Hemingway and Childhood

In this virtual event series, filmmakers and special guests explore the writer’s art and legacy. Conversations on Hemingway: Hemingway and Childhood was presented by WTTW, and features Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, Verna Kale, Tim O’Brien and Paris Schutz.

AIRED: February 23, 2021 | 1:04:09

- [Michael] I hate the myth of Hemingway.

It obscures the man.

(dramatic music) - His talent is stunning.

- He went against the grain.

- [Tobias] It's hard to imagine a writer

who hasn't been influenced by him.

- In order to have something new to write,

he had to have something new to live.

- [Edna] And he fell in love quite a few times.

- He's complex and deeply flawed, but there he is.

- [Michael] Hemingway the man,

is much more interesting than the myth.

(dramatic music)

- Good evening.

I'm Sandra Cordova Micek, President and CEO of WTTW.

Thank you for joining us.

Through our work, and in partnership with PBS,

we invite our viewers to explore the people,

places and issues of our region and beyond.

We seek to provide historical context

understanding of current events

and guidance for exploring challenging ideas

through storytelling.

With this in mind, we are excited to welcome you

to this very special evening,

with acclaimed and prolific filmmakers and storytellers,

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick,

who are back to examine the visionary work

and turbulent life of one of the greatest

and most influential American writers, Ernest Hemingway.

Premiering on April 5th on WTTW and wttw.com/watch,

this three-part film explores Hemingway's brilliance

as well as his legacy

as a deeply troubled and ultimately tragic figure.

Tonight we'll watch selections

from their new film, "Hemingway",

focusing on the first 20 years of his life

spent in Chicago suburb, Oak Park.

Oak Park native and WTTW's very own Paris Schutz,

co-anchor of "Chicago Tonight"

will moderate a discussion with Ken and Lynn,

along with National Book Award winning author

and Hemingway aficionados, Tim O'Brien,

and Hemingway professor and editor, Verna Kale.

Before we get started,

I would like to thank the Chicago Public Library

for their partnership on this event.

If you are in Chicago, please visit your local library

and explore Hemingway's work.

Thank you, especially to the American Writers Museum

for their support,

and our members and viewers in the audience,

without whom this evening and our programming

would not be possible.

And now without further ado,

settle in with your warm beverage,

I have my WTTW mug here with me,

I hope you have one too,

and let's roll the introduction to "Hemingway".

(somber music)

- Hemingway was a writer who happened to be American,

but his palate was incredibly wide,

and delicious,

and violent, and brutal, and ugly.

All of those things.

It's something every culture can basically understand.

Every culture can understand falling in love with someone,

the loss of that person, (birds chirping)

of how great a meal tastes,

how extraordinary this journey is.

That is not nationalistic,

it's human.

And I think with all of his flaws,

with all the difficulties, his personal life, whatever,

he seemed to understand human beings.

(crowd cheering)

- [Hemingway] You see, I'm trying in all my stories

to get the feeling of the actual life across.

Not to just depict life, or criticize it,

but to actually make it alive,

so that when you've read something by me

you actually experience the thing.

(bomb bangs) You can't do this

without putting in the bad and the ugly

as well as what is beautiful.

Because if it is all beautiful, you can't believe it.

Things aren't that way.

It is only by showing both sides three dimensions,

and if possible four,

that you can write the way I want to.

(somber music)

(lighthearted music)

- [Narrator] Ernest Hemingway remade American literature.

He paired storytelling to its essentials,

changed the way characters speak,

expanded the worlds a writer could legitimately explore,

and left an indelible record

of how men and women lived during his lifetime.

Generations of writers

would find their work measured against his.

Some followed the path he'd blazed,

others rebelled against it,

none could escape it.

He made himself the most celebrated American writer

since Mark Twain,

read and revered around the world.

- It's hard to imagine a writer today

who hasn't been in some way influenced by him.

It's like he changed all the furniture in the room,


and we all have to sit in it.

To some, you know,

we can kind of sit on the edge of the armchair,

on the arm, or do this,

but, you know, he changed the furniture in the room.

The value of the American declarative sentence, right?

The way you build a house brick by brick out of those,

within a few sentences of reading the Hemingway story,

you're not in any confusion as to who had written it.

- I can't imagine how it's possible

that any one writer could have so changed the language.

People have been copying him for nearly 100 years,

and they haven't succeeded in equaling what he did.

(birds chirping)

- If you're a writer, you can't escape Hemingway.

He's so damn popular that you can't begin to write

till you try and kill his ghost in you, or embrace it.

And I think, I identify that most about Hemingway,

is that he was always questing.

The perfect line had not happened yet.

His was always a struggle trying to get it right

and you never will.

- [Narrator] For three decades,

people who had not read a word he'd written

thought they knew him.

Wounded veteran and battlefield correspondent,

big game hunter and deep sea fishermen,

bullfight aficionado, brawler, and lover,

and man about town.

(gentle somber music)

But behind the public figure

was a troubled and conflicted man

who belonged to a troubled and conflicted family,

with its own drama and darkness and closely held secrets.

The world saw him as a man's man,

but all his life he would privately be intrigued

by the blurred lines between male and female, men and women.

There were so many sides to him,

the first of his four wives remembered

that he defied geometry.

- He was open to life, he was open to tragedy,

he was open to feeling.

I liked that he fell in love,

and he fell in love quite a few times.

He always had the next woman

before he left the existing woman.

