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Ken Burns' 'Hemingway' Docuseries Dives Into The Writer's Complicated Life

Ken Burns' three-part documentary about American writer Ernest Hemingway (shown above) premieres on PBS April 5.
Ken Burns' three-part documentary about American writer Ernest Hemingway (shown above) premieres on PBS April 5.

Hemingway, the latest PBS documentary series from Ken Burns and company, has several names attached who have become a sort of repertory group. Lynn Novick, Burns' frequent co-director, is back. So is writer Geoffrey C. Ward, who helped make Burns a PBS phenomenon with the landmark non-fiction mini-series The Civil War. And the narrator, who has lent his voice to so many past productions, is Peter Coyote.

As always, Coyote calmly and clearly sets the table for everything to come — and why you might be interested. "The world saw him as a man's man," Coyote says, to quote one early example. "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."

In this new Hemingway documentary, the women around the author are as illuminating as the author himself. Each of his four wives has something revelatory to say — and these spouses are given voice by a quartet of wonderful actresses, who bring the women's private letters and other writings to vivid life.

Meryl Streep has the meatiest part as war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway's third wife. Her dispatches during the Normandy invasion rivalled, and arguably exceeded, his own. But the other wives are given voice by Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson. And Jeff Daniels supplies the voice of Ernest Hemingway, reading from his private letters as well as his published short stories and other writings.

There's so much to deal with regarding Hemingway. Professionally, there's the way he wrote, what he wrote, and the impact his writing had on modern literature. Personally, there's the relationships with women, the misogyny, the alcoholism, the depression — all of which found their way into his stories as well.

This new PBS biography doesn't shy away from any of it. It doesn't avoid or excuse Hemingway's excesses and betrayals and failures. Instead it enhances our understanding of the man by probing deeply into both his life and his writings. And whenever Daniels reads from Hemingway, as Hemingway, he does so in an understated tone as unadorned as the writer's own prose style.

Burns and Novick not only bring literary moments to life, using just the right sounds and images and voices, but also dive into Hemingway's complicated personal life: The suicide of his father. The upbringing by his mother, who dressed him in girl's clothes and encouraged his imagination. His experiences in several wars, and finding glory in such macho activities as hunting, deep-sea fishing and attending bullfights. From Paris to Spain, from Key West to Cuba, Ernest Hemingway lived in exotic locales during turbulent times — and wrote about all of it.

Whatever you already know, or don't know, about Ernest Hemingway and his work – and his life – the new PBS documentary Hemingway is certain to add more to that body of knowledge. And, very likely, it will make you reassess much of it. As a Ken Burns and company literary biography, Hemingway is even better than their previous documentary on Mark Twain. And my levels of praise don't get much higher than that.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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