Producer Ken Burns, one of the most celebrated documentarians, captured the public imagination with 1990’s The Civil War—and never lost it. Writer Ernest Hemingway remains revered six decades after his 1961 suicide. They come together in Hemingway, a three-part documentary premiering on PBS on April 5 co-directed by Burns and Lynn Novick, in which Hemingway’s hell-for-leather pursuit of muses and vices is chronicled.
Men’s Journal: When did you first think, “Let’s make a film about Hemingway”?
Ken Burns: I found a sheet of paper that was a list of possible projects from the early ’80s. It had “Baseball” and “Hemingway” on it—we were already working on The Civil War.
Is it fair to say Hemingway struggled to live up to his own invented image as the ultimate hard-drinking man’s man?
He bragged about [the drinking] but it was killing him and he knew it, too. The art gets lost and that’s a terrible thing.
You mean like his scripted “interview” after winning the Nobel Prize in 1954? It’s so awkward, it’s almost unwatchable.
He’s saying “comma” and “period”! It’s one of the most excruciating things I have ever seen in my life.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was crucial to his career. How would he have felt about Fitzgerald climbing so high in the canon?
I think he would have been threatened. He is somebody, like Trump, who is diminished by others’ success. That letter he writes about James Jones and From Here to Eternity. [Hemingway savagely attacked Jones’ classic debut novel about WWII.] It’s not just cringe-worthy, it’s horrific. The insecurity for this macho guy is an incredible thing to watch, to feel.
What’s on your introductory reading list?
Hemingway’s short stories are perfect. Particularly “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “Hills Like White Elephants.” I’ve read them both 20 times.
Any guilty viewing pleasures for you?
One of the greatest shows on TV is Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Here’s a guy who goes around the country and deals with every kind of people and supports what they’re doing. I know people who find Guy Fieri like fingernails on the blackboard, and I get it. But I think it’s a hugely important cultural touchstone, that show. People go, “You’re out of your mind! I can’t stand that guy with the spiky hair and tattoos!” Boy, did you miss it. There are very few people who cross as many borders as he crosses every show.
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