- He was often kind and generous to those in need of help,

and sometimes just as cruel and vengeful

to those who had helped him.

(seagulls squawking)

- [Hemingway] I have always had the illusion

it was more important, or as important,

to be a good man as to be a great writer.

I may turn out to be neither, but would like to be both.

- [Narrator] Hemingway's story

is a tale older even than the written word,

of a young man whose ambition and imagination,

energy and enormous gifts,

bring him wealth and fame beyond imagining.

Who destroys himself trying to remain true

to the character he has invented.

- One of his weaknesses,

I was going to say failure, and it was a great pity,

it's a great pity for any writer,

he loved an audience.

He loved an audience and in front of an audience,

he lost the best part of himself

by trying to impress the audience.

(water splashing)

- I hate the myth of Hemingway.

And the reason I hate the myth of Hemingway,

it obscures the man. (seagulls squawking)

And the man is much more interesting than the myth.

I think he was a terrific father, sometimes,

I think that he was a loving husband, sometimes.

I think he was like so many people

except this enormous talent.

Hemingway is complicated.

He's very complicated.

- [Hemingway] The great thing is to last

and get your work done,

and see and hear, and learn and understand.

And right when there is something that you know,

and not before,

and not too damned much after.

(gentle somber music)

- Good evening everyone.

I'm Paris Schutz, co-anchor of "Chicago Tonight" on WTTW,

that's Chicago's PBS station

for those of you outside the market.

I also grew up in Ernest Hemingway's hometown of Oak Park,

so it's especially exciting for me

to lead this discussion tonight,

this exploration of Hemingway's early life.

And before we get started, I wanna introduce our panelists,

although to most of you here,

I'm sure they need absolutely no introduction.

Since "Brooklyn Bridge" in 1981,

Ken Burns has directed and produced

some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries

about American life and history ever made,

including "The Civil War", "Baseball", "Jazz",

"The War", "The Roosevelts",

"Country Music", and many many more.

Lynn Novick has directed and produced

more than 80 hours of acclaimed PBS programming

in collaboration with Ken Burns,

including the "Vietnam War", "Baseball", "Jazz"

"Frank Lloyd Wright", "The War", and "Prohibition".

Tim O'Brien received the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award

for fiction,

for his novel "The Things They Carried".

Also a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize

and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

And Tim is a Hemingway aficionado.

And Verna Kale is associate editor

of "The Hemingway Letters Project"

and volume co-editor of "The Letters of Ernest Hemingway."

She teaches literature and writing at Penn State University,

and is the author of the biography "Ernest Hemingway".

And I know a lot of you

are going to have your own questions,

so let's get started with this.

Ken everyone here is familiar

with the sweep of your, and Lynn's work

tackling the big subjects in American history.

What intrigued you about this project

narrowing in on one singular figure, Ernest Hemingway?

- Well, I think that our work

has been punctuated over the decades

by a number of singular projects that are biographies,

starting with one we made on Huey Long in the mid '80s,

and the painter Thomas Hart Benton,

and then later on Jefferson,

and Lewis and Clark, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton,

Mark Twain, who is just referenced in the intro,

Frank Lloyd Wright,

another person who lived in Oak Park, Illinois for awhile,

and then Jack Johnson and Jackie Robinson and many others.

So biographies have been punctuating our work,

and will continue to punctuate our work further.

Our next film is on Muhammad Ali,

the film after that on Benjamin Franklin.

So I think we're drawn to biography

and the possibility of focusing deeply

on a particular individual,

but biography has always been a constituent building block

of all the other films.

So in the case of Hemingway,

I found a scrap of paper a couple of months ago that said,

"In the early '80s, do baseball then Hemingway."

We did baseball then we got around to Hemingway,

but we've been talking about it

and thinking about it for decades.

And that's, a bit of our process

is that it appeals on one level

and then some point when it goes into your heart

you just say yes,

and then we try to figure out over several years

how we're gonna wrestle it to the ground and come to terms,

in this case, with as complicated a person.

This is in some ways,

and I don't mean this in any way to be misunderstood,

this is the most adult film we've ever made.

I don't mean with regard to sexuality

or ratings or things like that,

I just mean that it's in some ways

the deepest psychological kind of portrait

that we've been able to do

without ever once having to say good bad,

you know, which is the great stain of human activity

to just think that you can nail it

by understanding the simplistic morality.

It's been a really amazing journey

to try to get to know him.

- Lynn Novick, part of trying to get to know him

is the whole person, not just the literary genius,

but as you mentioned there in the introduction,

the complex, entirely complicated personal character

of Ernest Hemingway,

four marriages,

a man who perpetrated this myth about himself,

what was that experience like

diving into all these aspects of this man?

- Well, the huge part of our journey

is just trying to get to know him and understand him,

and figure out who was the person that created this work.

And, you know, he did create this facade, this mask,

public figure that sort of protected him,

but also became kind of so constricting after a while.

So trying to understand, sort of peel back the layers

and get to know him.

And really sort of develop an intimate understanding

of his inner feelings

and the inner workings of his personality

and his relationships with the people that mattered to him.

That was the whole project frankly, what we were after.

- And Tim, you know, we mentioned your work

in the intro here.

You're a Hemingway aficionado,

there's obvious parallels to your most famous work,

"The Things They Carried"

being war correspondent short stories,

beyond that, you saw in the introduction

it says Hemingway remade American literature.

What was his impact on you and your writing

and in your literary life?

