, as laypeople and scholars alike have taken him to task for moments of apparent anti-Semitism, sexism and racism. While most of those detractors won’t take the time to watch a three-part, six-hour documentary on Hemingway, they would likely find reason to revisit his oeuvre if they did. Conversely, those who regard the big-game-hunting Papa as a paragon of 20th-century masculinity might find they have also turned a blind eye to the man behind the myth, because the truth — as it always tends to — lies somewhere in the middle.

In advance of the documentary’s premiere, we spoke with Novick — whose longtime collaboration with Burns includes subjects ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright to the Vietnam War — about two of the forgotten parts of Hemingway’s legacy: the myriad rough drafts that illuminate his published work, and the foreign-language translations that have made the quintessential American writer an unlikely inspiration to the rest of the world.

Ernest Hemingway on the fishing boat Anita around 1929
Hemingway on the fishing boat Anita circa 1929.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Ernest Hemingway: Obsessive Editor

Much of the source material for PBS’s Hemingway comes from the John F. Kennedy Library, which houses, according to the institution, 90% of “known Hemingway manuscript materials.” But the value and substance of those materials wouldn’t be as great if the writer behind them worked in another era, or if he hadn’t cared so much for the rewriting process.

“I think a lot about if we were to write, to make a film or tell the story of someone who’s a writer today … if they don’t print out every draft and write on it, or do a line edit where you have Track Changes, are you going to be able to understand or see the writer’s process?” Novick asks. “Hemingway, because of the tools of production that he had available and because of his work habits, and because he did save everything, we have a way to chart his actual writing of many of his most important works, from pen on paper or in a notebook to a final draft.”

For casual Hemingway readers — which, it should be noted, most people are, thanks to the incorporation of The Old Man and the Sea into grade-school curricula — the simplicity of his prose can belie his nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic. A 1998 essay by Joan Didion, recently published in a new collection, shows how one exquisitely crafted paragraph (the first in A Farewell to Arms) can act as an entry point to the whole writer behind it. In “Last Words,” she discusses the debilitating view Hemingway had of his legacy; he desired “to be survived by only the words he determined fit for publication.” That, of course, has not happened, with much of his writing being released posthumously. But if Hemingway’s approved output lionized him, the unofficial works and drafts humanize him.

“You see that he wasn’t always a brilliant writer,” says Novick. “He didn’t just emerge fully formed. [You see] that it actually takes work and that you have to write stuff down that’s not good and then see it on the page and then realize that’s no good, and that he might change two words, and it might work a lot better.” 

Ernest Hemingway recovering from injuries at the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, Italy, 1918
Ernest Hemingway recovering from injuries at the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, Italy, 1918.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Much More Than an American Icon

While Hemingway is known for interspersing other languages, specifically Spanish, into his writing, he didn’t have control over the dozens of other languages his work has been translated into. And despite his status as a quintessential American writer who made his mark on the English language, with those translations dispersed throughout the globe, he’s embedded himself in places where he potentially didn’t even think possible.

In Novick’s first trip to Vietnam, to work on her Vietnam War series with Burns, she recounts arriving in Hanoi and grabbing her luggage only to see an ad for coffee with Papa Hemingway’s face. She remembers thinking, “Wait, why are they using Hemingway to sell coffee in Vietnam?” 

It became clearer when Novick met Lê Minh Khuê, who was interviewed for the Vietnam documentary. She was in the North Vietnamese Army fighting against the Americans, she helped repair the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but she was also given a translated copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls by a family member to read during that experience. According to Novick, “She said that [Hemingway’s book] helped her survive that experience.”

Novick is full of these stories: Hemingway’s writing being translated, then adopted by those outside the U.S. — many of them from people she included in the new documentary. There’s Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel Prize winner, who said Hemingway “was like a God in Latin America” when he was growing up. And when Novick first contacted Abraham Verghese, who grew up in Ethiopia, to ask if he’d like to be in the film, he responded, “How did you know I was a Hemingway freak?” 

The most affecting anecdote from Novick’s memory, though, takes place after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. 

“Somebody was interviewed on TV, a woman at a memorial service, and said, ‘We will continue. Paris lives forever.’ And she held up A Moveable Feast in French and said, ‘This is the Paris that we need to celebrate. This shows Paris will continue,’” she remembers. “It’s called Paris est une fête, Paris is a party — that’s how it’s translated into French — and copies of that book in French were left at memorial sites all over Paris to the people who were killed.” 

A Moveable Feast was published in 1964, three years after Hemingway took his own life, without the author’s final say on the work. As such, it is like the original Justice League, taken over and finished by others. We will never get the Hemingway cut of the memoir, but through half-formed work of its ilk — when taken in context with completed stories, drafts, letters and other ephemera — storytellers like Novick are able to offer us a more complete version of Ernest than he was willing to offer himself. 

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