The Idaho Experience documentary "Idaho's Hemingway" airs March 4 and March 14 on Idaho Public Television.
By Bill Manny, Idaho Public Television
When Idaho Public Television started work on a documentary about Ernest Hemingway’s time in Idaho, we expected to focus on three “characters:” Ernest Hemingway, Mary Hemingway and their house above the Big Wood River in Ketchum.
But we discovered an additional set of characters: The writers who spend time at the Hemingway house and think deeply about the man and the artist.
The writers-in-residence come to the Hemingway house to contemplate their own work in a peaceful setting above Ketchum, with views into the Boulder and Pioneer mountains. But each of the writers ends up reckoning with Hemingway in their own way.
“There was a confrontation with myself through Hemingway that happened in this house that has changed me and changed the level of seriousness with which I take my work,” writer, actor and film producer Naomi McDougall Jones told us.
We decided to use the occasion of a six-hour Ken Burns documentary on Hemingway (April 5-7 at 8 p.m.) to produce an Idaho Experience documentary on the 20 years Hemingway visited and resided in Idaho. “Idaho’s Hemingway” airs March 4 at 7 p.m. and March 14 at 6 p.m. Our show examines the traces that remain in Ketchum of the 20th century's most celebrated and imitated writer. But we also hear from contemporary writers about why Hemingway matters to 21st century readers.
Ernest and Mary Hemingway. After Ernest's death, Mary lived in their Ketchum home for another 25 years. (JFK Library)
Hemingway died by suicide in the Ketchum home in 1961. Mary Hemingway stayed there for another 25 years – maintaining the home largely as it was when they bought it in 1959. When Mary died in 1986, she left the house and 12 acres to the Nature Conservancy, which transferred ownership to The Community Library in Ketchum in 2017.
The house immediately became the largest “artifact” in the library’s Hemingway collection. It also inspired The Community Library to think about how it could leverage the house and the Hemingway legacy to promote Idaho’s literary culture. In 2019, the library launched a program to host writers at the house.
Ernest and Mary Hemingway bought this home in Ketchum in 1959. The Community Library converted a caretaker's room in the garage basement into an apartment in which a dozen writers-in-residence have worked since 2019. (IDPTV)
“I think it’s really significant that Idaho was a creative space for him,” said Jenny Emery Davidson, the library’s executive director and a scholar of American history and literature. “Because he continues to be such an iconic figure, he provides an invitation for us to think about how Idaho can be a creative space … for lots of different people.”
The library converted a caretaker’s room in the home’s basement garage into a comfortable apartment for visiting writers to concentrate on their work and participate in library events.
Spending extended time in the home gives these writers a chance to see beyond the Hemingway mythology and glimpse the life of the writer and the person.
Writer Cheryl Strayed, left, and film writer and producer Naomi McDougall Jones are among the artists who have held residencies at the Hemingway house.
“One of the great gifts of being here in this house was being able to live with Ernest Hemingway as a human being,” said McDougall Jones, the first resident writer in 2019. She’s also an activist whose TED talk and 2020 book, “The Wrong Kind of Women,” dissects discrimination against women in the film industry.
“Being who I am, I thought a lot about him as sort of a microcosm of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy in general,” she said. “It does elevate them in the system, but by removing the nuance and forcing them into this performative thing, it destroys them as well.”
Studying Hemingway’s discipline as a writer and commitment to craft inspired McDougall Jones to find the same commitment to her own work, she said.
Contemporary readers struggle to reconcile Hemingway’s pioneering genius with the outdated, hyper-masculine mythos. Author Cheryl Strayed says it’s worth the struggle.
“You don't go to Hemingway (to read about a) complicated, strong woman,” she said. “You go to Hemingway when you want to read a writer who’s grappling mightily with male identity … to see what happens when men have seen the worst and lived through the worst and have to carry their wounds with them.”
Added Strayed: “I'm somebody who believes that you also have to read people for the times they were in. We had really different ideas about gender when he was writing. … It's not as if he was the only guy who wasn't writing women well.”
