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Debunking Hemingway missteps on PBS

By Charles W. Waring III

Ernest Hemingway poses by one of the three Cape buffaloes he killed on safari with Philip Percival in 1933 in Kenya. In the short story, Francis McComber’s wife shot at a charging buffalo but killed her husband; by experience, Hemingway knew how tough this animal was and how it would have caused a safari client to become a coward.


Ernest Hemingway has long been the topic of literary criticism and a personal enemy of many with issues related to those things considered too manly or macho or even cruel — especially, hunting or bullfighting. The current PBS documentary series on Hemingway is bringing many discussions into salons, saloons, newsrooms, classrooms, hunting lodges and men’s clubs.


Much of this presentation has been accurate and filled with unique images and important interviews; some editorial choices are plain weird and allow voices nothing like Hemingway to carry the conversation. Other slices of the documentary simply avoid discussing a manly perspective on hunting, fishing, bullfighting or boxing. One critic looked like he was about to burst into tears to have to discuss the topic of killing animals; to understand the real Hemingway is to know the heart of the sportsman. This anti-hunting attitude is nothing new. Robert Ruark had to face the same crowd, as did Archibald Rutledge. At least the filmmakers did tap son Patrick Hemingway for some interviews. However, some elements of the documentary simply sidestepped important backstories.


In particular, the second part of the series brought up a topic in a manner that disregarded the facts, and in response, this writer refers to the treatment of “The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber,” a short story Hemingway wrote based on a story he heard on his 1933 safari with Pauline Pfeiffer, aka POM (Poor Old Mama) in The Green Hills of Africa. The documentary spoke of the short story as if it came from something from Hemingway’s relationship with Pauline or something that happened on the safari, but the real story is out there for those who wish to uncover it.


It is all about the Old Man and the Boy; in this case, it was Philip Percival, professional hunter, telling his young client, Hemingway, about a safari that went wrong. The professional hunter (PH) was the famous John H. Patterson, author of The Man-eaters of Tsavo, which is the true story of how he killed the lions that were killing the Indian laborers working on the “Lunatic Express,” the train that would take you from Mombasa to Uganda. As a result of his book, Patterson became highly sought as a professional hunter. One couple came on safari and the husband ended up being shot by the wife. Somehow the story got out that Patterson had been having an affair with the wife and that she wanted to get rid of her husband and make it look like an accident because she really wanted her PH. The truth of the events was a casualty of the times.


The story became the scandal of the day in colonial East Africa at about the same time that the “Happy Valley” set was misbehaving and known for swapping wives, living irresponsibly, drinking constantly and living it up at Nairobi’s Muthaiga Country Club. (Remember the New Year’s Eve celebration in “Out of Africa” film?) Hence, the public was in a mood to believe the worst about a safari gone wrong. After all, the saying of those days was: “Are you married or do you live in Kenya?”


Percival related this tale to Hemingway, and he let it develop into the earlier referenced famous short story. That is the brief version of what would have made the documentary more interesting but somehow was not included. Count on your Hemingway aficionados at Mercury HQ to be on the prowl on your behalf.

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