Hemingway: a unique witness to cataclysmic events

Post date: 02/03/2021

IBMT Executive Officer Ajmal Waqif reviews ‘Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War: The Distant Sound of Battle’ by Gilbert H Muller (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). This review originally appeared in ¡No Pasarán! 3-2020, published in September 2020 and available online here. Members receive three issues of the IBMT magazine a year. To ensure you receive your copy, join or renew your membership here.

Hemingway and the Dutch film-maker Joris Ivens during the filming of The Spanish Earth in early 1937 (Photo: JFK Library).

Ernest Hemingway is perhaps one of the best-known literary icons in the Western canon, with a highly acclaimed and relatively non-partisan body of work. Consider that both Barack Obama and John McCain have listed ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, his fictional account of the Spanish Civil War from the perspective of an American volunteer, as their favourite novel. 

This mainstream view of Hemingway is in fact a sanitised one, which honours the strength of his writing but empties it of its political content and context. That is the implicit argument of Gilbert Muller’s new political biography: that the Spanish Civil War was integral to Hemingway’s political growth and as ‘a unique witness to cataclysmic events’ he embraced ‘radical political action and discourse in defense of the [Spanish] Republic against the forces of Fascism’. 

Muller’s narrative flows in a seamless chronology that benefits from what is clearly a close familiarity with biographical sources. The book occasionally takes long excursions into Hemingway’s private life: his life in Key West, Florida, his rocky relationship with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer, his various personal (and sometimes political) grudges with other authors and editors and his collaboration and eventual romance with journalist and anti-fascist activist Martha Gellhorn (essentially the deuteragonist of the book). It’s these sections which often reveal Hemingway’s deep flaws as a man, though Muller rarely dwells on them. 

Hemingway’s decision to go to Spain during the civil war was almost inevitable. Spain had been close to Hemingway’s heart since the beginning of his literary career and he made regular pilgrimages to the country in the 1920s. He developed an obsession with bullfighting, which he expressed in his 1926 modernist novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’. He had even witnessed first hand the early days of the Republic while visiting Spain in the spring and summer of 1931. 

Thus Hemingway was already paying close attention when news of the fascist rebellion reached him in his Key West home during the summer of 1936. He was prepared to leave for Spain in that first week but was significantly delayed by a troublesome manuscript. By mid December he was wiring money to the Republic for the purchase of ambulances and had paid for the passage of two American volunteers to join the International Brigades. 

When inspected through such a close biographical lens, Hemingway’s initial motivations for going to Spain seem less than noble: ‘to exorcise his demons, he needed a new woman, a fresh calling, a big book’, as Muller bluntly puts it. But he also reassures us that by December of 1936 Hemingway’s political commitments had come to the fore, in no small part due to Gellhorn’s influence, ‘to combat Fascism and aid the Second Republic’. 

Hemingway had always been politically chaotic: ‘an anarchist or libertarian by temperament and supreme artist by inclination’, Muller offers. Although in September 1935 he had written a powerful pro-worker piece for the communist-affiliated New Masses, in this period he was generally aloof from political ideologies, seeing the global political allegiances of the 1930s – capitalism, fascism and communism – to be ‘anathema’. 

He entered Spain in March 1937, left in May and returned that September. He would visit Spain twice more during the civil war: in April 1938 and briefly in November 1938 where he was a witness to the final days of the Battle of the Ebro. 

During his trips to Spain he covered the civil war in dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA). One of the recurring themes of Muller’s narrative is the constant friction between Hemingway and his NANA handlers. Sometimes they reprimanded him for writing his reports in a style that was too impressionistic or experimental. Often they were offended by his unapologetic anti-fascism, as they worried about the sensibilities of pro-Franco newspaper advertisers. 

It was in a besieged Madrid where Hemingway truly immersed himself in the revolutionary politics and culture of the Spanish Republic. His suite at the Hotel Florida became, according to another American correspondent, ‘[a] meeting place for a strange assortment of characters… Dutch photographers, American airmen, German refugees, English ambulance drivers, Spanish picadors and Communists of every breed and nationality’. His lesser-known play titled ‘The Fifth Column’ was written in this time, as fascist shells rained down around the hotel in daily bombardments. 

Muller builds a strong case that Hemingway’s political commitments hardened while in Spain. An important moment in that process was his collaboration with the Dutch communist filmmaker Joris Ivens on The Spanish Earth. The documentary was to ‘reveal the true face of the Spanish Civil War’ and was intended to pressure international audiences to hold their governments to account for not supporting the Spanish Republic. Hemingway put skin in the game, contributing around $4,000 of his own money to fund the project. Muller suggests that Ivens’ interest in artistic experimentalism and modernism made Hemingway more open to his communist ideas. 

The progress of Hemingway’s political journey is marked by Muller in numerous moments. When roped in as a contributor to a new, supposedly progressive magazine called Ken in early 1938, Hemingway clashed with editor Arnold Gingrich over the magazine’s refusal to take an avowedly anti-fascist and pro-Republican stance when covering Spain. 

Similarly, Hemingway’s split with his longtime friend John Dos Passos is given as an indication of the writer accepting the importance of committing to a side. When Dos Passos implied Hemingway was a blind proponent of Soviet activities in Spain, Hemingway aggressively rebuked his old friend: ‘Dos’s hatred of the Communists… blinds him to the reality of the situation’. To Hemingway this was a position that ultimately let the fascists off the hook. 

In a 1935 letter to the Soviet critic and translator Ivan Kashkin, Hemingway had criticised those ‘newly converted communists’ of his generation and declared that in contrast he believed in ‘the absolute minimum of government’. But Spain had served as ‘a source of moral and ideological clarity’. By March 1942 he was criticising an old friend, Gustav Regler, for his lapsed communism, arguing that only the Soviet Union had a chance at defeating Nazi Germany. This, according to Muller, was ‘a pragmatic conviction concerning Communists that had first occupied his mind during the Spanish Civil War’. 

Nevertheless, that earlier shade of detachment and affected cynicism was detected by some of Hemingway’s left-wing critics when ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ appeared in 1940. Muller draws our attention to an open letter from four Lincoln Battalion veterans published in the Daily Worker, accusing Hemingway of a ‘mutilation’ of the Republican cause in his book. One of the veterans, Milt Wolff, addressed a letter directly to Hemingway, denouncing his experience as that of a mere ‘tourist’ in Spain. 

Despite this acrimony he was still invited as a guest of honour to a Lincoln Battalion reunion in 1947. Unable to attend, he instead sent in a tape declaring that he was proud to be ‘in the company of premature anti-Fascists’. It is one of the weaknesses of Muller’s book that the relationship between Hemingway and the International Brigades, particularly the Lincoln Battalion, is not explored further.

Some readers might not entirely be convinced that Muller proves his hypothesis: that Hemingway’s cultural output in this period was a ‘coherent political project’, one that ‘reveal[ed] an engaged, visionary artist who anticipated the world to come’. For, although Muller presents a highly attentive account of Hemingway’s personal and political arc during the civil war years, by the book’s conclusion we are still left with a man whose anti-fascist politics were still more inchoate and instinctive than ‘coherent’. 

A conclusion that is more consistent with the evidence presented would refer to a world-weary writer and adventurer shedding his deep cynicism to fight for a truly worthy cause. There is a parallel to be drawn with the final thoughts of Robert Jordan, Hemingway’s American volunteer, who lies bleeding out in the conclusion of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’: ‘I hope I have done some good… I have tried to with what talent I had… The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for.’ 


Posted on 2 March 2021.

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