Hemingway with Idaho friends in 1939. (Jeanne Rodger Lane Center for Regional History, The Community Library)
The Burn’s PBS documentary details head injuries Hemingway suffered throughout his life that, combined with depression and alcoholism, likely contributed to Hemingway’s mental decline, paranoia and memory loss. Hemingway killed himself in July 1961 just days after returning from the Mayo Clinic and the last of several electroshock treatments.
“He was a human being first and then a writer. And I found that so contrary to anything you ever hear about Hemingway in school or otherwise,” said poet Richard Blanco.
“He became much, much more real to me in that respect,” he said. “Just how terrifying it was for him to sit down or stand up to write. He would tell himself, I just want to write one true sentence today. Just one true sentence. I relate to that. And the terror of it, too – like, hey, if Hemingway was scared, I could be scared, too.”
On her drive from her Portland home to Ketchum in November 2020, Strayed listened again to “A Moveable Feast.”
“What I was reminded of over and over as I listened to Hemingway's words was how universal those feelings that writers have, how universal that struggle is, that sense of mission that we want to tell one true thing, that sense of doubt, that fear that we won't be able to do it,” Strayed told us. “Writing has never been easy for me. And it's so comforting and consoling to hear from Hemingway. It was never easy for him either.”
Strayed became wildly famous thanks to her memoir “Wild,” which became an Oprah book club pick and a Reese Witherspoon movie. And Strayed expanded her audience with the “Dear Sugar” advice column and her collection of columns, “Tiny Beautiful Things.”
She understands the pressure on Hemingway as “the great writer from whom we expect greatness.”
“The challenging part of fame is that what made you famous really began with you very, very quietly working alone in a room,” she said. “The work doesn't change just because people's response to it does. ... Yet he had to get to that humble place to do his work. And so that's absolutely the burden of fame.”
Idaho Public Television filmed poet Richard Blanco working at the Hemingway house in July 2020. (IDPTV)
When Barack Obama selected Blanco to present a poem at the 2013 inauguration, Blanco experienced instant fame – and heightened expectations.
“Publishing itself has become more terrifying because I can't just scribble out a poem,” he said. “You've got to top yourself all the time. And that's part of maintaining not only your literary persona, but the quality of your work.”
Poet Richard Blanco, left, fell in love with Idaho during his summer 2020 residency. Writer Judith Freeman interviewed Mary Hemingway in the house in 1972.
Novelist and memoirist Judith Freeman is unique among the resident writers: She once shared a bottle of champagne with Mary Hemingway, a delightful encounter she shares in the Idaho Experience documentary.
“I think Hemingway is a great gate to open to other artists and writers and musicians who have roots in Idaho. This house is a very, very special place,” said Freeman. “I can't imagine it having a better purpose.”
Davidson said bringing writers to Ketchum involves a two-way wish: That the Idaho reading community falls in love with the visiting writers, and that the writers fall in love with Idaho.
She’s getting her wish. Strayed wants to return. Blanco extended his summer 2020 stay. And McDougall Jones and her musician husband moved to Ketchum full time last fall.
“I would say we’re pretty good poster children,” McDougall Jones said. “We came for two months and stayed, maybe, forever.”
Bill Manny is a writer, editor and documentary producer for Idaho Public Television.
HEMINGWAY COMES TO IDAHO
- Watch “Idaho’s Hemingway,” March 4 at 7 p.m; March 14 at 6 p.m.
- Watch Ken Burns’ “Hemingway,” April 5-7 at 8 p.m
- Free virtual discussion with Ken Burns, producer Sarah Botstein and writer Terry Tempest Williams, moderated by Jenny Emery Davidson. March 2 at 5 p.m. Register at IdahoPTV.org.
In the 1950s, Hemingway's Ketchum home was remote enough he could shoot skeet right out the back door. (Jeanne Rodger Lane Center for Regional History, The Community Library)