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Hemingway’s Second War

Bearing Witness to the Spanish Civil War


Alex Vernon


Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011

Paperback. xx+323 p. ISBN 978-1587299810. $29.95


Reviewed by Marie-Christine Agosto

Université de Bretagne Occidentale (Brest)



Alex Vernon is Associate Professor of English at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, and a specialist of American War Literature. His book is the first comprehensive study of Hemingway’s experiences and writing about the Spanish Civil War, contributing factual, textual and contextual information to his biographical, cinematographic and literary participation in, and coverage of, the conflict. It is divided into three thematic parts respectively devoted to facts (from 1931 to 1939), film (The Spanish Earth) and novel (For Whom the Bell Tolls) and completed with footnotes, bibliography and index.  

Vernon’s writing is precise and rich. Taking a double stance, both informative and critical, he probes into minor details and digs into most scholarly analyses available about his subject, so that the bulk of his work is erudite and heavily documented. The main focus is enlarged with frequent digressions and anecdotes which, however interesting they may be, can puzzle the non-initiated reader to whom a chronology of events might be helpful to grasp the full extent of Vernon’s enquiry. The three parts are so profuse with details and zigzag among so many references to other works by and about Hemingway (and other writers), that they could have justified book-length studies of their own. Moreover, Vernon’s ability to shift his tone and mode of writing to adapt to his subject allows him to move from historical to literary discourse, not without meta-commentaries on his own meandering method.    

With its wealth of information, Vernon’s book is undoubtedly for the scholarly reader. Those who are unfamiliar with Hemingway’s work and lifetime may fail to grasp a sense of direction as Vernon’s ambitious study lacks a dynamically conducted structurally-based demonstration. “It takes one hundred books to write one book,” he says in the foreword; it certainly does, but not unless the hundred voices are transcended. For coherence sake the following review has selected the most prominent topics successively dealt with in each part, at the risk of not doing justice to the book’s impressive versatility.

Part 1, entitled “Spain in Flames,” provides the historical background spanning the decade 1931-1939, from the proclamation of the Republic to the outbreak of the conflict and the loyalists’ surrender. The official history is given a personal perspective as Hemingway’s biography and viewpoint are progressively and cleverly intertwined with the national events, starting with his early pronouncements on the political situation to expand upon his eventual involvement as a war correspondent from 1936 to 1939. Not only had Hemingway been watching Spanish politics for years but he was in Madrid working on Death in the Afternoon in 1931 and he had already written comments upon the situation in his By-Line essays. Vernon picks up reliable sources to evidence his clear-sightedness in perceiving the social ferment and predicting the coming Republican landslide: his correspondence with Dos Passos, his preface to The Great Crusade by Gustav Regler, a German exile fighting for the Republic, and the diary of Paul Quintanilla, the son of Luis, his Spanish artist friend.  

Hemingway’s progressive involvement is scrutinized from the moment unrest grew after the rightwing / monarchist sympathizers won the 1933 elections and General Franco’s rebels headed toward the Asturias, to the 1935 victory of the popular front and the outbreak of the Civil War in July 1936. Vernon examines Hemingway’s self contradictions when he feigned disinterest in the Spanish cause yet voiced his eagerness to “see the war for himself” until he managed to get commissioned by NANA (the North American Newspaper Alliance) and left on board the Paris on 27 February 1937 with Dos Passos and other associates. The dispatches provide a first-hand material about Hemingway’s view of the situation and his whereabouts. They help conjure up the Madrid daily life in the spring of 1937, made of bombardments, queues for food, disappearances and mass executions on bullrings, and suffused with a “strange carnival atmosphere” (quoted from Virginia Cowles). Meanwhile Vernon tracks along Hemingway’s contacts with the international network of journalists gathered at the Florida and the Gaylord, cabling dispatches from the Café Puerta Del Sol on Gran Via, and his visits to the front where he met some of the models-to-be for his literary productions. Other episodes are loaded with details: Franco’s attack from Aragon to Madrid; the Republican assault on Teruel on 15 December which initiated a two-and-a-half month struggle and was described as “the most horrific of all battles of the civil war in the midst of the coldest winter on record”; and the disaster called the Retreats when Nationalist forces drove to the sea sweeping up the Lincoln-Washington Battalion of the International Brigades and causing an incredible number of casualties among them.

Vernon’s narrative is uncomfortably intricate, as he covers the events while following Hemingway’s frequent traveling back and forth from Europe to America by way of France with Martha Gellhorn, until they were definitively back in the US when Barcelona and Madrid fell to the rebels in 1939. Allusions are scattered: the scenes spotted for the filming (Fuentedueña, south of Madrid), the military setting of the novel (the Guadarrama Mountains where the Republicans launched an attack), the promotion of The Spanish Earth in August 1937 and a morning show of the same in Barcelona in the following summer. Lost in a lengthy narrative, such contextual elements fail to adequately anticipate the close study conducted in the next parts.  

The 31 dispatches have been judged inferior journalism, on moral grounds: a criticism that Vernon interestingly plays down by showing that other pieces were biased too. He argues that personal anecdotal journalism was Hemingway’s signature style, originating both in his commitment to modernist aesthetics and in the fact that NANA approached him for his name and personality as much as for what he could write, and even encouraged him to “emphasize color rather than straight reporting.” Moreover first-person reportage, labeled “participant observer technique,” was the convention. In an attempt to explain Hemingway’s antifascist propagandizing, he is keen on contextualizing all journalists’ work, stressing the risk of government censorship, which obliged them to use American slang or indirect hinting at executions and other atrocities. The essays Hemingway wrote for Ken magazine are more like “creative nonfiction,” or “opinion articles” of the kind that he could not write for NANA.

