Updated at 3:25 p.m. ET on April 2, 2021.
His poor head, you keep thinking as you watch Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Hemingway. His poor bloody head. Even the corroded voice of Peter Coyote, whose narration is a study in American understatement, goes up a semitone as Hemingway—in a plane crash in Uganda, this time—sustains “yet another major head trauma.” Nine in total, spaced throughout his adult life. And that doesn’t include whatever shots he may have taken while he was boxing or drunkenly fistfighting. War to war, wife to wife, novel to novel, in all of his adventurings and embracings and abandonings, his most constant mistress may have been concussion.
Hemingway doesn’t include my favorite Hemingway story: Paris, mid-1920s, he’s out drinking with James Joyce, and the great Irishman—frail and half-blind but obstreperous in his cups—starts fights he can’t finish. “Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!” (Hemingway himself told that one, so it may well not be true.) But there are plenty of other vignettes to chew on across the six hours of Burns and Novick’s documentary; the montage of Hemingway-ness is not exactly lacking in incident. Grandly shirtless, he’s hauling tuna from the Gulf of Mexico; in Paris, he’s test-tubing his prose in the aesthetic laboratories of Ezra Pound (“Make it new!”) and Gertrude Stein (“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”); in Madrid, he’s breakfasting under artillery fire at the Hotel Florida; and in 1944, he’s glimpsed loping through the death mill of the Hürtgen Forest, weapon in hand, after three wars finally and with grim joy an (unofficial) combatant for the first time.