I’m looking forward to the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick three-part documentary on Ernest Hemingway on PBS. In anticipation my thoughts drifted back to 1990 when I was the CNN Detroit Bureau Chief and correspondent. I’d only transferred up to Detroit from Atlanta the year before and was anxious to explore as much of Michigan as I could since in television you never know how long you’ll be anywhere.
When my wife and two kids scheduled a trip to visit her family in upstate New York for a week I thought it would be a good time to go on a road trip of my own to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the area of the Lower Peninsula known as Up North. I asked one of my producers to try to schedule some stories in those areas and she came through with a great lineup. It ranged from giant sinkholes near Alpena to an issue with Native American health care near Sault Ste. Marie to panning for gold near Marquette and visiting a 10-year old young lady who became a pen pal with former Panama dictator Manuel Noriega.
But the most challenging story she booked was a tour through the areas in the Upper Peninsula and near Petoskey in the Lower Peninsula that were important to Ernest Hemingway. At that time I hadn’t actually read any Hemingway and in preparation pored through a book of his short stories–several of which took place in the areas we’d visit including the imagined site of the famed Nick Adams short story, “The Big Two-Hearted River.”
It was through my binging those wonderful stories that I began to understand Hemingway’s economical writing style–short, blunt sentences. Not a wasted word. In a few words he could take you from the exultation of landing big trout after wrenching battle to the devastation of an unrequited love.
We hooked up with a Hemingway historian who became our tour guide, connection to his sister, acquaintances and key locations such the family summer home on Walloon Lake and the Horton Bay General Store.
Given our tight schedule all shooting needed to be accomplished in a single day which meant dragging our extremely patient historian/guide to as many locations and interviews as we could squeeze in.
The truth is, there really wasn’t a new angle to our story. It was just a case of a curious reporter on a quest of discovery, perhaps making up for lost time having previously neglected to read one of the most significant authors of the 20th century.
Over these intervening 41 years I’ve now read almost everything Hemingway wrote and just a couple of weeks ago re-read those short stories. As a writer I would laugh at myself and yes, feel a little shame, at how many words it takes me to say something Hemingway may have related in half as many. They would be markedly better chosen as well, I would imagine!
I started thinking back to that long, humid day in June of 1990 when traced the steps Hemingway imagined for Nick Adams, who is believed to be his alter ego. Standing on the shores of Horton Bay, which is part of Lake Charlevoix, I recalled the story titled “The End of Something” where Nick Adams admits to the young lady he had been seeing the relationship was over. Happy endings were not a Hemingway staple. The spot seemed exactly as written and I could see in my mind’s eye the scene where the “something” devastatingly ended.
On our return to Detroit it was then my job to somehow distill all we had learned and shot into a cogent television story. I was generously given more than the usual 90 seconds to two minutes and took full advantage, gobbling a hair over four minutes.
So remember this was shot 41 years ago. I’ve changed a bit since then. So have we all. But I thought you might enjoy my Hemingway discovery before you watch what Ken Burns and Lynn Novick came up with.