- It began when I was very, very young,

nine years old or so,

and my dad brought a fat book of short stories

by Hemingway into my room, told me to choose five of them,

read them and then talk to him about them.

At that age, I was daunted.

I had never even heard of Ernest Hemingway.

I chose the five shortest stories

that I could possibly find in that book.

One was a couple of paragraphs long

called "A Very Short Story."

(Paris laughs)

I lived in terror of having to talk about it.

I really didn't understand a lot.

I understood the surface, but I understood virtually nothing

of what lay beneath the surface.

That stew of emotions

that Hemingway so beautifully displayed

beneath the surface of his stories.

Things happened inside me,

I just didn't know what to say

about what was happening inside me.

Later in high school and college,

I began to grasp more and more of his work.

To this day "The Short Stories" seem to me miracles.

Miracles of economy, yes, but within the economy,

there is such breadth and such depth.

A story such as "Up in Michigan",

a kind of cruel and tough story to read.

And yet

it depicts that high school sexual awakening thing

on both sides, male and female, granted in a cruel way,

but also in a way that probably happens in every town

across this country and across the world.

As was said in the introduction

his stories run the gamut of human emotion.

For me, if I were to say

one single thing that I bring out of Hemingway,

is that his ground zero as I read it,

his passion, his obsession,

was not boxing, or fishing, or hunting,

it was the finality of death itself.

Story after stories, war stories,

but also a story we'll talk about tonight,

"Indian Camp",

across the gamut.

I made a list of them today in fact,

and saw that death either dominates the story

or figures largely in the story.

It's finality.

One of the greatest of course

is "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"

had final kind of bastardized prayer in that story.

Hemingway embraced that which most of us wanna push away.

That "What's gonna happen to all of us?"

is one of his most famous lines, in fact,

that death is what all of us face.

So in so many ways, it's hard to summarize

the diverse work of such a tremendously gifted writer.

- And certainly the overarching theme

in so many of his works,

but also perhaps the overarching influence

in the way he lived his life.

Verna Kale as someone who's studied him extensively,

beyond the themes like death

and some of these other kind of taboo subjects,

at least for the time that Tim alluded to,

the introduction talks about his impact on writing style,

the short declarative sentences, cutting out all the fat.

How did that change American writing?

- Yeah,

he went into this existing expatriate literary community,

and he sort of knew what he was going to find there,

this experimentation.

And when he got there,

in a way he almost became instantly deprecating of it.

He gets over to Paris,

and he sees people sort of pretending

or taking on this persona of being highly literary,

and he found that a little off-putting.

But at the same time

he wanted to become a part of that community.

And he's there, he's learning from Gertrude Stein,

he's got Ezra Pound as his mentor.

He gets involved in the community of writers and artists,

and publishing little magazines,

even as he sort of felt a little bit outside that as well.

And so it's exactly like the filmmakers show us.

He's contradictory because he's going into this community,

but he's almost immediately writing against it.

So he becomes a part of this, you know,

sort of avant-garde modernist community,

but at the same time he wants popular success.

He wants popular success,

but he doesn't want to have to fit the mold to get it.

He's innovating already in his very first book.

So what he wants is to innovate,

he wants to be different, but he wants popular success.

He wants a lot of people to buy his books

and to read his books.

And so it's hard to say how did he fit in or not fit in,

because he really, (chuckles)

he kind of did neither, I guess.

And so his writing is complicated but simple.

It's innovative, and yet it feels...

like when you read it, you understand it.

It's not the typical, you know, modernist prose we think of,

where you read it and you're like,

"What's happening in this story?"

In Hemingway's stories,

it may not even be on the page

but you feel what's happening in that story.

- Well, so we've taken a look at the bigger picture

and I know since this is the first stop,

Ken and Lynn, on your tour,

because this is Hemingway's birthplace,

more specifically Oak Park, Illinois,

and Lynn, the first clip that we have here

is about his childhood in Oak Park,

I'm wondering if you would set that up for us.

- Yes, that's pretty much what we have to show.

I was gonna say, this is...

we're just gonna show you a very short snippet from the film

which you get to meet his family

and see a little bit of the worlds he grew up in,

which, as you said, is not too far,

and that family also spent time in Michigan.

So these are the places that really shaped Ernest Hemingway,

and we thought that'd be a great place

to start our conversation.

(playful piano music)

- [Narrator] Ernest Miller Hemingway

was born July 21st, 1899,

the second of six children,

and enjoyed what seemed to be an idyllic boyhood.

He had four adoring sisters

and a worshipful younger brother.

They all lived in a big comfortable home

in the prosperous Chicago suburb of Oak Park.

A complacent well-mannered community with no salons,

and so many churches it'd like to call itself Saints Rest.

The Hemingways spent long summers at Windermere,

their cottage on Walloon Lake in Michigan.

Ernest's father, Clarence Hemingway,

known to everyone as Ed, was a family doctor.

He kept office hours every day of the week,

but was often forced to make house calls

in the middle of the night,

performing emergency ceasarean sections by lantern light.

Sometimes he failed to save the mother,

or the baby, or both.

"My father was very devoted to my mother,"

Ernest's younger sister remembered,

"but she was devoted to herself."

(birds chirping) (playful piano music)

His mother, Grace Hall Hemingway,

had married after abandoning her dream

of being an opera singer.

But she gave voice and violin and piano lessons,

directed a choir, and earned more than her husband.

