Dissecting Hemingway’s complex inner life — and America’s
Since graduating from Yale in 1983, filmmaker Lynn Novick has helped create some of the most watched and widely celebrated documentaries about American life and culture. Working with longtime collaborator Ken Burns, with whom she has worked at Florentine Films since 1989, she has produced or directed series on the Vietnam War, baseball, jazz, and World War II, to name just a few.
The pair’s most recent collaboration, “Hemingway,” which debuted on PBS in April, examines the life and literary works of the iconic yet divisive writer Ernest Hemingway. The three-part series penetrates the myths that enshroud the legendary novelist, exploring his enduring legacy while also confronting those parts of his life and work that, as Novick says, can be harder to take in 2021. But it also reveals a complex inner life that has surprised many viewers.
Two years ago, her first project as a solo director, “College Behind Bars,” explored issues related to the criminal justice system and higher education through the experience of incarcerated men and women participating in a Bard College educational initiative. Her work has earned Emmy, Peabody, Alfred I. duPont Columbia, and other top awards in her field.
In an interview with Yale News, Novick discusses the challenges of telling Hemingway’s story at a time of national reckoning about race and gender, the pains she and her collaborators take to tell such complex stories fairly, and the story she wants to tell in her next solo project — on the history of the criminal justice system.
Yale News: Many of your projects have covered big, sweeping issues. What made the telling of Ernest Hemingway’s story compelling to you? And why now?
Lynn Novick: Hemingway is a hugely influential and towering figure in literature — particularly American literature — and an icon in our history, for better and for worse. On top of that, his own life intersected with some of the seminal events of the 20th century: World War I, the Spanish Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cuban Revolution, and many others. There was also the idea of examining one person’s life in the intersection of fame, celebrity, and art, and masculinity, and whiteness, and creativity, and a lot of interesting themes come up.
I’ve been thinking about this since the mid-1990s when I went to Key West on a vacation and went to Hemingway's home and was blown away by the experience of being there. Ken Burns and [writer] Geoff Ward had been thinking about this project for longer than that. It took us a while, along with producer Sarah Botstein, to come around to actually making the film. And as it happens, it’s coming out at a pretty interesting moment for our culture, our politics, and our understanding of ourselves in terms of race relations, men and women, colonialism, and so many of the big questions we’re asking and reckoning with.
His reputation, and his persona, look a lot different in 2021 than they might have decades ago, particularly in light of his views on race or his treatment of women, among other things. Was this a concern as you got deeper into this project, knowing how it might be received in today’s world?
Novick: We gave a great deal of thought to that very question. First, we had to think about how we personally felt about getting to know him and learning some of his abhorrent attitudes and behavior. At the same time, we were interested in and drawn to his art. So how would we deal this tension ourselves? And how would our viewers respond to seeing the racist epithets and ethnic slurs, as well as antisemitism — all of that is tough to take now and was undeniably also tough to take when he wrote it.
We were acutely aware that his larger-than-life, man’s-man persona has become problematic, to put it mildly — for many people today; all they know about Ernest Hemingway is his hypermasculine image. But we recognized from the beginning that the myth is not the man, and the myth is not the work either. And so we wanted to be able to present a more complex portrait, to put it all out there, to clearly delineate who he really was, the stories he told about himself, the stories he didn't mind having told about himself, and to intertwine that with his writing. We hope that in the film we give our audience all of this information, the same things that we wrestled with, and let people reach their own conclusion about him.
A lot has been made of the film’s treatment of his notions of gender fluidity and even androgyny. Did that side of him come as a surprise to you? And how do you see that informing what we know about him as an artist?
