Skip to main content

Feature

Ernest Hemingway

One True Sentence

By Cynthia Barnes | HUMANITIES, July/August 2005 | Volume 26, Number 4

They were perhaps, the greatest literary rivals of the twentieth century, brothers in self-destructive brilliance. F. Scott Fitzgerald came first, but Ernest Hemingway had the last word.

In October 2001, the trustees of Hemingway’s estate sent a fax to an unsuspecting DeWitt Sage. The filmmaker’s documentary, F. Scott Fitzgerald: Winter Dreams, had just aired, and, "if there was a villain in that film, it was Ernest Hemingway," admits Sage.

"We were prepared for the worst," says Sage, but it is not what they got. Instead, Hemingway's trustees offered the filmmakers unprecedented access to archival records and to family members and friends who had seldom, if ever, spoken about the writer on film. The result is Ernest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea. The latest installment in WNET's American Masters documentary series will air September 14 on PBS.

The estate's timing was perfect. "Hemingway remains tremendously interesting," says Susan Lacy, executive producer and creator of the series. "His influence does not cease."

The film includes interviews with Patrick Hemingway, the author's only surviving son. "Patrick Hemingway doesn't do a lot of interviews," explains Lacy. "This original footage and the archives allowed us to do an original treatment. This isn't a traditional biography. It's very much about the inner voice. There was the public Hemingway and then there was the voice of the writer."

It is the writer that Sage gives voice to, in part by avoiding a traditional narrative voice-over. "I've never liked the outside voice in film, either documentary or dramatic form," he confesses. "I feel it removes us. I think film is very good at illusion. It gives us the illusion we're involved viscerally in something."

Without a narrator, it is Hemingway's writing, delivered by a storyteller, that is the organizing principle of the film. With that in mind, the documentary team has created a pastiche of words and images, illustrating pieces of Hemingway's stories and correspondence with scenes from the places he wrote about.

More than eighty years have passed since his first collection, Three Stories and Ten Poems, was released in 1923. From the start, he broke new ground in ways that influenced his contemporaries and successors. His ambition was to write what he called "one true sentence."

"Hemingway set out to create a new form of expression, to describe action and emotion in the simplest and truest terms," according to Lacy. "He discarded unnecessary words, stripped away narrative flourishes and sought to distill the experience of war, loss, and love into a form immediately accessible to the reader."

Hemingway was hailed by literary historian Van Wyck Brooks as a "twentieth-century Twain," and Joan Didion claimed he "made the English language new." His spare, narrative style broke away from the ornate and overwritten prose that characterized many nineteenthcentury American authors.

With a passage from the "Three Shots," a short story steeped in Hemingway's youth, the filmmakers begin revealing the author.

"Nick was undressing in the tent. He saw the shadows of his father and Uncle George cast by the fire on the canvas wall. He felt very uncomfortable and ashamed and undressed as fast as he could, piling his clothes neatly. He was ashamed because undressing reminded him of the night before."

The night before, Nick had fired his gun to calm his fears while the men were away. As the storyteller narrates, a loon flies low across a twilit Midwestern lake. The quiet, reflective voice does not belong to the hard-drinking, hard-fighting "Papa" Hemingway of Key West legend. And this is exactly what DeWitt Sage intends.

"I wanted the core of the film to be a portrait of Hemingway through his art," he says. "There's a huge disconnect between the swaggering image and the art. Hemingway's work was not about heroics and bullfights. It was about surviving the indignities of life. How do we survive with any dignity? He was a writer of pain."

Hadley Richardson, the first of Hemingway's four wives, understood this as well as anyone. "Ernest," she wrote, "could walk into a room and gauge the pain quotient." In her view, there were "so many sides to him you could hardly make a sketch of him in a geometry book."

Sage agrees with the assessment. Sage contrasts Hemingway with Fitzgerald, who "was an artist who I had felt great sympathy for as a human being, so it made my life easier.

"With Ernest Hemingway, I have great admiration for him because of what he did as a writer,"says Sage. "I don't have great admiration for him as a human being. He was very cocky, extremely competitive, a wonderfully warm human being on one hand and cold and cruelly calculating on the other. Just for me personally, he's a harder man to connect with emotionally than many others."

To bridge the gulf between Hemingway's sensitivity as a writer and his "brusque and cocky character," Sage followed his trail from Oak Park, Illinois, to Paris, Milan, Madrid, and Havana, and ending in Ketchum, Idaho.

