Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
The widespread yet varying attention drawn by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “Hemingway” documentary series – which ran its course on PBS last week – proves, if nothing else, that its subject still lingers in the world’s collective consciousness almost a century after his first books were first published.
While Ernest Hemingway may no longer dominate the literary scene as he had by the middle of the 20th century, the mystique of his public and private lives resonates into the 21st.
The most mysterious question to me is: Why do we still care about him?
If one had to name American writers from the previous century with whom younger generations of readers are most fascinated today, the list wouldn’t start with Hemingway, but (at least off the top of my head) with James Baldwin, Joan Didion and Toni Morrison. Even Flannery O’Connor, also the subject of a recently aired PBS documentary, has come under greater scrutiny in recent years, if only to assess some of the racist sentiments found in both her letters and in her vivid, acerbically comic depictions of Southern life.
If there’s anything upon which literary critics and general readers can agree when it comes to Hemingway, it is this: his use of language is what endures and influences more than any other attribute of his work. The Hemingway style – clipped, allusive, laconic and hard-boiled – helped give American writing its rhythm and tone as much as blues and jazz helped give American music its global identity. Hemingway’s style, in language and in life, reads like a metaphor for what it means to be an American, for better and for worse. Our inability to let him go speaks less to what we encounter on the page and more to what lurks behind it – about Hemingway, and about us – that we alternate between reveling in and wanting to unsee.
Hemingway’s novels, notably “The Sun Also Rises” (1926) and “A Farewell to Arms” (1929), are still taught in schools, as are his short stories – many of which, like “The Killers,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” – are considered even greater in retrospect than his novels. Yet even those two classics haven’t been as durably read and analyzed in our own time as has, for example, “The Great Gatsby,” published in 1925 by F. Scott Fitzgerald, once Hemingway’s good friend and, later, bitter rival.
It’s possible that Hemingway’s novels, as artifacts of the 1920s, could return to the spotlight, as there has lately been speculation that a post-Covid-19 world will explode with the same orgiastic frenzy as the post-Spanish-flu “Roaring ‘” of a century ago. (Somehow, relatedly, I still think “Gatsby” will maintain its preeminence on the American cultural imagination.) It is even possible to imagine that “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Hemingway’s 1940 novel of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) for which the late US Senator John McCain professes ardent admiration in the Burns-Novick series, could wander back toward the zeitgeist as a post-pandemic US society undergoes economic and political upheaval.
But that seems unlikely. Though a best-seller in its time, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” now comes across as overly melodramatic and, somewhat surprising for a Hemingway novel, tin-eared and anachronistic in its dialogue, leaning heavily on “thee” and “thine” in its exchanges.
There is also the matter of Hemingway’s personal life, which some believe was his most audacious and eternally absorbing creation: His full engagement with what his hero Theodore Roosevelt called “the strenuous life” of hunting, fishing and physical risk enhanced the fame he’d first achieved as a writer. His public and private peccadillos were as much fodder for tabloids as any movie star of the early-to-mid-20th century as was his mercurial temperament.
The critic Wilfrid Sheed put it best when he wrote that Hemingway “was capable of kindness like several million others, and of cruelty at which he was a little special.” The PBS series is unsparing when it comes to depicting both the kindness and cruelty Hemingway directed toward his wives, lovers, children and friends.
Then, too, there were the paradoxes to Hemingway’s personality disclosed 15 years after his death by “The Garden of Eden,” the autobiographical novel Hemingway started writing in the mid-1940s, but was published, unfinished, in 1986. The novel’s frank and unfettered examination of androgyny and gender-reversal in its central menage-a-trois subverted the then-still-widely-held image of its author as a paragon of conventional masculinity.
Not many such disclosures appear left to discover in either Hemingway’s life or work, even though those five concussions he sustained in accidents and mishaps over a 10-year period lead one to wonder whether the relatively recent inquiries on the cumulative effects of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalotomy) on retired National Football League players will lead to a more definitive explanation for what led Hemingway to his suicide-by-shotgun in 1961.
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The Burns-Novick documentary vividly evokes the larger-than-life persona Hemingway crafted and, in many ways, was crafted for him by his own success. But it doesn’t altogether account for why that life’s fascination persists for so long. John Keats, a romantic literary hero from an even more distant time, may have answered that question long before when he used the term “negative capability” to define great writers’ capacity to pursue their own artistic truths beyond what Keats termed “consecutive reasoning”
We’re now more certain than ever that Hemingway was a difficult man to like or even tolerate, though there were many who loved him during his lifetime and many who have found their calling through that cool, clear literary style. Both the man and the method will last. And the books? The books will fend for themselves, as books tend to do.