Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's Ernest Hemingway documentary left me with deep sadness.
I've admired the writer for years, especially his early short stories, while despairing at his masculine posturing, cruelty to friends and loved ones and bloodlust for hunting animals.
The exhaustive six-hour PBS program gives a devastating postmortem of Hemingway's personality dissolution, exacerbated by frequent brain injuries.
I wanted to free myself, as did Hemingway’s most independent wife, Martha Gellhorn. Yet, hooked likd his last sad wife Mary, I kept watching, no matter how appalling his behavior turned.
Written and narrated by Burns stalwarts Geoffrey C. Ward and Peter Coyote, the documentary escapes Burns' usual editorializing, which marred previous public television documentaries. The production lets photographs, letters, family recollections, commentaries from writers and Hemingway's words tell the story.
While the film makes the claim that Hemingway was a great writer, I was left unsure. Read by Jeff Daniels, cited passages veer from the early brilliance to later emptiness.
Was Hemingway really so influential? Norman Mailer followed his course of bombastic literary competitiveness, and Vietnam era writers like Tim O'Brien, who gives brief commentary, saw him as an exemplar. Surprisingly absent from the documentary, Joan Didion has expressed her soaring admiration for Hemingway's rhythms.
But American literature is too rich for one writer to have the influence attributed to Hemingway. John Cheever, James Baldwin, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Bernard Malamud, Don DiLillo and Joyce Carol Oates are among those who followed their own course.
Hemingway has suffered the fate of being praised for selected passages rather than entire books, although "A Farewell to Arms" and "The Sun Also Rises" will still be read.
Today's generation of mainly young women writers have moved beyond whatever influence Hemingway might have held. Hemingway himself was influenced by Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald - whom he despicably turned against - and Ring Lardner.
Echoes of Hemingway do sound in the work of Rachel Kushner and Emma Cline.
Outside of its tragic power, the documentary might bring new readers to Hemingway's early stories. Yet despite Burns' best efforts, much of Hemingway's work seems outmoded.