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Hemingway Mezzanine.Hemingway (PBS, 2021)

A review by Brad Keister, former Deputy Division Director of the Physics Division for the National Science Foundation. In 2018, Brad retired from the more formal demands of research and teaching, and lives in northern Virginia.

This three-part series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick grapples with the complicated life of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), often considered one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. The series draws upon many commentators, several of them established writers, who contrast the brilliance of his writing to his deeply troubled life. Hemingway’s style is sometimes referred to as a method of subtraction, working at a sentence (sometimes involving dozens of drafts) until only the essential words remain that cause the reader literally to be in the scene. Some writers have tried to emulate his style, others have rejected it, but the commentators agree that all of them have had to face his legacy head-on. Hemingway’s life was wracked with dysfunctional relationships, and physical and mental pain.  His mother sought utter domination of her family. His father, a physician, was quiet, dominated by his wife, and eventually committed suicide when his son was 28 years old. Hemingway was an ambulance driver in World War I, where he was wounded. While recovering, he met a nurse with whom he fell in love. They agreed to be married, but when he returned to the States, he received a letter from her breaking off the relationship, claiming he was too young. His treatment by these two women may shed some light on his future relationships with women: he was married four times, and on poor terms with his fourth wife at the time of his death. Hemingway had several concussions over his lifetime, and struggled with depression (perhaps inherited from his father) and alcoholism. And his rapid rise to fame as a writer resulted in a caricature that he struggled to live up to. In the end, following in his father’s footsteps as he thought he might, he took his own life at the age of 61.

Dan Clendenin:

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