Hemingway (2021) reviewed

A few weeks ago, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast was one of the books I reviewed. The work catalogued the author’s youth as an American expat in Paris. About this time, I saw the start of Hemingway, a documentary dedicated to the life of the great American writer. The PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) originally released the show in April of this year. Over three two-hour instalments, the series provides audiences insight into the legend. From womb to tomb, Kenyan safari to the Spanish Civil War, we witness Hemingway’s genius. The programme is notable for employing big-name actors as narrators. Veteran thespian Jeff Daniels voiced Hemingway while Oscar darling, Meryl Streep, did likewise with Martha Gelhorn (the third wife).

The series


In high school, I vaguely recall reading excerpts from two of Hemingway’s finest novels. This was part of English class. Later, while browsing notebooks, I saw his name among the premium moleskins. He was there together with two other supreme innovators: Picasso and Chatwin. This year, I’ve only started reading up on the latter. I kicked off 2019 by tackling ‘For Whom the Bells Toll.’ The book, which features an American guerrilla named Robert Jordan, was not a good introduction into Hemingway.

The show

I was not able to catch the genesis of Hemingway as I had been viewing another movie at the time. His Parisian days was where I began. Like in his memoir, the show tells of his family’s trips to go skiing during the winters. The episode quotes passages from Feast. The author had already worked as a journalist prior to his Parisian move. He had been employed with newspapers in both Kansas City and Toronto. Hadley Richardson was his first wife. They had a son, Jack (nicknamed Bumby). There was an anecdote about Hemingway’s lost stories. Apparently, he had asked Hadley to bring them to him. They were in a suitcase but were misplaced and gone for good. Apparently, Hemingway did not blame her at the time.

As a side note, Hemingway was a high school graduate before joining the Army as an ambulance driver in Italy. This experience would mould his future book, A Farewell to Arms. He was the eldest son, the second of six children. He spent his early years in Illinois. In secondary school, he edited both the school organ and the yearbook.

The twenties

While still married to Hadley, Hemingway began an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer. The latter was one of Hadley’s closest pals and a frequent travelling companion. As Hemingway began spending more time with Pauline, he burned bridges with his first wife. They ended up divorcing. The 1920s were a most productive time for the scribbler. He published In Our Time, a collection of stories, in 1925. Earlier, he released Three Stories and Ten Poems, as he tried to move on from suitcase-gate. He finally released his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises, in 1926. The title is a homage to Pamplona bullfighting. I learned that Hemingway had tried to wiggle out of a deal with his publisher by penning a crap novel, The Torrents of Spring. He was then able to sign on with his preferred publishing house.


He divorced Richardson in 1927 and married Pfeiffer in a Catholic ceremony. They were able to get this done as Hemingway’s first marriage was not officiated by the Church, which thereby did not recognise it. While with Pfeiffer, he published another anthology: Men Without Women. The fourteen-story collection is on a medley of subjects, including bullfighting, boxing, infidelity, and death. In 1929, he commissioned his second novel, A Farewell to Arms. The latter transformed Hemingway into a major literary player and evinced a measure of complexity unapparent in his debut. The book chronicles an American ambulance driver in Italy during World War I. He had two more sons, Patrick (b. 1928), and Gregory (b. 1932). Farewell marked his first bestseller.

He expanded his love for bullfighting in the nonfiction work, Death in the afternoon. He spent some time researching in Spain. After this, he resided in Key West, Florida, where he broke his arm. While recovering, he was unable to write for a year. He continued to travel extensively to Europe and Cuba. Together, the couple ventured to a Kenyan safari, which became the basis for Green Hills of Africa (1935). Seeking more adventure, Hemingway went to Spain to cover the Civil War. There, he met Gellhorn, a headstrong, independent woman unlike any he’d met. Here, he wrote The Fifth Column, his only play. In the doco, there was some timely archive footage of the war. Hemingway’s apathy in his friends’ plight was also canvassed.

The Cuban connection

As he gradually grew out love with Pfeiffer, he spent more time in Cuba. He and Gellhorn rented Finca Vigia (‘Lookout Farm’), a 15-acre compound. His divorce was finalised in 1940 and he married Gellhorn in November of 1940. He split his time between Havana (where he spent his winters) and scenic Ketchum, Idaho. Gellhorn impelled him to write his most famous work, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). The novel traces its origins from the author’s earlier experiences during the Spanish Civil War. While considered among his best works, other critics shared my dissenting opinion. By the 1930s, Hemingway’s brilliance was no secret. Since landing his first bestseller in 1926, all his output would fly off the shelves. He became a must-read.

World War II

Though rather reluctant, Hemingway followed Pfeiffer to cover World War II in Europe. He managed to get in by plane while leaving his missus to board a ship. He suffered a concussion from a car accident and was hospitalised. Instead of helping him, Gellhorn mocked him and said they were finished. When they submitted both their war stories to the same magazine, Hemingway got the cover story over his ex. While in London, he met Mary Welsh, who would later become his fourth wife. Hemingway badly wanted a daughter, but she suffered an ectopic pregnancy.


While in Cuba, Hemingway finished the novella, The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Only about a hundred pages long, the book relates how an aging sod catches an epic marlin, only to release it back to the sea. Apparently, a visit to Venice inspired this work. Hemingway was smitten with this teenager, Adriana Ivancich, who functions as the big fish metaphor. Incidentally, the scribbler found his second wind as the lass vacationed in Cuba. For his efforts, Hemingway was awarded the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A year later, he would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Old Man was cited in the press release. Hemingway did not accept his triumph in person. Footage included in the doco shows a sluggish Hemingway trying to practice his speech.

Plane crashes in Africa

In 1954, the pair took a long overdue honeymoon to Africa. Hemingway was nearly dead balled in two successive plane crashes. When search parties could not locate him, media outlets around the globe reported his death. After suffering severe burns to his face and yet another concussion, Hemingway came out worse for wear. Subsequently, Fidel Castro spearheaded an uprising in Cuba, ultimately driving out Fulgencio Batista – the US-backed dictator. Hemingway, who had made a home in Cuba, had to flee to the States in a hurry. Any hopes of returning to Cuba were quashed by the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Once again, just like in his youth, Hemingway’s output lay stranded. This plunged him into despair, and he was unable to release another book.

The last stance

In the years prior to his demise, Hemingway retook to his writing. He had made big strides in at least three books, including A Moveable Feast. He wasn’t always the model husband. In later life, he took to drinking more. Come to think of it, how he managed to complete books while on the booze was mind-boggling. When a magazine asked for a 40,000-word piece on bullfighting, Hemingway submitted 120,000 words and requested his friend to do the winnowing. The guy who was renowned for his unstated, economical style could edit no more.

Iceberg Theory

While not the best spouse, he was a doting father. One time, his second son was struck. Hemingway took care of him. In his lifetime, Hemingway released six novels, seven anthologies, and two nonfiction titles. He was adventurous, living in different countries, taking to such pursuits as bullfighting, fishing, prize fighting, and big-game hunting. He popularised the ‘iceberg theory’ in writing. Simple sentences appear to mean more. The thing about his prose is it keeps you guessing. He may have worked with a typewriter and covered three wars but to this day his work remains highly original and pertinent. This critically-acclaimed doco is perfect for all Hemingway fans out there (or even the casual reader).

Rating: 5/5

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