'Hemingway' documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick has Penn State connection

April 04, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Those who watched the “Hemingway” documentary, which premiered on PBS at 8 p.m. on April 5, may recognize onscreen a couple of Penn State faculty, who advised the film's producers, at several points during the three-part, six-hour series.

Sandra Spanier, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English at Penn State, and Verna Kale, assistant research professor of English, advised award-winning filmmakers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein throughout the project. Kale was also interviewed and briefly appears onscreen in the series.

“Hemingway” — written by Geoffrey C. Ward and produced by Burns, Novick and Botstein — interweaves a close study of the biographical events of author Ernest Hemingway's life with excerpts from his fiction, non-fiction and short stories. Narrated by Peter Coyote, the series features an all-star cast of actors bringing Hemingway (voiced by Jeff Daniels), his friends and his family vividly to life. Through letters to and from his four wives — voiced by Meryl Streep (Martha Gellhorn), Keri Russell (Hadley Richardson), Mary-Louise Parker (Mary Welsh) and Patricia Clarkson (Pauline Pfeiffer) — the film reveals Hemingway at his most romantic and his most vulnerable, grappling at times with insecurity, anxiety and existential loneliness. Content of the film was informed by interviews with celebrated writers, scholars and Hemingway’s son, Patrick.

Spanier and Kale were asked to advise because of their scholarly work on the Hemingway Letters Project, for which they serve as general editor and associate editor, respectively. Located at Penn State and made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Hemingway Letters Project is producing a comprehensive collection of nearly 6,000 surviving letters written by Hemingway during his lifetime. Seventeen volumes of “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway,” about 85% of which have not been published before, are planned; five volumes have been published to date by Cambridge University Press.

Spanier recalls being contacted by Novick in 2016 soon after volume three of “The Letters” had been published.

“[Novick] said that she and the documentary team had been ‘utterly enthralled’ with the volumes published so far and eagerly awaited future volumes,” Spanier said. “I met with Novick and Botstein in Boston in April 2016 to discuss the project in general terms. I suggested a number of other scholars and writers I thought they ought to talk to in order to get a picture of the wide range of viewpoints and scholarly work on Hemingway, as well as his impact on contemporary writers.”

Kale also met Novick and Botstein in 2016 when all three were involved in a plenary session at a biennial International Hemingway Conference.  “They were eager to introduce different voices to this project,” Kale said. “They also wanted to dig deeply into Hemingway’s archives and letters to learn more about him.”

Spanier and Kale were invited to read and comment on a draft of the script in spring 2018. “We were also asked to go to New York for a three-day advisory meeting, where we discussed the script page by page and line by line,” Spanier said.

Kale, who was interviewed on camera for the documentary during that advisory meeting, joked, “I spent several hours in make-up and being interviewed for what ended up being a few quotes in the final cut, but it was a lot of fun."

Spanier joined other advisers at Ken Burns’ studio barn in rural New Hampshire for three days in August 2019 to watch a rough cut of the documentary.

“Each of us filled a pad of legal-sized note paper with our running commentary on all six hours of the film,” she recalled.

Kale and Spanier made themselves available to answer questions from the filmmakers throughout the production process. They provided access to the Hemingway Letters Project’s master archive, pointing them in the direction of letters that shed light on a particular experience or relationship. Spanier also helped the filmmakers gain access to a large private collection of previously unseen photographs, many of which are used in the film.

The documentary also features rare home movies and news film of Hemingway.

“They actually found some amazing footage that I had never seen,” Kale said.

According to Spanier and Kale, the documentary does a very nice job of introducing Hemingway to those who are not familiar with him — as well as those who think they are.

“That’s the purpose of the Hemingway Letters Project, too,” Kale said. “People think they know him well through his writing and his public persona, but there is so much more to learn. There was really a lot of depth to him, and you can see a lot of early 20th-century history captured in his life.”

Spanier said she hopes the documentary spurs additional interest in the Hemingway Letters Project’s work as well.

“Hemingway’s letters, which he never intended to be seen by anyone but the person he was writing to, are fundamental to telling the story of his life and work,” she said. “His letters are an unedited running record of his life and times — like a series of snapshots of particular moods and moments that together make up a vast album that traces the arc of his life and career. The truest story of his life is in his letters.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 12, 2021