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‘Hemingway’: A must-watch PBS documentary for those who admire him and those who will

The bell tolls for three nights of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s definitive biography of the literary lion from Oak Park. It airs Monday-Wednesday on WTTW-Channel 11.

Ernest Hemingway at his home in Cuba.
Ernest Hemingway at his home in Cuba.
A.E. Hotchner

The one-paragraph bio of Ernest Hemingway boils down to:

Great writer. War wounds. Toxic masculinity. Nobel Prize. Hunter. Fisher. Boxer. Four wives. Punchy sentences. Alcoholic. Macho persona. Plane crashes. Barroom storyteller. Suicide.

Leave it to the legendarily thorough and consistently brilliant Ken Burns and Lynn Novick to go far beyond the easy (albeit accurate) clichés and deliver the definitive biography of arguably the most famous and accomplished and celebrated writer of the 20th century in the three-part, six-hour documentary series “Hemingway” on PBS Monday through Wednesday.

This is a must-watch experience for devotees who have devoured such classics as “A Farewell to Arms,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Sun Also Rises,” and it’s essential viewing for those only passingly familiar with Hemingway as a pop culture figure who might be motivated to sample his works after watching the series.

(Dear friend: If you haven’t read the aforementioned works, please do. I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed. Whereas some writers’ work doesn’t age gracefully with the passing of the decades, Hemingway’s unique prose continues to burst from the pages.)

Episode One, titled “A Writer,” covers the first 30 years of Hemingway’s life, including his childhood in Oak Park and his work as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star, with its style guide that Hemingway said was a lifetime influence on his writing. (We get a great screenshot of The Star’s style guide, which begins: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative,” and continues with, “Watch your sequence of tenses.”)

We follow Hemingway (through a treasure trove of still photographs and eventually some grainy but engrossing film footage) as he signs up to be an ambulance driver in Italy in World War I and sustains serious injuries from mortar fire.

On his return home, Hemingway took to wearing his uniform around Oak Park and Chicago and embellishing the stories of his wartime experience — a habit he continued throughout his life.

Ernest Hemingway poses in uniform in 1918, not long after his graduation from Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Longtime Burns-doc narrator Peter Coyote once again contributes his soothing and familiar voice, and Jeff Daniels does a beautifully nuanced job of reading Hemingway’s prose and letters. Daniels doesn’t sound anything like the real Hemingway, as heard on old audio and TV interview recordings, and that’s just fine. He reads Hemingway’s words in an understated, conversational tone that makes us feel as if we’re sitting across the big man in a Key West bar.

Keri Russell voices Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, with Patricia Clarkson later joining the proceedings as Pauline Pfeiffer, wife No. 2.

Meryl Streep is Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, and Mary-Louise Parker is wife No. 4, Mary Welsh.

These fine actors, while never seen, are invaluable contributors. Their voices are familiar, but they disappear into the remarkable real-life characters they’re portraying.

Ernest Hemingway with his fourth wife, Mary Welch, whose writings are read by Mary-Louise Parker. The stand-ins for his earlier wives are Keri Russell, Patricia Clarkson and Meryl Streep, and Jeff Daniels speaks for the author himself
A.E. Hotchner

Episode Two, “The Avatar,” explores the period from 1929 to 1944, as Hemingway becomes the most famous and successful author in America and takes up residence in a spacious manor in Key West, Florida. (His second wife Pauline came from money, and her uncle paid for the house as well as Hemingway’s beloved fishing boat.)

There are fantastic visuals of the movie star-handsome, burly Papa landing big fish and drinking big drinks and doting on his young children — and reveling in his fame and his ever-expanding macho image, as his tall tales grew taller.

Says Michael Katakis, a writer and the manager of Hemingway’s estate: “He made the mistake that all myth-makers do — he thought that he could control it — and there comes a time that you can’t anymore. It’s taken on a life of its own. It became very exhausting to be Hemingway.”

Katakis is just one of many interview subjects who offer thoughtful insights. We also hear from Hemingway biographer Mary Dearborn, the Cuban writer and journalist Leonardo Padura, the Irish writer Edna O’Brien and Hemingway’s son Jack, among others.

In one of Sen. John McCain’s final interviews, he speaks of how Robert Jordan, the protagonist of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” was a great inspiration. “Robert Jordan is as real to me as you are,” McCain says. “I always wanted to be Robert Jordan.”

Episode Three, “The Blank Page,” chronicles Hemingway’s final two decades, in which he suffered a series of physical injuries, drank ever more heavily and battled depression so severe he checked into the Mayo Clinic for treatment more than once. (Publicly, it was said Hemingway was being treated for high blood pressure.)

We also hear surprising revelations about Hemingway’s interest in androgyny — he and his fourth wife Mary Welsh would role-play and switch gender identities behind closed doors — and learn of his increasingly paranoid and delusional fantasies.

By the time Hemingway took his own life in 1961, as his father had before him some 33 years prior, those closest to him were devastated but not surprised. It had been a long time coming.

Hemingway was obsessed with death but also with his legacy and whether his works would live on through the decades. On that count, he had nothing to worry about.