Novick: Yeah, it came as a big surprise to me. I don't think it should have, frankly. And that's because he does give hints of some of this in the work that was published in his lifetime. It’s quite subtle and understated and you have to read between the lines even more than is usual with Hemingway. Twenty-five years after he died his family allowed the publication of a novel he was working on before his death, “The Garden of Eden.” I admit that I actually didn’t read it until we were working on the film. If I had, I would have begun my own unpacking of Hemingway and his relationship to gender and gender fluidity a lot sooner. Because in that unfinished novel he starts to explore on the page, not his struggles, but feelings about gender roles and how constraining they are. It’s clear from “The Garden of Eden” that for him, it all felt taboo, forbidden, risky. Today we have a vocabulary and framework to talk about and express all of this that he didn’t have access to.
I don't think “The Garden of Eden” is a great work of fiction by Hemingway, but it's fascinating to see him trying to put these ideas and feelings on paper.
You’ve worked on many film projects. Have any been especially resonant and stuck with you in the years after?
Novick: I tend to throw myself into whatever it is I'm working on at that moment, so the earlier projects have to recede a bit. But certain things absolutely stay with me. For each project there’s one or two takeaways that I hold onto and that drive me forward. That was definitely true of the Vietnam War project. It was such a gargantuan undertaking to try to understand the war from many American and Vietnamese perspectives. And emotionally, it was extraordinarily challenging to try to make sense of such a complicated and divisive time, and to honor the scale of loss both here and in Vietnam. So that has weighed on me, the tragedy of the war, the pain and sorrow so many experienced, and the fact that the wounds have not healed.
But the project that has really burrowed deepest into my heart, I would say, is the film “College Behind Bars,” that I made with Sarah Botstein. It was such a different kind of project for us, documenting an evolving story in real time. We followed about a dozen incarcerated men and women who were earning college degrees through this incredible program, the Bard Prison Initiative. We spent seven years on the project, including four years filming off and on inside prisons, getting to know an extraordinary group of people. The film was completed several years ago, and since then, I’ve stayed in close touch with all of them, and most of them are no longer incarcerated. It’s been such a privilege to know them, and to spend time with them outside of that intensely inhumane system, has changed the way I think about so many things. I’m just profoundly grateful that I had the chance to work on that film and to tell their stories.
Did your next upcoming solo project, on the history of criminal justice in the U.S., grow out of that film?
Novick: Yes, it did. It came at least in part from physically spending time inside maximum-security prisons, and trying to understand the physical structures, the way these places are organized, who is incarcerated, who are the officers, what are the dynamics between the incarcerated people and the people who work there. It’s a disturbing and distressing environment, and being there made me determined to understand the history of our cruel and inhumane system of punishment. Mass incarceration did not happen by accident – and we will not be able to address the harm it has caused and is causing without an understanding of how we got here.
Do you feel an extra weight, given the success of your films, knowing that they are likely to have an enormous influence in shaping how many viewers understand your subjects, whether it’s Ernest Hemingway, the Vietnam War, or the people in ‘College Behind Bars’?
Novick: I personally do feel an enormous weight of responsibility to get the story right. Especially for the people who participated in “College Behind Bars,” who took huge risks to be in our film. We tried to make a film that they would be proud to be part of, and we hoped it would help change the narrative about who incarcerated people are and what they are capable of. For all of us who worked on the film, we took that obligation very seriously. So, yes, I lost a lot of sleep worrying about that. Not for the sake of the reviews or the ratings or any of that, but just for the film to be done in the most authentic and inclusive way.
We made the film with an inclusive team of cinematographers, editors, producers, and we brought academic scholars, as well as formerly incarcerated advisors, who let us know if they saw things in the rough cut that were problematic, clichéd, et cetera. We take in all of those comments and criticisms and try to make the film better.
That said, in all of our work, we don’t ever try to be definitive. We don’t even try to be comprehensive. We just try to give the viewers our take. If we do our job well, that inspires other people to take on other aspects of the story and do their own projects. Ken has said the Civil War series gave rise to hundreds of other documentaries about different aspects of the Civil War. And that has been true of other projects we have done together. We don’t want to be the last word on a subject, ever.