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New Ken Burns’ Hemingway Documentary Series on PBS


Given that several friends have texted me this week asking if I’ve seen it yet, I may be the last literarian on earth not to have watched the new Hemingway documentary series on PBS, but in case I’m not…

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have teamed up to produce a six-episode series on Ernest Hemingway for PBS. The film is divided chronologically and is available to stream in full on the PBS website (or check your local listings for television air times). The entire film runs just north of six hours, which, let’s give credit where credit’s due, is very efficient—one might even say “Hemingway-esque”—for filmmakers like Burns and Novick whose—just as an example—2017 documentary on the Vietnam War runs 17 and a quarter hours.

It’s not hyperbole to say that Ernest Hemingway is one of, if not the most, influential American writer in history. Still, as the documentary is quick to point out, the myth of Hemingway utterly overshadows the man and, to some extent, his artistic legacy. Author of novels such as The Sun Also Rises (1926); A Farewell to Arms (1929); For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940, recommended for the Pulitzer but never received it); and The Old Man and the Sea (1952, winner of the Pulitzer Prize), as well as myriad short stories we dissected to death in high school and college (“Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”), Hemingway is often associated with brute masculinity, hard-drinking, bull fighting, womanizing, and cats.

“There’s so much to deal with regarding Hemingway. Professionally, there’s the way he wrote, what he wrote, and the impact his writing had on modern literature,” says NPR’s David Bianculli. “Personally, there’s the relationships with women, the misogyny, the alcoholism, the depression—all of which found their way into his stories as well.”

Burns and Novick not only bring literary moments to life, using just the right sounds and images and voices, but also dive into Hemingway’s complicated personal life: The suicide of his father. The upbringing by his mother, who dressed him in girl’s clothes and encouraged his imagination. His experiences in several wars, and finding glory in such macho activities as hunting, deep-sea fishing and attending bullfights. From Paris to Spain, from Key West to Cuba, Ernest Hemingway lived in exotic locales during turbulent times—and wrote about all of it.

Whatever you already know, or don’t know, about Ernest Hemingway and his work—and his life—the new PBS documentary Hemingway is certain to add more to that body of knowledge. And, very likely, it will make you reassess much of it.

Start watching here.