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Reflecting on Ernest Hemingway's Time In Arkansas As PBS Documentary Debuts

Ernest Hemingway and Pauline Pfeiffer on their wedding day in 1927.
Arkansas State University

PBS is premiering a highly-anticipated six-hour documentary this week on Ernest Hemingway, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The iconic literary figure spent time in northeast Arkansas along with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. Today, the property in Piggott has been restored as part of the Arkansas Heritage Sites program run by Arkansas State University.

Dr. Ruth Hawkins is the former director of the program, and oversaw restoration of what is now the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center. She is also the author of a book about Hemingway and his second marriage called “Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow.” She spoke with KUAR News about the new documentary. Below are highlights from the interview.

Hawkins took part in a recent screening of the documentary and shared her thoughts on how it came out.

I think Ken Burns and Lynne Novick did an excellent job of painting a picture of a very complicated man. I think a lot of viewers will be interested to see that… many people think that he was a macho man who hated women and all of those stereotypes about him, but I think this really paints a fuller picture of Hemingway as a person that was also in touch with his feminine side and actually loved women in many ways. And I think that it will certainly open the eyes of a lot of people.

Hemingway's time in Arkansas is mentioned in part one of the documentary series. What was that period of his life like?

From the time he and Pauline married until their divorce, he spent basically from 1928, when they came to Piggott for the birth of their first child, up until I think the last year that he was actually there was in 1937. And Piggott was a place where he could go for peace and quiet as well as for inspiration and support. And the Pfeiffers fixed up their barn behind the house to give him privacy for writing. So, it was in this barn that he wrote portions of “A Farewell to Arms,” as well as other short stories.

Hemingway was quite a celebrity in terms of authors. Did he get much attention in Arkansas?

Well, the interesting thing is that when he was first coming to Arkansas, he was not really famous yet as a writer. He had published “The Sun Also Rises,” but he hadn't really published other things that had come to the attention of the general public. So, a lot of people thought of him not as a writer, but he was Pauline Pfeiffer’s husband or Paul Pfeiffer’s son-in-law.

He was such a character. What were his times in Arkansas like?

Well, [people] had an interesting reaction to him. A lot of people, in Piggott in particular, did think a whole lot of him because he would go to the town square wearing shorts and sandals and he had a beard and people thought he was probably someone they didn't want their children to be around. But the children, on the other hand, he got along great with the children. He would he would do things like there was a school, a three-story school building across the street from the Pfeiffer home, and Hemingway would pay the kids a nickel apiece to climb, shimmy up to the top of the drainpipe on the school, or he would push the kids down the hill on a sled when it was snowing. So, the kids thought a lot of him.

What is the property where Hemingway stayed in Piggott like today?

The Pfeiffer home has been restored, and it still has about 80% of the furniture that was there during the time that Hemingway was there and it’s been restored to the way it looked at that time. Then behind the house is the barn that they fixed up into a studio to give Ernest that privacy for writing and people can go in and see the poker table that is in the studio where he used to play poker with some of the locals when he was not busy writing. And so, a lot of things for people to see there that really take you back to what it was like when Hemingway was a visitor.