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Ernest Hemingway: PBS Documentary Grapples With Both Man and Myth

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Pass Through KC in Search of Bigger Quarry

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Above image credit: Ernest Hemingway at his home in Cuba, late 1940s. (Courtesy of Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

In the new documentary devoted to Ernest Hemingway, Kansas City enters the story with a burst of ragtime piano.

Local viewers may find themselves settling in with anticipation, recalling how several past projects associated with director Ken Burns had found much of interest in Kansas City. 

Those included films focusing on artist Thomas Hart Benton in 1989 and jazz in 2001, as well as others that showcased eloquent area voices, such as Negro Leagues legend John “Buck” O’Neil talking baseball in 1994, or Marine veteran John Musgrave remembering Vietnam in 2017.

And yet “Hemingway,” which debuts on Kansas City PBS on April 5, quickly shifts its attention to troops marching in parade, and then to Italy, where the Nobel Prize-winning author in 1918 reported as a volunteer with an American Red Cross ambulance unit during World War I.

‘Hemingway’ on Kansas City PBS

A three-part documentary on Ernest Hemingway by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick premieres Monday, April 5 on KCPBS.

Hemingway was born in 1899 and died by suicide in 1961, and faced with condensing the author’s incident-rich life into six hours over three installments presented the filmmakers a challenge in proportion.

One casualty may be Kansas City, given the comparatively short amount of time the documentary devotes to the approximately six-and-a-half months the teenaged Hemingway spent as a reporter for The Kansas City Star. He arrived in Kansas City on Oct. 15, 1917 and drew his last pay from The Star the following April 30.

Hemingway admirers across Kansas City, including those with ties to The Star, can be proprietary regarding the significance of the author’s brief period at the paper.

“We think we spent the right amount of time,” Lynn Novick, who co-directed the documentary with Burns, said recently. “But, I’m sure, if you’re from Kansas City, you would have liked more.

“It’s a fascinating period and there are many books about it.”

One of those books is “Hemingway at Eighteen: The Pivotal Year That Launched an American Legend,” published in 2017 by local author Steve Paul.

“The eighteen-year-old Hemingway transformed himself in Kansas City,” Paul writes in the book’s prologue.

“Hemingway at Eighteen” is persuasive as to how Hemingway – who arrived in Kansas City to take a job arranged for him by an uncle and struck at least one contemporary as timid and insecure – grew much less so during his time at the paper.

“I’m a little disappointed that they didn’t spend more time on it,” Paul said recently. ”The good thing is that the book I wrote about this very period is about everything they left out.

“And if you want to know more, I know where to send you.”

Reimagined and Reconfigured

For all its brevity regarding Kansas City, the film makes two crucial points about the author’s time at The Star.

First, it details how Hemingway encountered the newspaper’s style sheet, a long list of in-house rules governing grammar and usage enforced by its editors.

Second, the documentary describes the often extreme urban drama the young reporter, just a few months removed from his 18th birthday, witnessed in Kansas City.

As for the style sheet, Hemingway likely received a copy his first day.

Use short sentences, it read. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.  

The Kansas City Star building in the mid-1920s
A few months after his 18th birthday in 1917, Ernest Hemingway reported to work at The Kansas City Star, seen here in the mid-1920s. (Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library)

During a 1940 visit to Kansas City, Hemingway – then a celebrated author 22 years removed from his service at the newspaper – told a reporter with The Kansas City Times, The Star’s morning edition, how important those mandates had been to him since.

“Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,” Hemingway said then.

“I’ve never forgotten them.”

Such remarks served to cement the significance of the style sheet, as did a 1970 volume, “Ernest Hemingway, Cub Reporter, Kansas City Star Stories,” edited by scholar Matthew Bruccoli, which included a fold-out facsimile of it.

The style sheet story, well established today, nevertheless can be held up to the light and examined, said Paul

“Did Hemingway memorize it?” Paul said recently.