Grace exposed all of her children to the arts,

but she never let them forget

that she had sacrificed a concert career to raise them.

"If they loved her", she said,

"they would do whatever she told them to do."

It amused her for a time

to pretend that Ernest and his older sister Marcelline,

were somehow twins.

Sometimes two boys, sometimes two girls.

(brooding piano music)

- She did this thing of twinning him with his sister.

She dressed them alike.

She dressed them in dresses often,

but then she'd put them in overalls.

She didn't only dress him up as a girl,

sometimes she dressed the girls up as boys,

and there is this androgyny going on.

- [Marcelline] We wore our hair exactly the same

in a square cut touch bob.

We played with small China tea sets.

We had dolls alike.

And when Ernest was given a little air rifle, I had one too.

- So Ken, obviously Oak Park is very proud of its heritage

as the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway

and also the home of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Although there's this stigma that Hemingway hated the place,

he couldn't wait to get out of there.

There's a quote, perhaps falsely attributed to him,

where he says, "Oak Park is a place of broad lawns

and narrow minds."

and the locals in Oak Park, they say he never said that.

So how did Oak Park influence who he became,

both as a literary figure, but as a complex person?

- Well, I think it's pretty obvious in what we've shown

that what's happening is that quite often what we see,

the nuclear family that is nurturing

and is all sort of protective of us

is also the opposite of things.

There are threats and internal dynamics, and dramas,

that take place that we often hide,

and that's true behind every house,

not just in Oak Park, but in any town.

And so I think what happens when someone emerges

from a circumstance like that,

who becomes as great a writer as Ernest Hemingway did,

a good deal of the material

that's sort of the foundation of his work

is going to come out of that.

And we'll see again and again and again,

the repetitive stuff.

In another part of the early biographical section,

his mother's interest in him and his siblings

having musical stuff,

is to expose them to the counterpoint in repetition,

as we say, the repetition and counterpoint of Bach.

And then all of a sudden

you see the way in which this musical teacher,

this high-strung mother of his is also shaping who he is

in his appreciation of the repetition of forms,

which is key to understanding Ernest Hemingway's style,

but also in the kind of grand drama or the melodrama

that overtook her life and I think overtook her son's life.

He was very much like her.

In the father, you have someone dealing every day

with the life and death of ordinary life,

which we tend to design,

and Oak Park is like so many places

designed not to acknowledge that.

And yet his father was a portal

onto that very life and death situation.

And so in the midst of what is

a comfortable middle-class upbringing,

you have all of this kind of minor key,

all of these base notes that are sounding all around him.

Now, if you're gonna become an insurance adjuster,

that's what it will be.

And that's a perfectly legitimate way of making a living.

If you're gonna become Ernest Hemingway,

that's gonna figure in your work in spades.

- And Verna, I'm sorry, Lynn,

also shown in this clip,

and this is something talked about in Hemingway circles,

was his mother's penchant for dressing he and his sister up

androgynously as the same sex.

And you say here

that his fascination with the boundaries of gender

would stay with him the rest of his life,

even though he cultivated this image as the man's man.

So how did the mothers influence there

with dressing him up, and his sister up,

play into the rest of his life?

- Well, that's a big question,

and I'm not sure we can fully answer it now,

because I think it is complicated

over the course of his life,

and I'd love to hear what Verna has to say about that too,

because I think on the one hand,

certainly, you know, it was not uncommon

to have boys wear dresses as little toddlers,

but the mother did carry it quite a bit longer

and it was a more intense experience

of being twinned with his sister.

And his relationship to masculinity

is an extraordinarily complicated and interesting topic

that we spend a lot of time on the film

and his relationships with the women in his life.

And, you know, this masculine construct that he was,

beneath the surface it gets very interesting.

We don't really wanna give away too much,

but he's interested in gender role-playing,

and he writes about that, some in some of his later work,

some things he didn't wanna publish in his lifetime

that were a little bit too risky for his public image.

So it gets pretty interesting.

- Verna, do you wanna pick up on that a little bit?

And also in the film,

you know, Oak Park is a place he comes back to

after the First World War,

and he starts to build the myth of Ernest Hemingway.

I find it really fascinating

that he went and held what seemed like salon

to talk about his war stories and he greatly embellished.

So talk about this myth that he started to build

and why that was so important to him.

- I wanna go back to the question of the twinning

that's so interesting to people.

And one thing I just wanna add on to that,

as Lynn was saying,

Grace, she kind of took that a little far and for a while

up until the kids were about four or five years old.

She's very creative.

And, you know,

this is a form of artistic expression for her.

And so that's just another example of how in his early life,

Hemingway enjoyed a very artistic creative household.

And I think you could extrapolate a lot of different things

from that early childhood,

but I think in some ways, you know,

we could even look at those situations as,

"Oh, here's playing with photography and role playing."

and see it in an interesting light that way as well.

And you were asking about-

- Yeah.

And then about the myth,

'cause I just find it interesting in the film

that he comes back and he starts to spin this narrative

that he would spin the rest of his life about himself.

- It's sort of like the playing like a twin sister,

he comes back from the war, he plays the war hero.

And he's wearing his uniform,

and he's going to these public events,

and he's telling his war stories.

And, you know,

you get a sense that that was difficult for him

to share what really happened in the war,

and instead he kind of comes home

and he has this sort of disaffected feeling

where, you know, it's hard to come back home

after an experience like that.

And he's trying to figure out who he is.

