A letter from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about Hemingway

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

As the wonderful writer Edna O’Brien so vividly explains in Hemingway, our new documentary series exploring the life and work of the iconic writer, one of Ernest Hemingway’s great talents was his ability to get “inside the skin” of his characters, even those whose lives and experiences were far from his own. In other words, he understood what it was to be a human being.

O’Brien’s analysis gets at the heart of why Hemingway’s work has endured, captivating readers year after year and influencing generations of writers. In his spare and profound prose, Hemingway captured on paper the complexities of the human condition in a way few other authors have.

Our film traces Hemingway’s career and life: we follow him around the country and the world from his childhood in Chicago to his World War I service in Italy, from his years in Paris and Cuba to his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and, finally, to his death in Idaho. We see him fall in and out of love, ride the highs and lows of his literary career, and struggle with depression. Interwoven with this biographical study is an examination of his writing, including the less celebrated aspects of his work and the challenges of reading Hemingway today.

As we peeled back the layers of his biography and dove deeper into his writing, we discovered that the myth of Hemingway -- which he, in large part, fostered himself -- to be much less compelling than the complexities and contradictions of the man himself. To his wives, he could be both loving and tender but also bullying and cruel. He was filled with masculine bravado yet wrote with sensitivity and nuance about relationships between men and women. He had friends across the world but grappled throughout his life with anxiety and loneliness. He often extended kindness to those who needed his help, yet was sometimes vengeful to those who had helped him.

To help us unpack this mythology and to weave a portrait of Hemingway the man were the dozens of renowned authors, biographers and scholars we were fortunate to speak to for this project. We were also honored to include moving commentary from Ernest’s surviving child, Patrick Hemingway, and from the late Senator John McCain, whose lifelong role model was Robert Jordan, the protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls.

As we have said about our other films, we could not have made this without Bank of America’s support. Thanks to you, we have had the luxury of time to tell a story that is both sweeping and intensely intimate.

Our partnership with Bank of America began in 2007, when our seven-part series, The War premiered. Since then we have worked together on many films, including The National Parks, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, The Roosevelts, The Vietnam War, Country Music, and College Behind Bars. In each case, thanks to the bank’s support and involvement, we’ve been able, through our films, to encourage and inspire Americans to participate in a larger conversation about our country’s history.

Though the pandemic means our outreach for this film will be entirely virtual, we look forward to reuniting with the entire Bank of America family as we share Hemingway with communities across the country.


Ken Burns and Lynn Novick