“I doubt it. Did he pay attention to it? Probably, some of it. Can you draw a direct line between some of its rules and some of his writing? You probably can. Did he break the rules? Of course.

“It’s a cliché of Hemingway’s education that still has a good amount of truth to it.”

The second point made to support the importance of Hemingway’s time in Kansas City is how, once placed on The Star’s payroll, the beginning reporter enjoyed a full-immersion experience with all manner of vivid street struggle.

That included strike-related violence and at least one police shooting Hemingway might have witnessed personally and that – reimagined and reconfigured – emerged in 1924 as one of a collection of vignettes published in Paris as “In Our Time.”

Hemingway also covered medical emergencies – human suffering sometimes witnessed with the benefit of surgical theater lighting. Hemingway grew up the son of a physician, but in covering Kansas City’s General Hospital the teenager gained a newsroom reputation for jumping into ambulances in search of compelling material or adrenaline, or both.

General Hospital in 1930.
The young Ernest Hemingway, while reporting for The Star, often rode ambulances out of old General Hospital, shown here in 1930, searching for dramatic newspaper copy. (Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections of the Kansas City Public Library)

“I keep thinking about him growing up in Oak Park,” said Novick. 

Hemingway had been reared, she said, “in this sheltered, bucolic, suburban, staid conservative town with many churches with a lot of temperance sentiment – there was an almost Victorian sensibility there even though it was on the outskirts of Chicago.

“And then for Hemingway to go from there to Kansas City, this wide-open town with a lot of energy and class tensions and urban challenges – it must have been incredibly thrilling for him to be there, and we know that it was.”

As evidence, the film presents a handwritten letter, scrawled across a sheet of Star stationery on March 14, 1918. 

Writing to Hemingway’s father Clarence, the young reporter detailed scenes of urban conflict he was being paid to observe.

We are having a Laundry Strike here and I am handling the police end,” he wrote. “The violence stories. Wrecking trucks, running them over cliffs and yesterday they murdered a non Union guard. 

“For over a month I have averaged over a column a day.”

About 30 of the letters Hemingway wrote to his family from Kansas City survive, Paul said, and in one the young reporter described the sheer amount of effort involved in seeking verisimilitude, especially on deadline.

I have had to work like sin and have concentrated about three years (sic) work into one,” Hemingway wrote his father on April 16, 1918.

Having to write a half column story with every name, address and initial verified and remembering to use good style, perfect style in fact, an (sic) get all the facts and in the correct order, make it have snap and wallop and write it in fifteen minutes, five sentences at a time to catch an edition as it goes to press,” he wrote.

To take a story over the phone and get evrything (sic) exact see it all in your minds (sic) eye, rush over to a typewriter and write it a page at a time while ten other typewriters are going…

The letter, Paul said, “is the greatest and most important letter that Hemingway wrote from Kansas City.

“He describes what he had been learning as a journalist.”

Ernest Hemingway in uniform circa 1918.
Not long after leaving The Kansas City Star in the spring of 1918, Hemingway arrived in Italy to serve in an ambulance unit operated by the American Red Cross.(Courtesy of Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

And yet that letter is arguably matched by the prescience on display in a separate, contemporaneous letter written by T. Norman “Tubby” Williams. A Star colleague a few years older than Hemingway, Williams apparently had been tasked with showing the younger reporter his way around when he arrived in October 1917. 

By the following spring, when Hemingway was leaving The Star and heading for Europe, Williams had been sufficiently dazzled by the young reporter that he wrote to him, urging him to pack a typewriter and send war dispatches back to The Star.

You can do it,” Williams wrote.

“You can do it big. I don’t want to flatter you, but I’d give a million dollars in cold iron men if I possessed your originality. You see things. You know things. You read human interest like a book. And above all you can tell it.”

During his more than 40 years at The Star, Paul served in several roles, among them book critic, arts editor and editorial page editor.