And so, you know, in some ways he kinda had to get away

from Chicago

in order to take on his later persona.

It was hard for him to go back

to the place where he had been a boy.

So when he goes on and shapes that masculine identity,

the writer, the adventurer, you know,

that's not the same person

that you find in these early years in Oak Park.

- Before I bring Tim back in here,

Lynn I wanna give it back to you for our second clip.

- Okay, well, yes, as we alluded to earlier,

we're gonna show a scene from the film

in which we share one of Hemingway's early stories,

in which he drew heavily from his childhood experiences.

He sort of went back to that well,

as we've said, many times,

and reworked some of these ideas and experiences,

and here's one of the very first short stories

that he wrote.

And I think we'll see some interesting resonances

with the facts of his life.

Play the clip.

- [Narrator] Half the stories in our time

feature, Nick Adams.

A character who is very like the young Hemingway.

In "Indian Camp", he is a little boy

who accompanies his physician father

across a lake to an encampment,

where a woman has been in labor for two days.

(brooding music) (crickets chirping)

Pure horror follows.

As the boy looks on,

his father performs an emergency ceasarean section

by lamplight using a Jack knife,

and suturing the wound with fishing line,

all without anesthetic.

When Nick asked his father if he can't do something

about her screams,

he answers, "They are not important."

Afterwards, the father of the child,

apparently unable to endure his helplessness

during his wife's ordeal,

is found to have slit his own throat.

(animal howling)

- [Hemingway] "Do ladies always have such a hard time

having babies?" Nick asked.

"No, that was very, very exceptional."

"Why did he kill himself daddy?"

"I don't know Nick.

He couldn't stand things I guess."

"Do many men kill themselves daddy?"

"Not very many Nick."

"Do many women?"

"Hardly ever."

"Don't they ever?"

"Oh yes, they do sometimes."

"Is dying hard daddy?"

"No, I think it's pretty easy, Nick.

It all depends."

(animals howling) (water splashing)

They were seated in the boat, Nick in the stern,

his father rowing.

The sun was coming up over the Hills.

A bass jumped, making a circle in the water.

Nick trailed his hand in the water.

It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning.

In the early morning on the lake

sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing,

he felt quite sure that he would never die.

- "Indian Camp".

That's one of my favorite stories in the world.

And he was baby when he wrote it

but it is complete as a work of great sophistication.

And it handles very sensational material

in an absolutely unsensational way.

- And what it all comes down to is,

"You're gonna die."

He knows he's gonna die.

He's seen it,

but there's this feeling being with his father,

being outdoors in the dawn

that it's possible to hope or deny

or evade that truth for a little while.

- So Tim, there it is again,

the all encompassing subject of death,

and you alluded to this in your earlier remarks

about his short stories.

What stands out to you about this period?

The Nick Adams story is largely autobiographical,

largely in the early part of his career,

compared to what would come later,

some of the more well-known works.

- Well, one response to that question is,

and it's easily forgotten,

is that Hemingway's childhood

was closer to the Victorian Era than to the Modern Era.

In fact, Queen Victoria was still living

when Hemingway was born.

And the propriety of that era,

prudishness of that era, the constellation of values,

not just in Oak Park, but across America of that era,

were in the early part of Hemingway's life,

extremely conservative.

The flaws in the human being

were hidden away from the world,

not talked about in the world.

"Indian Camp" seems to me partly a very modern story

and partly a Victorian story.

The father's dialogue that we just heard read alone,

you know, "Don't worry about that, that's not important.

Pain doesn't matter."

A woman is giving birth without anesthetic

and it's a ceasarean birth,

and all we've got is some boiling water.

It's not a birth of, we'd see and say 1960, whatever it was,

when Hemingway died.

He traversed a trajectory from one way of being,

one way of viewing the world to modernism,

not just in literature but in all kinds of ways,

including medicine.

There are so many things

as Tobias Wolff said just a moment ago.

The sophistication of that story,

along with the sort of simplicity on the surface of it

is astonishing.

And also as Wolff mentioned,

he used the word Hemingway was a baby.

He was young, maybe not a baby,

but boy, he was young.

What an accomplishment.

It's astonishing piece of work.

As for me, almost all of his short stories are.

- Ken Burns and Tim alluded to this earlier as well,

you're talking about some really complex subjects here.

100 years ago, suicide, ceasarean section,

there's other stories about date rape, about abortion,

how was this all received at the time?

- Well, there is the particular one you mentioned

and that Tim had spoken to before up in Michigan,

which is, you know, a sad truthful story

about rituals of adolescence and sexuality,

that Gertrude Stein said, "You cannot publish this.

You cannot put this."

and it did not appear in subsequent editions.

I think what you have, and Tim is really right,

is that you have a Victorian world

slamming up against the First World War,

and there's nothing that's going to survive

that contradiction.

As we say, in the film,

everything his parents had prepared him for was no more.

That world is gone.

And then if you are a boy, a baby in that war

and you see what that war is about,

then you understand that the lying is a form of PTSD.

It's a way of trying to negotiate and to own

and to manage the thing that's been present

in Ernest Hemingway's life all the time,

which is this mortality.

None of us are getting out of this alive and he knows this.

Babies die, mothers die, husbands watch.

And then there's that timelessness on the lake

in which you can suspend that for a time.

He's seen it happened in World War I

and he's going to go and use

as the material for his art and muse like cannon fodder

all the other human beings

and all the other relationships in his life

in order to produce something

that is close to what all of these things are about,

which is, we're not gonna get out of here alive.

