Ken Burns, director of the new PBS documentary series “Hemingway,” takes part in a panel discussion during the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour on July 29, 2019, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

The filmmaker Ken Burns came to Bates College in the mid 1980s to show his documentary “The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God.” My husband, Paul, and I were living in Lewiston at the time and went to the program. This was Burns’ second production and we didn’t know anything about him. I think we attended because of the topic.

As a reporter for the Lewiston Journal, I covered nearby small towns, and had written about the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake.

The documentary was wonderful, and it was fascinating to hear a filmmaker talk about his work.

We became instant fans.

Burns’ latest, with co-director Lynn Novick, is “Hemingway.” It is marvelous.

I love history, so it is not surprising how much I anticipate every new Burns release. But his documentaries make history interesting to everyone because of the stories he tells. Who can forget the Sullivan Ballou letter from “The Civil War?”


Ballou, an officer in the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, wrote an eloquent letter to his wife. He describes his love for her and presages his death. The letter is read by Paul Roebling, a descendant of John Roebling, designer of the Brooklyn Bridge — the subject of Burns’ first film.

Voices are important in documentaries. To my mind, Sam Waterston was spot-on as Abraham Lincoln in “The Civil War.” Meryl Streep perfectly captures Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, with her mid-Atlantic drawl.

Then there are the commentators. Historian Shelby Foote stole the show in “The Civil War”; musician Marty Stuart was a standout in “Country Music.”

Note: My devotion to the work of Ken Burns is proven by the fact that not only did I watch all eight episodes of “Country Music,” which is not at all my genre, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. And bought the soundtrack.

In this July 1934 photo provided by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation from the Ernest Hemingway Collection, Ernest Hemingway poses with a marlin at Havana Harbor, in Key West, Fla. A new three-part documentary about Hemingway, which relied heavily on the archives at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, debuted earlier this month on PBS. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston via AP

“Hemingway” features a stellar list of experts, including the writers Edna O’Brien, Mario Vargas Llosa and Tobias Wolff. The late Sen. John McCain talks about his favorite book, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Wolff shakes his head and lowers his eyes as he admits he doesn’t understand Hemingway’s obsession with bullfighting. O’Brien has good things to say about the author until the final episode, when she dismisses “The Old Man and the Sea” as terrible.

Then there are the images. Burns created the effect of panning over photographs, which, combined with sound effects like cannon fire, brought the Civil War to life. Hemingway’s life was well-documented. Viewers see him dressed as a girl and his sister dressed as a boy in a childhood photograph. There he is in the stands at a bullfight. In Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Deep-sea fishing off the coast of Cuba.


I was repelled by the pictures of a grinning Hemingway posing with dead lions, rhinos and gazelles.

He was a difficult character — a braggart, a liar, a bully. Married four times, Hemingway always lined up his next woman before he divorced his then-current wife. A simple biography of him would have been depressing.

But this film is also a literary analysis. The short story, “Up in Michigan,” which involves what we would now call a date rape, is thoroughly discussed. The typewritten manuscript, with cross-outs and scribbled additions, appears on the screen. Jeff Daniels is the voice of Hemingway, and he reads the author’s letters, stories and reporting in a flat, terse style.

This documentary comes at an important time, as our society discusses the issues raised by the #MeToo movement. It is possible to abhor Hemingway’s behavior and appreciate his work. I admire his dedication to his work, and “The Sun Also Rises” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” remain among my favorite novels.

I’d read Paula McLain’s novels about Hadley Richardson, the first Mrs. Hemingway (“The Paris Wife”) and Gellhorn (“Love and Ruin”) with my book group, so I was familiar with their stories and the dangers of loving Ernest Hemingway.

I do give him credit for choosing strong and interesting women, especially Gellhorn, who had impressive writing chops of her own. But he always had to be the boss in the end.


I was one of those kids who loved school and consider myself a lifelong learner. I enjoy pushing my mind in new directions, and good documentaries help me do that. “Hemingway” has helped me demonstrate that I can hold two contradictory thoughts in my head at the same time.

In 2016, I saw Ken Burns in person again. He appeared at the American Library Association’s Mid-Winter Conference, on a panel with authors Terry Tempest Williams and Mark Kurlansky.

It was a full house in a huge auditorium at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, a far cry from the intimate theater at Bates. Burns had made a dozen documentaries and documentary miniseries in the interim, including “Baseball,” “Jazz” and “The Vietnam War.” Paul and I had watched “The Civil War” every summer for perhaps 10 years.

It was an excellent conference, but this session alone was worth the price of admission.

I sat back in my seat with a sigh. What a treat for the mind and soul.

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected]

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