Arts & Culture

The Reel Southern World of Ernest Hemingway

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new PBS documentary goes deep on the author’s life, including his time in the Florida Keys

“Big-game hunter. Deep-sea fisherman. Brawler. Drinker.” That’s how the filmmaker Ken Burns says he viewed Ernest Hemingway before shooting Hemingway, a three-part docuseries for PBS, which premiered this month. How does he see Papa now? “Ever questioning. Sensitive. Fearful. Complicated.” 

By combining rarely seen manuscripts and letters with expert interviews, Burns and his longtime collaborator, the director and producer Lynn Novick, reveal a man few really understood. “We worked hard to get past the myths surrounding his life,” Novick says. 

In the series, Jeff Daniels provides the voice of Hemingway, while Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker, and Patricia Clarkson voice his four wives. Hemingway pays close attention to the seminal backdrops of the writer’s life, including Key West, where he lived on and off from 1928 to 1939, first settling on the isolated spot with his second wife, Pauline.

But New Deal construction brought bridges, and tourists arrived as Hemingway was solidifying his reputation as a hard-fighting, harder-drinking outdoorsman. “He was experiencing this fantastic explosion of fame,” Burns says. “Just as Key West was becoming Key West, Ernest Hemingway was becoming Ernest Hemingway.” 

Even though the author raised two of his sons and wrote novels such as To Have and Have Not there, in time he grew restless. “For a while, Key West provided Hemingway with extraordinary inspiration,” Burns says. “The second it didn’t, he was gone to a new wife and onward.” 


Find PBS’s episode guide—and the full documentary, available to stream—here.

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