Vast archives in the JFK library help bring ‘Hemingway’ to life


BOSTON (AP) – A new documentary on Ernest Hemingway, fueled by vast but little-known archives housed at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, sheds new light on the acclaimed novelist.

Longtime collaborators Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “Hemingway,” which will premiere on PBS three nights in a row beginning April 5, presents a more nuanced look at the author and his long-standing reputation as an alcoholic, adventurer, Nature lover and bullfighting misogynist who struggled with an internal turmoil that ultimately led to his death by suicide at age 61.

The truth about the man many consider America’s greatest novelist of the 20th century, whose concise writing style turned him into a gargantuan celebrity who became a symbol of unrepentant American masculinity, is far more complex, Novick said.

“We hope this movie opens up opportunities to see Hemingway in different ways,” said Novick, who co-created several other documentaries with Burns, including “The Vietnam War” and “Prohibition.” “There is a complexity below the surface.”

That complexity would have been nearly impossible to detail without the world’s largest Hemingway collection that ended up at the JFK Library, thanks to the widows of Hemingway and Kennedy.

Although the two men never met, they admired each other and maintained a brief correspondence. Hemingway was even invited to Kennedy’s inauguration but was unable to attend due to illness, said Hilary Justice, Hemingway’s academic in residence at the library.

When Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary Hemingway, was figuring out what to do with her late husband’s effects, she asked Jackie Kennedy if they could stay at the JFK library.

The archives contain Hemingway’s manuscripts, including “The Sun Also Rises” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, personal correspondence and some 11,000 photographs.

Much of the material used in the documentary has not been widely seen in public, if at all, Novick said.

Burns had been to the JFK Library on multiple occasions for various functions, but had no idea the extent of the Hemingway files until they began researching the film, which has been in the works for years.

“The Hemingway collection was central to the process,” Burns said. “It helped us understand how disciplined the writer was.”

Much of the documentary is about Hemingway’s complicated relationship with the women in his life, from his mother and sisters to the nurse he fell in love with while recovering from injuries sustained in World War I to his four wives.

“A lot of what he did in life was about love – running to it, running from it, and ruining it,” Burns said.

Although considered the archetype of American manhood, the truth about Hemingway’s masculinity was more complex, the filmmakers discovered.

As a child, Hemingway’s mother treated him and one of his sisters like twins, often dressing them in identical outfits, sometimes as boys, sometimes as girls. He explored gender fluidity both in his books and in life, letting his hair grow out while his wives cut hers.

“We wanted to reject the idea that Hemingway didn’t like women,” Novick said.

The favorite part of Novick’s collection were the Hemingway manuscripts, many handwritten on store-bought notebooks. They show in great detail his thought process as he wrote, rewritten, amended, and edited his works through strikeouts, squiggles, and notes in the margins.

Hemingway, for example, wrote dozens of “A Farewell to Arms” endings, up to 47, by one count.

“You can track how each work developed, from the first draft to the final manuscript,” he said.

For Burns, the most surprising thing about the collection is the pieces of shrapnel extracted from Hemingway’s body after he was nearly killed as a teenager driving a Red Cross ambulance in World War I. The experience of death had a great impact on the rest of Hemingway’s life and contributed to his death.

If you are a Hemingway fan or know practically nothing about him, there is something in the series for you, Novick said.

“There is a lot to learn and new interpretations of his work and his life here,” he said.

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