This week PBS will air a three part documentary about Ernest Hemingway produced by Ken Burns. Much advance commentary exclaims how toxic, cruel, alcoholic, sexist, and racist old Papa was. None of this is news. It’s certainly not news that the man was a big deal.
So I’ll say it. I’ve traveled widely in American literary circles for most of my adult life and I’ve seen cruelty, vanity, racism, sexism, homophobia, alcoholism, and every kind of perfidy on display from coast to coast. Moreover diversity doesn’t offset the miserable character flaws of writers. I have observed women treating other women with raw contempt; people of every background making homophobic “jokes”; able bodied writers sneering at cripples; and yes, the toxic masculinity of Hemingway’s ghost drifting through writing workshops. I once saw the poet May Sarton humiliate a young woman for saying she liked the intersection of dance and poetry. I’ve seen male poets who were openly predatory toward young women. I’ve watched the moue of disgust on a novelist’s face when asked about the work of another writer–the vanity, lying and the striking of ugly attitudes is appalling. So yes, let’s “have at” Hemingway. He deserves a three way mirror.
As for me I’ll watch the series. I generally watch anything by Ken Burns. But I won’t imagine today’s writers are nicer people. I’ve been to too many college campuses and academic conferences.
I’m writing this on Easter. I’ve still got forgiveness muscles above my neck. People are harmed by a thousand things. They struggle ahead wounded and tired. I merely wish to note Hemingway’s flaws are widespread. Why? Because creative writing doesn’t make us better human beings. If this was true Hemingway wouldn’t be so relevant.