Rivers to the Sea is organized in five acts. The first part shows scenes of Hemingway's war in Italy interspersed with letters and an interview with his sister, Carol Hemingway Gardner. It describes Hemingway's time as an ambulance driver during the war and his love for Agnes von Kurowsky, the nurse who cared for him after his near fatal wounding on the front. Pieces of his World War I experiences would later make their way into A Farewell to Arms and the short story, "In Another Country."

The second part takes viewers to Paris in the 1920s, where Hemingway met Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound, and Archibald MacLeish.

"He really was part of an experiment in Paris, very self-consciously trying to do something new," says Lacy. At twenty-three, Hemingway sat with Gertrude Stein and James Joyce and spent days studying paintings by Cézanne in an attempt to obey Ezra Pound's exhortations to "make it new!"

Sage overlays scenes of Paris with contrasting pieces of prose. The words reveal how Hemingway was influenced by Stein's repetitions in "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene."

"Helen Furr had quite a pleasant home. Mrs. Furr was quite a pleasant woman. Mr. Furr was quite a pleasant man. Helen Furr had quite a pleasant voice quite worth cultivating. . . ."

Hemingway took a similar rhythmic approach in "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot."

"Mr. and Mrs. Elliot tried very hard to have a baby. They tried as often as Mrs. Elliot could stand it. They tried in Boston after they were married and they tried coming over on the boat. They did not try very often on the boat because Mrs. Elliot was quite sick. She was sick and when she was sick she was sick as Southern women are sick."

Hemingway's Paris years were a time of great productivity. In 1926, Charles Scribner's and Sons published The Sun Also Rises, which catapulted him to prominence and brought critical acclaim—except within his family. Hemingway's mother wrote, "Every page fills me with sick loathing."

"It is a doubtful honor to produce one of the filthiest books of the year," Grace Hemingway told her son. Had it been written by another writer, she said, she would have pitched into the fire.

Hemingway said that an unhappy childhood was the best early training for a writer. The film touches on that and uses the words from "Fathers and Sons" to explore paternal disappointment. The story was published in 1933, five years after his father, Clarence Hemingway, committed suicide with a Civil War pistol. The viewer sees a photo of Ernest's father and hears the storyteller:

"Was he greater than you?"

"He was a much better shot and his father was a great shot too."

"I'll bet he wasn't any better than you."

"Oh yes he was. He shot very quickly and beautifully. I'd rather see him shoot than any man I ever knew. He was always very disappointed in the way I shot."

As his fame grew, Hemingway began crafting the "Papa" persona--hard-drinking playboy sportsman--going from writer to macho movie star-style celebrity. Magazine articles in Esquire, Collier's, Life, and other periodicals began to imbue Hemingway with the allure of his characters. An adventurer-hungry public clamored for more exploits . . . regardless of whether they had read his work.

Hemingway's adventuring took him to Spain, where he covered the Spanish Civil War and sided with the Loyalists against General Francisco Franco's Fascists. The war colored his next novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, published in 1940. When it appeared, it restored his literary reputation.

Edmund Wilson wrote: "The big game hunter, the waterside superman, the Hotel Florida Stalinist, with their constrained and fevered attitudes, have evaporated like the fantasies of alcohol. Hemingway the artist is with us again; and it is like having an old friend back."

The film's final section covers Hemingway's years in Cuba and Ketchum, Idaho. In deteriorating health, Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea at his home on the outskirts of Havana, inspired by the locals. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952, and two years later, Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Mired in depression and alcoholism, creative powers exhausted, Hemingway retreated to Ketchum in 1960. The following year, he ended his life with a shotgun blast.

The film closes with the words of his friend Archibald MacLeish:

There must be
Moments when we see right
         through.
Although we say we can't. I knew
A fisher who could lean and look
Blind into dazzle on the sea
And strike into that fire his hook,
Far under, and lean back and laugh
And let the line run out, and reel
What rod could weigh nor line
         could feel
The heavy silver of his wish,
And when the reel-spool faltered,
         kneel
And with a fumbling hand that shook
Boat, all bloody from the gaff,
A shivering fish.

Cynthia Barnes is a writer in Columbia, Missouri.

American Masters at WNET received $760,000 in funding from NEH to produce Ernest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea. It airs September 14 on PBS.