Ernest Hemingway, the Darkness and the Light

The Ken Burns documentary shows the old man’s better angels and his unspeakable cruelty.

In July 1990, I wrote a scathing attack on six bullfights I had just witnessed in Barcelona. My main target: The writer-adventurer who was just given that many hours’ attention on public television.

“In his famous guide to the Spanish bullfight, Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway wrote of a classic, if tragic, struggle between man and bull,” I wrote. “This is not what I saw here at the Place de Toros. Expecting to see a one-on-one contest, I witnessed a series of gang attacks on a half dozen extremely confused animals.” It was not the fair fight our American cowboy culture has taught us to admire. It was not the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

“The bulls killed in last Sunday’s Corida de Toros here met their end neither quickly nor dramatically,” my San Francisco Examiner piece went on. “The first bull to enter the ring died the fastest. After taking the full length of the matador’s sword in his back, the huge animal wandered dismally around the edge of the ring for several minutes before collapsing. It is not clear what reaction was expected from the crowd during this death walk.”

So, you may ask, what was I doing at that Barcelona bullring in the first place?

The honest answer is it was my admitted allure by that same man I spent that column excoriating. In fact, he’s the one who has been enticing me to such experiences much of my life. This week’s epic documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is not likely to change that.

It began in the summer of 1968 when I watched The Adventures of a Young Man, a film composed of Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. A key scene for me was when the young hero heads into a big-city newspaper and asks for a job. When the editor tells him to go out and find some experience first, our guy does just that, volunteering as an Italian ambulance driver in WWI. That’s what Ernest Hemingway himself did to nab a job at the Kansas City Star, except he covered cops and characters before he went off to Italy.

I saw that movie just before heading off to Africa with the Peace Corps, with which I’d spend two years in Swaziland. Before leaving, I burst into the city room of my hometown paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, asking if they’d take some articles I sent from there.

Again, the question: Why Africa?  Why a job with a newspaper?

No doubt, it was Hemingway, the big-game hunter in East Africa, the gung-ho reporter for the Star.

It was he, even now, who pulled me to Paris and to other locales—to Spain, to Cuba, to Key West—that carry his cachet.

Again, it was the allure he attached to such places and to the life and work he chose. As the Burns documentary showed, Hemingway was the biggest literary superstar since Mark Twain. His alchemy combined the daring and bluster of Teddy Roosevelt, its testosterone-fueled vision of manhood, tempered by sentiment and larger causes. “Worth the fighting for,” says Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, acknowledging causes greater than himself. (It was also the title of a John McCain book. The late Senator appears in the doc, saying Jordan was his hero and reminding us that Congress is wanting without the former POW’s presence.)

Hemingway’s visions have kept their hold on me all the decades and adventures since, even as we all learn more about his failings. Fighting for the Stalin-backed republic in the Spanish Civil War, he told his friend, the writer John Dos Passos, to keep silent about the death of a Dos Passos comrade, killed by the Communists, lest it hurt the cause.

Such disclosures are not likely to kick, I gather, as I learned when I kept bumping into Hemingway’s path.

There was that woman in Mbabane, Swaziland, who ran a small tearoom with her husband. One afternoon, she spotted me carrying a copy of one of the famous author’s books. Having never paid much attention to me, she surprised me. “Oh, do you know the Hemingways?” She told of having been “run out of Tanganyika” but having been friends with Patrick Hemingway, the author’s son, in the years before.

There were other Hemingway tracks I have come across. One was the fellow in the bar of the Safari hotel in Arusha, Tanzania. He worked at the nearby Meerschaum pipe factory. My pal and I were only too willing to pay for the beers as he told of the old days when he boxed with the great writer in that very bar, the jumping off point for the Serengeti.

In Paris for the G-7 meeting in 1989, our family stayed in a Left Bank apartment just off Avenue Montparnasse.  We were a short walk from the cafes Hemingway made famous—the Rotund, the Dome, and most important, the Closerie de Lilas, where he polished The Sun Also Rises. I couldn’t walk by those places without thinking of them as the haunts where Hemingway found his characters, where he set much of that first novel.

Again, it was the Hemingway allure, especially that first wonderful chapter of Moveable Feast in which he describes the spectral coming of winter to the city. It made you want to be there, feeling the cold coming through the garret window.

I discovered the same in the years since in Key West and Cuba, in all the places Hemingway made famous. And yes, in Pamplona, Spain, where our son Thomas ran with the bulls.

So, again and finally, what is it? Why does someone like me detest so much of what the man was—the drunk, the wife abuser, the macho man, the liar, the self-promoter who tossed aside friends and wives like so many whisky bottles—and still get drawn to the world to which he left us?  And to he himself? When he’s given us so much of his persona, why do we keep wanting to know more?  Burns could have done a series on any American and any writer. Why Hemingway?

On page 192 of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway offers what I take as the clue from Ernest himself.

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

My hunch is that we, the readers, are deeply allured by that seven-eighths the author has hidden from us. We go looking for what’s not on the page, missing among the spare paragraphs. We make a personal quest for that subtext, that force of nature that led Ernest Hemingway himself to fall in love with East Africa, Spain, Key West, Cuba and, finally Ketchum, Idaho, where he ended it all without even for a minute ending our hunt for the man.

Three cheers to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for documenting masterfully the great Hemingway conundrum.  Why can we detest so much and still be grabbed and held by so much more? How can we emulate his good qualities and bury the bad ones that still lurk alongside him?

One last thought. Remember how Papa Hemingway declared that all great American literature began with Huckleberry Finn.  It could be said that the Hemingway cachet began with that other Mark Twain character.  Wasn’t it Tom Sawyer who got his pals to think it was cool to whitewash a fence? Ernest Hemingway has been doing that to us for a century. That’s his Paris in the 1920s and Spain in the 1930s and East Africa for me always.

Why’s that so?  You tell me.

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Chris Matthews

Chris Matthew's long career as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist includes a stint with the U.S. Capitol Police. Simon & Schuster is publishing his memoir, This Country: My Life in Politics and History, this spring. He is also the author of 2013’s “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” Both books are published by Simon & Schuster.