And as pessimistically horrible as that sounds,

it is so enlivening to have that,

because of course if none of us get out of this alive,

then why aren't we all rolled up on the floor

in a fetal position?

But we're not.

We're writing short stories, we're writing novels,

we're making films, we're running televisions.

You know, this is what human beings do with that material.

And so I'm interested in the collision

of the Victorian Ernest Hemingway

who has a head-on collision with the First World War

and this new era,

and out of it, out of that friction literally

something is produced.

It is sending off sparks,

and part of it is inventing your story.

You know, the fish that's bigger,

the farther away from the lake you get.

And some of it is diving right into it

and looking at it and staring at it in ways...

I don't know anyone else who has gone in there.

Maybe Tim has because he watched the same thing

that humans beings do when they go to war,

and Hemingway watched it a few times as well

and was able to bring back.

There's lines in "A Farewell to Arms" that you'd think

that if every human being read it and understood it

there would never be another war.

And don't wanna disappoint anybody,

there will always be wars because we are human beings

and we have Tim and we have Ernest Hemingway

to help us negotiate the shoals of all of that.

It's unbelievable.

And he is a baby, you know.

It's unbelievable when he writes that story.

- And we should also shout out to the narration

from Jeff Daniels and then also Meryl Streep.

And it's just absolutely unbelievable.

Lynn, I wanna get back

to the story he creates about himself.

You know, you get into the film

and everyone knows this about Hemingway,

he went to Africa and was a game hunter.

He loved fishing, he was a man's man.

What is the gap here

between who Hemingway portrayed himself as

and who he really was?

- Well, I mean, I guess we all do that,

we all create versions of ourselves

in the stories we tell about ourselves and to ourselves

that sort of becomes part of who we are.

In his case, I think the gap

and where you really get to know him

is partly in the work itself,

where he really reveals himself.

And I'm not saying that it's autobiographical

but I'm saying it's kind of,

he reveals the the questions he's wrestling with

in his fiction, and then also in the letters.

And one of the great joys of this project

has been the work that Verna and her colleagues

have been doing

to publish every letter Hemingway ever wrote,

which is going to be, I think 18 or 20 volumes,

there are up to volume six, I believe, at this point.

And, you know, you hear his voice,

you get to know him in ways that you don't have access to

from reading the fiction.

And so we were able to draw heavily from the letters

and I think there you really see an authentic self.

He's writing to friends, he's writing to his parents,

he's writing to his wives and former wives and children.

And he's sometimes angry, sometimes he's happy.

You know, all the range of moods that he could have,

you sort of really feel sort of an authentic self

that I think he built layers to protect himself from.

So that's one way to access anyway.

- But I think it's really important.

He was a big game hunter.

He was a boxer, he was a macho drinker,

he was a lover of women,

he was a deep sea fishermen.

He did all of those things,

and then invented something

that was a little bit bigger and fraudulent,

and as Edna says in the introduction,

by desiring the audience.

And it may be just the rich people who came on his boat,

or maybe it's just the general public or both,

you lose a little bit of something,

but he was all of those things.

What's interesting to us

is that he was also not all of those things,

and he was many other things

that were often the opposite of that.

So, as Lynn was talking about so beautifully

before the the androgyny,

the ability to fit into these sort of blurred gender roles

and to write about it so well.

I mean, this is a macho guy.

He's not supposed to be able to get inside a woman's head,

and he's inside women's head

in several places that is astonishing,

and then to think that it's not now, but 100 years ago,

where Gertrude Stein can't even let him

put that short story in his book

because it's too obscene

in an era in which people are playing with that stuff,

it's pretty interesting what he's doing.

- So Verna, you curate the Hemingway Letters Project.

in the film they basically conclude

that his life is ultimately tragic,

not just because the way his life ends,

but just ultimately what went on

in his personal relationships.

Why, given his legendary status,

would you say,

ultimately when you think about Ernest Hemingway's life,

it was maybe more tragic than triumphant?

- Well, having the opportunity to read the letters

and to see the everyday Hemingway,

you do get a sense of the progress of his life

and how in this phase, he's interested in this,

and in this phase he takes on something new,

going from friendship to friendship, wife to wife.

We really do get this sort of timeline of events with him.

And, you know, it kind of happens gradually.

And being in this position

where I do get to see those letters

and also see the boring ones,

and the business letters

and the little bits of daily life,

you kind of start to get to know him as a person.

And working with Sandy Spanier on these letters,

and also working with a team

that's already working on the later volume,

you know, I've taken a look at the letters

that come along at the end of his life as well

and looked at those closely

and looked at them chronologically.

And, you know, I'll admit,

I've sat there at my desk and teared up

because it feels like a person that I know

and that I care about.

I'm seeing these transformations take place.

And one thing that the film does beautifully

is show the breakdown of the person

toward the end of his life.

And we meet Hemingway and then we see his rise to greatness,

and then we also see a lot of that start to crumble.

And that's something that the film does really beautifully.

And that in the letters we see maybe in a more day-to-day

more gradual spread across a longer amount of time,

but yeah, you definitely see that trajectory happening.

- All right.

You know, we only have 10 minutes

or a little more than 10 minutes left.

This has gone by so fast,

and I do wanna get to some of the audience questions.

So in no particular order

we have from Mike to anyone on the panel,

"Who would you say were Hemingway's influences?

