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New Mexico inmates connect with Ernest Hemingway's life and work


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A new documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick premieres Monday on PBS. The title? "Hemingway," about one of America's most famous and influential writers.

In New Mexico, an unusual audience is watching, reading, and writing along.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, canvas.

Jesus Costantino: Hey, everybody. Welcome. I am super happy to see you all.

Jeffrey Brown: Yet another Zoom class, but this is for inmates at the penitentiary of New Mexico. The subject, the life and work of Ernest Hemingway.

Chris: What is it that Hemingway did that was so different from the writers of his time?

Jesus Costantino: That's a big question.

Jeffrey Brown: The class itself has an unusual origin. New Mexico's PBS station secured a grant to use the Ken Burns film for community outreach. It provided DVDs, a collection of short stories, and composition notebooks.

Narrator: Ernest Hemingway remade American literature.

Jeffrey Brown: The inmates got a sneak preview of the six-hour series about a man who grew up in Chicago's suburbs, drove an ambulance, and was severely wounded in World War I, and for decades beginning in the 1920s was a renowned author and global celebrity, but always with an undercurrent of struggle. Hemingway took his own life at age 61 in 1961.

When you heard the idea, did Hemingway feel right to you?

Jesus Costantino: I wasn't sure, to be honest.

Jeffrey Brown: Leading the six-week course is Jesus Costantino, an English professor at the University of New Mexico. This was his first time teaching in a prison.

Jesus Costantino: I jumped at the chance, really. I was -- I had been champing at the bit to do this. I'd heard so many great stories, and I was envious. I was like, this sounds like the kind of teaching I want to do.

Jeffrey Brown: And Hemingway suddenly felt right.

Jesus Costantino: Here is somebody who talks a lot about communities of men. Here's somebody who talks a lot about the constant threat of violence. Here's somebody who talks a lot about that almost obsessive sense that death is nearby.

And Hemingway sort of played into that so perfectly.

Jeffrey Brown: This prison, near Santa Fe, was the scene of a horrific riot in 1980 that left 33 inmates dead.

Many years later, in a new high-security facility on the same site, the men we met are serving sentences ranging from four years to life for crimes up to first-degree murder.

Prison officials asked us to use first names only and to blur faces in our interviews, out of sensitivity to the victims.

Did you ever read Hemingway before?

Eduardo: No, I had never even heard of him.

Jeffrey Brown: Did you connect with him?

Eduardo: Yes, he did connect with me. It was just easy to read. He wasn't like all that extra stuff. It was just straight to the point.

Jesus Costantino: Let's start by reading a passage from the story "The Undefeated."

Jeffrey Brown: Professor Costantino is focusing on Hemingway's short stories, and the first assignment was one titled "The Undefeated" about an aging bullfighter.

He emphasized the directness of the language, the life-and-death situation, but also something else.

Jesus Costantino: One of Hemingway's biggest interests is what we're doing right now, groups of men. He is really interested in how men think and function together, and, in particular, what kind of language they develop.

Jeffrey Brown: That resonated with the inmates.

Chris: Most men just get straight to the point. We're not going to go into all these details that are not necessarily important to the point.

Jeffrey Brown: I couldn't help but think that there you are in an institution of all men.

Man: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Did you connect with that?

Man: Oh, very much so. Each and every single one of us is constantly trying to balance that in a male-dominated society in here, is your masculinity and how you carry yourself and present yourself and mingle with a whole bunch of other men.

Jesus Costantino: What you put into words is just that tip of the iceberg, right?

Jeffrey Brown: Professor Costantino also emphasized a key to Hemingway's writing: The words we read often hide the complexities below the surface. That, too, connected.

Man: In here, it's -- you have to be cautious with your words, so you have to find ways in expressing yourself, and so that people can understand what's beneath the surface, because what's beneath the surface is a lot of time our insecurities.

Jeffrey Brown: Were you surprised by the amount of participation or what the inmates said?

Jesus Costantino: What I'm surprised by is the number of ways I feel as though I have been prepared to expect something different.

It was that I wanted them to show me what they could do, and they did.

So, let's not say the thing beneath, and let's say the thing on top.

Jeffrey Brown: There was also a writing assignment a simple sentence about a feeling you're having, without saying what the feeling is.

Anybody want to share?

Jose: I feel like all eyes are on me, and time has stopped, or it's going by really slow.

Jesus Costantino: What is not being said there?

Jose: That I'm nervous.

Jeffrey Brown: Nervous, in part, because he was seated front and center, and this was all new to him.

But Jose told us he'd stick with the class.

Jose: Just to expand my mind, not be ignorant, you know? If my kids ever ask me about it or they're in school or if it comes up, I'm not going to be ignorant about the situation. I could actually put in my 2 cents to help them out, or stuff like that.

Bob Robinson: There's a definite hunger for learning.

Jeffrey Brown: Bob Robinson is tasked with organizing programs like this statewide. A former university philosophy professor, he teaches ethics classes here.

Bob Robinson: The Hemingway sessions that we're pursuing here fit right into that mold of bringing an opportunity to these incarcerated people that would give them the chance to think through some of these deeper human issues and human questions.

Jeffrey Brown: What's in it for the prison system, as opposed to the incarcerated themselves?

Bob Robinson: We're releasing them with skills and knowledge that are going to better equip them to be successful. And that means less victims in our communities, but it also means stronger and safer communities for us.

Jeffrey Brown: Back in the classroom, session one ended with a show of appreciation.

Man: Thank you.

Man: Thank you. Thank you. Appreciate it. Thank you for doing this, because we know that you don't have to, so we just wanted to let you know that we appreciate it. Thank you.

Jesus Costantino: Awesome questions. Awesome feedback. Awesome work. I hope to see you all again.

Jeffrey Brown: Next, the group tackles the classic Hemingway story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: Such a great story, lifting opportunities for all these men.

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