PBS offered a three part series last week that my husband recorded so that we could sit in bed each night hoping to learn more about Hemingway’s freshwater fishing exploits in Michigan, now that we are living only minutes away from those very same Holy Waters.

After we put the four kiddos to bed, he poured us a glass of Oban Little Bay Scotch (less peat and therefore more to my liking). We got comfy in a mess of bedding and pillows with our two German hunting dogs piled on top like a sundae. We simply don’t have much time to watch TV together and are almost never interested in the same programs. But, “Hemingway,” a new PBS documentary by Ken Burns, was something we had both been anticipating for months.

We know Hemingway as an egotist grandiose, extra-marital aficionado, and by his careless flinging of fat ones regarding his exploits and experiences (particularly his war record). Excusable? No. But nothing could have prepared us for such a very intrusive and disrespectful presentation of a dead master weaver of words (under the guise of art). Burns unfortunately presents as at once disgusted and green by Hemingway. Perhaps spending his days outlining Hemingway’s unforgivable follies just to go home and count his own chest hairs in a closet with a Maglight.

Burns seems to purposefully leave out Hemingway facts available to him, refusing to lend even incremental amounts of empathy to so complex a human as Hemingway.  But one cannot properly study Hemingway without considering the early years of abuse, manifested mental illness, multiple traumatic brain injuries and head traumas, and his experiencing the loss of a beloved father by suicide at such a young age — all of which likely contributed to long-standing insecurities, fear, and the distorted reality that ensued over a lifetime without proper treatment or professional support. And what of the excessive prescription drugs that his physicians lavished on him at Mayo Clinic and elsewhere when he did seek care? Such irresponsible medication management would not have happened if the physicians and staff were not so enamored by his writing and fame. That was one of the few reasonable observations that Burns offered a slight nod but should have spent an hour on. Even when Hemingway wanted help, he couldn’t find it.

What does one feel after long periods of simultaneously running from and inflicting death?  It both invigorated and numbed him. He found brotherhood but became indifferent to the smells and tastes of bodies and war.  Although his WWI experience was limited to being an ambulance driver, Hemingway went full flak in WWII, joining the “Double Deucers” under the command of Col. Charles “Buck” T. Lanham, a West Point Grad, published poet, and great lover of literature.  Earnest was 45 when he reported for duty as a war correspondent for Colliers magazine.  Earnest and Buck became quick buddies, each wanting to be the other, as they scorched through Normandy towards Paris.  Hemingway rode in and on tanks, lobbed grenades, and cleared roofs like a seasoned soldier.  I suspect the Double Deucers may have been the only thing beyond writing that Earnest was ever fully committed to with his life.

Burns only spent a few minutes on Earnest’s unorthodox Illinois family life or the fact that mental illness is so rampant in the Hemingway family that seven Hemingways have committed suicide, not just Earnest and his father. And what of Earnest’s mother Grace raising him as a girl and telling people he was his sister’s twin until age five because it amused her? That would cause anyone to be confused, uneasy an unversed in what healthy relationships look like.  If he would have spent more time looking at Earnest’s early years, the hyper-masculine adult behavior may not have seemed so eccentric, even for the 1900s.

Burns of course couldn’t resist featuring Cuban “Street Viagra” usage by Hemingway as a senior. Heaven forbid Earnest continue to enjoy his fourth wife whom he shared full-on gender-role reversals during interludes.  But did the entire universe need to know any of that?   It came across as piteous gossip not art.  And what aging couple frustrated with decreased virility hasn’t entertained the idea of Viagra?  What a painful and irresponsible thing to mention in this film.  Ken Burns seems to be getting the ruler out here and sparring with a dead guy who could still win that battle, even with a fully-decayed member.

Burns fails to shed light on the “why” rather than the “what, when and how” of it all.  He takes the viewer to the Mayo Clinic without possible diagnoses for the steep decline and suggested self-inflicted behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse were to blame. As if Hemingway’s deteriorating mental status was due to exterior, not interior stressors.  The symptoms of behavioral disturbances, paranoia, deep depression, self-isolation, and insomnia possibly due to cognitive deficit from TBI/head injuries or even Wernicke-Korsakoff Dementia, all of which were not explored, which was a disappointment.