Any of them contemporary to him

or did he hold most of them in disdain?

- Well, it's a little bit of both, right?


He had many influences

and he also tended to act as though he didn't.

So that's an interesting paradox right there.

And he also had a lot of...

he read voraciously and he didn't go to college.

So I think that's really an interesting point.

He was sort of self-taught.

So he threw himself, like Verna was saying,

into the avant-garde world of Paris in the '20s,

and was around Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson,

you know, it's great, great writers.

And he also read Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky,

other great Russian novels.

Mark Twain was a huge influence.

So it's a long list, frankly, yeah.

- We have a question from Tom,

"To what extent may Hemingway,"

and this was kind of addressed a little bit,

"To what extent may Hemingway have suffered from PTSD

considering the context of his short stories

like 'Soldier' story and 'Big Two-Hearted River'?"

- Look, everybody who goes to war

has PTSD in some form or another, how could you not?

And many of us who don't go to war

have PTSD from the events of our own lives,

the tragedies of life.

It's always a tragedy.

All life is tragic.

As he said, born here died there, right?

I mean, that's basically us, all of us.

And so I think that in some ways what PTSD does,

and I'm not a doctor or a psychiatrist,

but it accelerates the process of dealing with mortality.

It accelerates it in destabilizing ways,

and for some people,

you know, I've met veterans who just came home,

saw the worst thing you could possibly see,

and figured out they were gonna put it in this closet

and never deal with it again,

and then there are other people

who can't help but carry it.

This is what the word carry means in Tim's book.

And there are people like Tim

who both carry it in an intimate and personal sense,

but also feel responsible,

and I think this gets back to Hemingway,

to carry it for the rest of us.

And that's where we get great art,

from Hemingway and from Mr. O'Brien.

- Tim, that segues into a question that we received

directed to you from Bridget.

She asks, "Do you feel that 'Soldier's Home' by Hemingway

is an accurate and realistic portrayal

of the inner complexities and existential feelings

of a young soldier returning from home?"

- Yes.

If I have a favorite story by Ernest Hemingway,

it is "Soldiers' Home".

And not just the war element,

a man who cannot talk about war, as Ken said,

puts it in the closet.

And even more than that,

it's not much asked about the war by his family,

it's done in passing and that's about it.

Certainly nothing in-depth.

I think Ken expressed what I would have said

better than I could say it,

that anyone who lives through a World War I,

or Vietnam, or any other war for that matter,

who's proximate to death, where it's all around you

and you're breathing the smell of death,

and often breathing the smell of death inside yourself,

what might be.

On top of that though,

going back just briefly to Hemingway's childhood

at the beginning of this program,

there was a beautiful piece of writing read

that came from a letter

that Hemingway had written to his father.

It had to do with, you know,

the "I wanna write the actual.

I wanna make it seem as if you're living the story,

and I have to put in ugliness along with beauty

to make you believe it."

That line comes from one of the saddest letters I've read

by anyone in my life, including those I've received.

That letter is written to his father.

And in the course of that letter,

Hemingway is essentially pleading with his father

to like his work.

That letter has a line in it that Clarence,

and or the mother, Grace, had returned to Hemingway,

Hemingway's in our time.

He'd sent them copies, his parents sent them back.

And Hemingway said,

"I don't think you really wanna read any of my work,

but I want you to know if I write an ugly story

that might be hateful to you or to mother,

the next one might be one that you would like exceedingly."

That makes me almost tear up right now.

I do that in a podcast, that's an accomplishment.

It's one of the saddest sentences I have ever read

where a man of such genius is way back in that childhood

with which we opened this discussion,

talking to a father he partly idolized,

almost worshiped in many ways,

but also found wanting in his father's dealings with Grace,

Hemingway's mother.

At one point he called it cowardice I believe.

So it's a mix of

yeah, World War I was really important in "Soldiers Home",

but also that family dynamic,

it's as if inside the war story or the post-war story,

there's a family story brewing inside of it.

What an accomplishment.

- Verna, you know, in the introduction,

I forgot who it was that said

that perhaps his greatest weakness

was this desire to be liked,

and that ruins a lot of artists,

not just by his father,

but did he just have an overarching desire to be liked,

to be famous?

And as mentioned in the film

he becomes famous in his own time, as famous as Mark Twain.

- You know, he cultivated that fame,

but he also ran from that fame.

And that's another contradiction that we see

where, you know, he would go to New York,

and he kind of hated being in New York.

And people, you know, they would recognize him

and he didn't want to be bothered,

but at the same time he would be upset

if they didn't recognize him.

You know, he hated literary critics,

but at the same time he read the reviews

and he wanted to get good reviews.

And so he's just constantly pursuing his fame,

but also running from his fame.

- All right, let's go back to another question

from the audience.

This is from Hale,

and Tim I think you answered this before,

so I'll direct this to any of the other panelists,

"What was your earliest memorable introduction

to Hemingway's work?

How old were you and how did it affect you at the time?"

- First thing I read was "The Killers" in high school.

Which is pretty...

you know, it was like being punched in the face.

It was not like any other short story that I'd ever read

or been assigned to read in high school.

And so I think that's why I still returned

to the short stories, despite these great Protean novels,

like "The Sun Also Rises",

and particularly "A Farewell to Arms",

and "For Whom the Bell Tolls", and "Old Man and the Sea",

the big four and the nonfiction.

The stories come back because they hit me in the face.