In 1999 he edited a special Star section observing Hemingway’s centennial. In 2008 he helped organize a Kansas City conference of The Hemingway Society, during which scholars from across the country gathered to tour The Star and present papers, many of them devoted to the author’s World War I-related writings.

Yet it was the discovery of the 1918 Williams letter in the files of the Ernest Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Mass., Paul said, that convinced him that Hemingway’s brief time in Kansas City deserved to be properly unpacked in its own book.

“The Williams letter is a testament to Hemingway’s talent from somebody who was there at the time,” Paul said.

Ernest Hemingway recovering from injuries at the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, Italy, 1918.
In July 1918, not long reporting to Italy, Hemingway was wounded by an enemy mortar shell. He later recovered in an American Red Cross hospital in Milan. (Photo courtesy of the Ernest Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy President Library and Museum)

Addressing the Hemingway ‘Myth’ 

Directors of the new “Hemingway” documentary, meanwhile, had to account for the author’s entire life.

That included addressing what the film calls the “myth” of Hemingway, which includes the caricature the author helped create as – according to the film’s introductory narration – a “big-game hunter and deep-sea fisherman … bullfight aficionado … brawler, and lover, and man about town.”

Ken Burns.
Ken Burns. (Courtesy of Evan Barlow)

Ken Burns, during a February virtual discussion presented by The Kansas City Star and Kansas City PBS, compared Hemingway to Mark Twain – the subject of yet another one of his documentaries – and mentioned how both authors had led “outsized lives that tended to overwhelm, threatened to capsize, the actual art …”

Hemingway in particular, Burns added, represented a “compelling challenge for filmmakers, how to do justice to this extraordinary writer, how to understand the nature of who he was in his biography, and how to deal with the toxicity that came along with the collision of that biography and that art. 

“And that’s irresistible stuff.”

Regarding the art, Hemingway’s books – displayed in a slow left-to-right pan of a bookshelf early in the documentary – continue to speak for themselves, Novick said.

“Hemingway’s influence is epic and enduring,” she said. “If he had not had written ‘A Farewell to Arms,’ ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ or ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro,’ we probably would not be talking about him right now.”

Several of the writers featured in the documentary cite their fatigue with the Hemingway “myth,” much of which today seems so out of step with the times.

But the baggage involved in Hemingway’s public personality is part of the author’s compelling narrative, Novick said. That includes, she said, how Hemingway “tried to manage his own celebrity and what that meant, and how that raises some deep and timeless questions. 

Lynn Novick.
Lynn Novick. (Courtesy of Stephanie Berger)

“It’s a fascinating and sometimes very troubling story.”

Still more difficult themes also can be addressed in context of the author, Novick added.

“For the last six months, but certainly for the last several years, we as a country are reckoning with some deep questions about our history,” she said.

“We are looking at the relationships between men and women, and we are looking at white supremacy in new ways that are long overdue. Hemingway – his limitations, who he was and what he represents today – all of that functions in the middle of the conversations we are having right now.

“The film is coming out now, in 2021, but we have been thinking about it for quite a long time,” Novick added. She and Burns, along with producer Sarah Botstein and scriptwriter Geoffrey Ward, committed to the project in 2010.

“We feel (the film) is coming out at a really great moment.”

Michael Katakis, one of several writers featured in the film, insists that Hemingway’s work contains a universal empathy that resists cancellation.

“Every culture can understand falling in love with someone,” he says in the documentary’s initial installment.

“The loss of that person. 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.”

Novick, meanwhile, recalled how actor Jeff Daniels, who supplies the voice of Hemingway for the documentary, acknowledged in a recent press conference how seeking out the author’s work despite all the distractions associated with Hemingway remains worth the effort.

“I’m paraphrasing what he said, but it was something like, ‘For all of his problems, the demons, the darkness and all of the aspects that are hard to deal with – thank God he could write.’ 

“That’s a pretty good line. Thank you, Jeff Daniels.”


An Excerpt From ‘Hemingway’


Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer.

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