Learning from the Masters: The Hemingway documentary

Hemingway, The Writer 1899-1929 
The First Episode
PBS Documentary Series

Narrated by Peter Coyote, with Jeff Daniels reading the writer’s words

“Everybody knows life is a tragic show, i.e. born here, die there.” 

Ernest Hemingway

In early 2000 I was approached by PBS American Masters producers about using some of our songs from Pasiones: Songs of the Spanish Civil War for a documentary on Robert Capa, the celebrated photographer of the Spanish Civil War.  Our music was used in Into the Fire (another Spanish Civil War documentary), but usage in the PBS program never came to pass. Life of the Pasiones project has wide reach. Including a compact disc recording sold around the world!

I am as proud of the recording and folk cabaret as I am of anything I’d done.

In 2007, Michael Smith and I performed Pasiones as a folk cabaret for a full house at the Oak Park Library, as part of their community’s Big Read programming, centered on Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway’s Birthplace Museum in Oak Park, Il remains a viable tourist destination today. Hemingway’s deep connection to Spain and the Spanish Civil War is well documented.  We quote him in the final scene of Pasiones.  It was an honor to do so. More on Oak Park: https://www.hemingwaybirthplace.com/

This week PBS began a new series produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. “Hemingway: The Writer” is a powerful, evocative documentary on the early years and the inner life of the man.

This morning, awake before dawn, I watched the first episode, swept up in the storytelling and equally compelling photography. The filmmakers follow a winding trail of Hemingway’s lived experience parelleling a revealing timeline of the sources and inspiration for his collected works. 

An Ambitious Start
The first episode covers broad terrain: his childhood in Oak Park, the start of his newspaper career, two of his four marriages. It tracks how his personal life informed his stories, its subjects including: an affinity for nature and big adventure, descriptions of (risks of) childbirth, (the taboo of) abortion, candor about sex, views on religion, infidelity, and family dynamics.  It cites the roots of his writing style: his fascination with the rhythm of Bach, his interest in bullfighting, his weakness for whisky, the allure of Paris, his being the “it” boy of Gertrude Stein’s Salon, and the psychic damage caused by WWI. 

The commentary of fellow writers Edna O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, as well as historians, reflect on his work with thoughtful, often prophetic and poetic prose, revealing the effect of Hemingway’s mastery on their own work.  

The film’s narrative brings to bear the essence of the artistic dilemma: why create, and can it bring me happiness? 

“I think ordinary life was anathema to him.”

Edna O’Brien

Public made personal
This first episode also speaks candidly about the writer’s depression, and forecasts his ultimate death by suicide. (His father suffered long bouts of melancholy, and killed himself when the writer was 29.)  The documentary presents a telling portrait of the bigger than life character that was Hemingway as he jockeys with the imbalance of human frailty.  A sensitive artist with the good fortune to have talent and fame, but one who succumbed to the dark nights of the soul many of us can relate to.

Lest we think following the psychic breadcrumbs left by our literary heroes has no personal consequences, in 2013 I suffered the tragic loss of my dear friend Susan (who suffered severe depression), the morning of her 62nd birthday.  In a suicide by gunshot on her porch in New Orleans.

The day before by telephone, she’d cryptically mentioned reading Hemingway the prior week, telling me he ‘decided he’d had enough’, and shot himself on his 62nd birthday. She told me me it was a reasonable thing to do. ’62, a good year to go.’ (Note: he actually died as he was to begin his 62nd year.)

I’ll never know if it was this piece of literary lore that led Susan to follow Hemingway’s lead and end it all. I do know from a small child she lived in the world of books.  She spent whole summer afternoons up in a tree in Holland, Michigan, reading books.  She told me family drama is best viewed as like a Russian novel.  She turned to Dante to cast badly behaved work colleagues. To John Le Carre to understand politics.  And to the Bronte Sisters to understand the complexity of the gender dance. On any given day, books were Susan’s best and only companions. Her refuge. Her guide to what it was to be human. 

The rest of the Hemingway Series promises more provocative glimpses into the machinations of a great artist‘s mind.  Too bad she’s not here to see it.

Next week covers the Spanish Civil War and the Martha Gellhorn period.

Postscript. I’ve now seen the whole series. It’ll slay you. The scriptwriter Geoffrey C. Ward did a remarkable job of tracking and summarizing, with plenty of telling anecdotes and edgy quoates. He is known for his work on Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004), The Civil War (1990) and Baseball (1994).

More about Pasiones here. https://www.jamieoreilly.com/projects/pasiones-songs-of-the-spanish-civil-war/

“A smartly professional cabaret trio performed the beloved Spanish Civil War songs-songs of haunting, sometimes astonishing beauty-with text from Hemingway and Bertold Brecht woven in.” 

Vanity Fair Magazine