There's lots of negative space

and it has to do with the spareness, sure,

but with the things that are being brought up,

it's what's not said

and what you don't know in "Killers",

or just about any short story that he writes.

It's just, so much is left unsaid

and there's so many questions that you have

that it pulls you into these difficult

and sometimes unanswerable questions

that are nonetheless central to how we are.

You know,

I just think about all this trying to wage war with himself,

and us trying to wage war with him

and figure it out and make up stuff.

At one point, his fourth wife, Mary,

who's the one who's the most beset in a way,

she has to put up with the most

for the longest amount of time,

and she at one point threatens to leave and says,

"You know, you've sort of ruined your one and only life."

as she puts it.

And it gives you a sense of our existential possibilities.

And then later, when he's asking her to read this book

that is just coming out about a Cuban fishermen,

you know, he's leaning over her

the way people do when you write and doing that,

and she basically says,

"I forgive you for the terrible things

you've said and done."

And I just thought,

well, you know there's a little crack of daylight

where the light gets in.

You know, you just see that daylight get in

and you run for that possibility in the midst of,

as Verna says, a very sad disintegration of a human being

who is nonetheless one of the greatest writers

that we've had.

- Lynn, how about for you, your earliest memory

and your earliest introduction to Hemingway?

- Yeah.

You know, I think I read "The Old Man and the Sea"

in middle school,

and I thought it was really boring.

(Paris laughs)

And I think that book,

which often is read by people at that age,

is kind of wasted on the young.

It's not a great adventurous story, it's kind of sad,

and I just didn't get it.

And so I really wasn't into it.

And I thought Hemingway wasn't for me

and then in high school,

I had "The Sun Also Rises" in 11th grade,

and that was revelatory.

I entered into this incredible world

with all of that subtlety and mystery and sort of glamor,

and angst, and things that weren't sad, like Ken was saying.

Like trying to figure out what happened in that book,

I didn't need the teacher to help me understand it at first,

but, you know, I wanted to go to Pamplona.

I wanted to be Brett Ashley.

I mean, you know, I think a lot of people feel

that there's a magic to what he does in descriptive power

and in relationships and what goes wrong

that's so beautiful and just totally mesmerizing.

So I was totally captivated.

- My first introduction also was "Sun Also Rises"

in junior high.

And like you Lynn,

there's some overarching things I didn't quite fully grasp

at that point that I came to understand later.

Verna Kale, how about for you?

- I first read "A Farewell to Arms" in high school.

And in fact, I think that my high school English teacher,

Joe Lynn Allen, is probably watching tonight.

And I cried my eyes out when I first read it.

But, you know, as I get older, I reread these works

and every time I read them, I get a new perspective on them.

And like Tim was saying, you know, "Soldiers Home",

it's a war story but it's also a family story

and reading "Soldiers Home" now that I am a parent

and reading it through the eyes of the mother in that story,

it breaks my heart.

And so it's just amazing how, you know,

you can be introduced to Hemingway at a young age,

but you can come to him over and over again.

Even as you get older you can kind of grow with him.

- Ken Burns,

and unfortunately we're almost out of time here,

but whoever says that history doesn't repeat itself

but it rhymes,

is there something resonant

about Ernest Hemingway's story now,

given the times we're in,

given what we've been through in the last year,

given what happened January 6th,

and given, I think, the struggle

that this nation is in right now?

- Oh, absolutely.

I think this is the enduring benefit of great art.

That it gives you...

I mean, I remember I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan,

and I remember an old hippie telling me

he learned how to roll a cigarette,

I'm sure it wasn't tobacco, from Ernest Hemingway.

We interviewed a woman, a North Vietnamese then young girl,

who went down the Ho Chi Minh Trail

with the dangerous task of having to repair

what America bombed,

and she took Ernest Hemingway with her

and she said it helped her survive that.

You hear in our film, Ralph Ellison saying

that he read Hemingway 'cause he was the best,

but also because he had been hunting since he was a kid

and only Hemingway in his writing

had taught him how to lead a bird.

So if you're curious about food,

if you're curious about love,

if you're curious about what human beings do to one another,

if you're interested in nature.

And I think this is the one thing

when we react to hunting and things like that,

we forget what an incredible noticer he was

of how the natural world happened.

All of these things are repaid again and again and again,

and it makes these timeless gifts.

So if you're trying to negotiate difficult times,

you know, how difficult the times

that you just described are

compared to a teenager being shot at by a machine gun

in the Italian Alps.

I mean, I'll take no, thank you, door number one.

So I just think that we've got with Ernest Hemingway,

a guide to human life.

And as he said in the opening quote,

a lot of it is ugly and if you only do the pretty stuff,

then you're lying.

And so he may have lied about a lot of things

but the work that survives gets beyond that.

And that's a really great gift to the rest of us

to negotiate whatever passage we're in.

- All right.

Well, I think that's a great note

to leave this discussion on.

It's an amazing work.

And unfortunately, here in Chicago we have to wait...

well, all across the country

I guess we have to wait till April

to watch the whole three episode series.

And before we go,

I wanna thank WTTW's partners and supporters

for this evening,

the Chicago Public Library, the American Writers Museum,

and members and viewers in the audience

without whom none of this programming would be possible.

And for those in Chicago,

as I mentioned, you can watch Hemingway on WTTW

starting April 5th at 8:00 PM and on our website on demand.

Thank you, a hearty thank you to all our panelists.

Absolutely fascinating conversation,

and goodnight.

(gentle music)


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