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Ken Burns Documentary Goes Beyond The Mythic Man of Hemingway

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PBS
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A new documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is coming to PBS this month, and it's all about Ernest Hemingway.

NHPR's Morning Edition host Rick Ganley sat down with both Burns and Novick to talk about the new film, their process and what makes a good documentary. 

[Editor's note: this is a transcript of one small part of the full interview.]

Rick Ganley: But why Hemingway?

Ken Burns: He's a hugely important writer and he's got a very complicated life, and we like to try to wrestled to the ground these complicated stories. And boy, this is about as wonderfully difficult as any project we've undertaken.

Rick Ganley: What strikes me the most is how it goes way beyond that mythic Hemingway. This is the man's man writer image that kind of, you know, gets thrown around a lot. What surprised you most about him as you dug into the project?

Lynn Novick: Kind of everything in a way, you know, in that we had some understanding of his work. We could give it like the Cliff's Notes version of his biography, probably, but not understanding the man, at least I'll speak for myself, really not understanding what made him tick, and who he really was, and who and what he struggled with. And I think having the good fortune to go through so many of his letters, to meet his family, to look at the photographs and to re-read his work within that conversation, it just enabled us to go much deeper, as you said, beyond the myth, to hopefully getting close to an actual human being who led this really remarkable and in some ways tragic life.

Rick Ganley: Because when I was in high school and read Hemingway, you got the feeling that he was that kind of old Teddy Roosevelt. And I know that was one of his heroes, kind of, you know, exploring type Victorians. And I just, you know, I wanted to see beyond that. I wanted to see more of him.

Ken Burns: Yeah, I think we did, too. There's something that gets a little tiresome or wearying about the kind of hyper masculinity that he projected, the kind of trap that he set for himself unintentionally, in which, in order to build that image, he also sort of got walled up inside of it. And it was hard for him to escape, harder still for those on the outside to get in, perhaps by design. But I think, as Lynn says, we're thrilled to be able to penetrate at least a few layers of those veils and get out, you know, in this --

He was a brawler. He was a drinker. He was a deep sea fisherman, and a naturalist and a hunter of big game. But he was curious about the blurred lines between male and female. And that gender fluidity makes him, you know, even relevant to today as we begin to question the canon and his literature. I mean, what the film permitted us to do was triangulate a whole bunch of things. The letters gave us access behind the image to the unpolished writer, if you will. He's a supreme disciplinarian. He knows how to write. He knows, more importantly, how to edit it down.

So we have the great literature, short stories, great novels, great nonfiction. And then you have the letters, you have the image, you have the triangulation of scholars and other writers trying to get at him. And finally, you begin to sense that maybe you've got a dimensional character in there that really exists. And it is a powerful tragedy because you realize at the end of his life, it's like a gigantic wave of all of these things crashing down on top of him. And so you also feel even at the times, even throughout the film, when he does such reprehensible behavior or does such extraordinary work, you feel a kind of compassion for all of the ways in which he was overtaken by these demons.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.

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