Charting Hemingway’s life is not just writing

Tuesday: Hemingway; (BBC4, 9pm)

As the author of novels including A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway is often considered to be one of America’s greatest writers.

His economic prose style would prove to be hugely influential, and his adventurous lifestyle also captured readers’ imagination, meaning that something of a cult of personality sprung up around him.

Yet he has also become a controversial figure. Although many of his admirers would no doubt argue that it’s not too surprising that a man born in 1899 had views about race and gender that some modern readers may find questionable, he also had a reputation for being cruel to those close to him.

Hemingway family portrait: Ursula, Clarence, Ernest, Grace, and Marcelline Hemingway, October 1903

So, in other words, he seems like a prime subject for a major documentary series, like the six-part Hemingway, which begins tonight on BBC4

It’s the work of award-winning filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Burns is behind many acclaimed series, including The Civil War, Baseball and Country Music.

Those are pretty big subjects for anyone to tackle, but the director admits he still found Hemingway to be a major undertaking.

Speaking at a press event, he said: “I was aware of this sort of edifice of the macho characteristic and good writing.

“The writing only increased in its power and glory and majesty. And as I confronted all of this negative stuff, it became important that the art transcended it and basically didn’t excuse it. And we do not excuse him. And we hold his feet to the fire.”

Novick certainly didn’t set out to make a puff piece. She says: “[I] felt pretty clear that I didn’t like Hemingway the man and that I wasn’t sure how I am going to feel spending six hours with him as a viewer … and yet at the end, I think we have tried to get under his skin. I felt a lot more compassion for him and his struggles and his demons.”

The filmmakers have drawn on Hemingway’s manuscripts, correspondence, scrapbooks and photographs, now housed in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, to chart his life, taking in his four marriages, up to his suicide in 1961. They also interview celebrated writers, scholars and Hemingway’s son Patrick, and have found some impressive celebrity contributors too. The series is narrated by Peter Coyote, and actors including Jeff Daniels, Meryl Streep, Keri Russell and Patricia Clarkson provide voiceovers as the series explore his writing.

The first episode focuses on Hemingway’s idyllic childhood in Oak Park, Illinois. However, his longing for adventure didn’t take long to emerge as he volunteered for the Red Cross during the First World War. He also embarked on his first marriage and moved to Paris, to follow his dreams of being a writer. The documentary is followed by another chance to learn more about the author’s travels in Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure, which finds the actor and presenter following in his footsteps.

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