Hemingway’s behavior was indeed obtuse and increasingly concerning as he aged, but Burns showed us only the symptoms, without explanation as to how additional chronic falls and two separate series of ECT treatments at Mayo may have left him with even greater memory loss and decreased executive functioning (where reasoning and decision making skills are housed in the left front of the melon).

A neuropsych assessment of his history and symptoms from physician’s notes, admissions and discharge summaries would have fleshed out exactly how Hemingway’s cognitive deficit increased depression and effected his ability to construct sentences, speak fluidly, or manage the facade he had so diligently maintained for forty years.  His mind was unraveling.  He and Mary were living in Ketchum, Idaho.  Castro’s regime has taken Cuba, his home, and all his most precious belongings.  It was in that home of 30 years, where he wrote The Old Man And The Sea, a short novel from 1951 that many contemporary critics call his his greatest work.

Perhaps Hemingway disengaged to avoid being seen by others as weak, feeble, and ridiculous, not because he was fascinated by the thought of his own death as other biographers have suggested.

Burns handled Hemingways’s suicide in the most brutal manner and so, the end of the series was just that.  Heartless and numb, just as Burns had framed Hemingway’s hunting of game for trophies and endless pursuit of women for inspiration.  And although Hemingway would never live up to the matador character he wished to be, he achieved his goal of not being a coward among men. Perhaps his family life had been a great failure but in his work he fought most ardently, both fist and word. When fist and word left him, he took the physical body that held his gifted mind captive. The would-be matador resigned, becoming a frail fatigued bull who bled out for all to see.

Ken Burns is of another time and persuasion. From Brooklyn, NY, Burns is admired by and moves in circles who wish to rub out manhood and American exceptionalism from our culture. An American Icon from another century, Hemingway, much like his beloved Mark Twain, would be redefined as a racist after use of the “N” word in a private letter to his editor. Burns spent more time exploring Hemingway’s use of that word twice in an angry outburst than Ernest’s abnormal childhood. Burns interviewed three living writers who all shared how disappointing and hurtful that letter was to them individually, people who did not know Hemingway and were not on the receiving end of that word. I suspect that letter will be fodder for striking Hemingway from American Literature, as has been attempted with Twain.

But Hemingway will go down fighting, unlike Dr. Seuss, also an apparent racist. Dr. Seuss inspired colored eggs and rhyming words for young readers, but Hemingway will continue to inspire generations of soldiers, adventurers, and lovers of simple effective sentences and exchanges that leave the reader forever changed.

I still remember reading The Sun Also Rises at fifteen where I learned what love does not look like, how important physicality is to a man, and was even inspired to take a trip to Seville, Spain, the next year, where I had (with a few friends) purchased an afternoon of live bullfighting only to leave after the first match.  Through my young naive lenses, it was brutal and raw, with no hint of the beauty Hemingway wrote of. I felt as if I’d witnessed a live murder and spent the afternoon crying outside in the plaza, angry at myself for contributing to such an abhorrent exhibit.  But I would not have ventured out to see Spain without having read Hemingway.  At that point, no one in my blue collar family had every traveled outside of the US, and my trip later prompted my parents and brother to see the world, too.  Shortly after, my brother did a missions trip to Portugal and my folks have seen dozens of countries since.  I would argue that Hemingway had a definitive hand in culturing our entire family.

Had Hemingway been privy to Ken Burn’s take on his life, I’m nearly certain he would have been enraged.  What happened to the reporter who accused Hemingway of having fake chest hair? He was met with a fist.  Jealously was something that Hemingway was familiar with from other men and even a wife.  His third wife, Marty, scorned his success out of jealousy.  She married him because he was exciting and self-centered like she was.  Then she hated him for his fame and his gift of crafting words.  Ken Burns will also be less than Hemingway.  Like Marty, Burns does not create from himself characters and stories, he simply tells of the lives of others and there is a great difference.

Perhaps Burns may be correct in presenting Hemingway’s life as less than extraordinary and more of a lesson in how not to live. But Ken Burns is not a saint, a household name, or great creator of something uniquely American.  Will there be a PBS documentary about Ken Burns in 60 years? Probably not.