Part II, on The Spanish Earth, deals with the origin and the making of the film: a project commissioned by Archibald MacLeish of a village life documentary focusing on a family with two sons at the front at the time of King Alfonso’s abdication and meant to summarize the background of the revolt against the Republic. With the help of influential people for credentials, cash and equipment, filmmaker Joris Ivens and cameraman John Ferno left in 1936 with the volunteer soldiers of the Abraham-Lincoln Battalion. They met Malraux and Buñuel in Paris for the safe conduct papers and access to the Madrid-Film Company and the military leaders, and recruited Hemingway. In spite of the difficulty to get civilians involved in a raging war to act in a documentary that would reconstruct the atmosphere of another struggle, they did a good deal of filming scenes of chaos and human despair. At Guadalajara MacLeish insisted on turning the initial footage and the new material into “a feature-length picture,” hoping Hemingway and Dos Passos would supply some sort of continuity.

The shooting of The Spanish Earth was a five-week collaborative process, with Ivens steering the group and Hemingway doing film work, carrying equipment, providing for ambulances and help for the wounded, giving the “wonder touch” and bringing “the energy, the spirit, the cohesive element.” After the first public viewing of the film in progress on 4 June 1937 at Carnegie Hall in front of a congress of writers and journalists, Gellhorn secured a private showing at the White House. Hemingway’s recording of the rough nature of the Spanish working class made an impression on the Roosevelts who recommended stressing the historical nature of the conflict to make up for the minimal, if not minimalist, photographic technique relying mostly on visual impact. The film was premiered on 20 August 1937 at the 55th Street Playhouse in New York.

In the second chapter of Part II, Vernon moves on to the final version: a six-reel fifty-two minute film, showing village life, Madrid life and trench life, jumping among story lines and personalized through the story of a young man named Julian. Deemed “a masterpiece” by some, it is considered a landmark in the evolution of the documentary, a genre that was the avant-garde of film in the 1920s. Vernon expands upon observations on the art and technique of documentary as opposed to fiction film and newsreel, and upon Ivens’s and Hemingway’s contrasted contributions: the former working on the aesthetic composition of the visual argument, while the latter provided a “terse, powerful” narrative, bent on a propagandist message that for some critics undermined the artistic effort. The agrarian and irrigation story line coincided with standard Dust Bowl imagery, and “the heroic agrarian efforts battling horribly dry conditions” were expected to speak a visual rhetoric familiar to most Americans. But when American social protest films depict individuals as victims, The Spanish Earth shows men making a better Spain. Yet, for all its optimism, the film silences Spain’s developing industrialization, with its labor problems and conflicts between city and country.

The end of the chapter tackles the film’s mitigated success: after positive reviews in the New York Times and in the New Yorker, it was banned in a few US States for its gruesome scenes and its political propaganda. Censorship was severe in England, where the issue was delayed and references to German and Italian interventions were cut. A photo-essay book project of The Spanish Earth was attempted in 1938 by Jasper Wood, a 17-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio. One thousand copies were issued, with missteps in Wood’s introduction that Hemingway resented. But his novel version of the Spanish Civil War was soon to come.   

Part III is about For Whom the Bell Tolls. Published in 1940, the novel was flogged in reviews by veterans and leftists, and excluded from the anthology of international writings about the war published by the Veterans of the Abraham-Lincoln Brigade who considered that the “support rendered to many phases of the Loyalist cause had been shockingly betrayed,” that the Spanish people were cruelly misrepresented and the meaning of the struggle in Spain distorted, and that Robert Jordan was made for Hollywood. Vernon explains that some veterans demanded dramatization of the soldiers’ courage and sacrifice, others demanded dramatization of their suffering. Hemingway’s Jordan without a uniform afforded him the liberty of a complex character: creative invention was aesthetically enabling and politically prudent. Although novel and film share similarities in structure, splitting technique, multi-vocal narration, a common use of the blatant symbolism of the bridge and the closing imagery of the waters rushing through the newly constructed irrigation ditch, the novel achieves more human reality than the film. Both serve up an epic, emphasizing the common man (Jordan, Julian) on whom history hinges. Hemingway has rewritten the film into the novel moving its spare narrative into what Vernon calls “the most verbose novel of Hemingway’s career.”

As in A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s method was to shift the focus from moral challenges to melodramatic love story, none of this being seen in the film, whose simplicity the novel denies. Hemingway’s paradoxical position as nonparticipant and participant-observer made it easier for him to stick to his choice of invention over truth, as stated in his preface to Regler’s novel: “The greatest novels are all made up. Everything in them is created by the writer.” Making Jordan destroy the bridge, he has created an entirely fictional scenario for a battle he did not witness (as he did in A Farewell to Arms with the retreat from Caporetto) – doing so, he could free his fiction to its full epic potential. As for his political oscillation between blind acceptance of the Republican and the Comintern line vs his deep insight and pragmatism, Vernon argues that The Fifth Column and “Old Man at the Bridge” foreground the same ambiguity as if Hemingway were battling back with his own conscience.

The second chapter, about Pilar and Maria, moves from wartime gender roles and rhetoric to Robert Jordan. Starting with statements on Pilar’s possible historical models, to which Vernon opposes the idea that she is a composite of several ones with much invention, he suggests that the two women might be a political allegory, reenacting the power struggle between Spain’s Communist Party and the Republican leadership. The chapter reaches its climax with the exploration of how they function in the complex dynamics of gender roles, earth imagery and wartime rhetorical discourses. Explaining that Hemingway’s subtle use of female characters does not violate his sense of the historical situation (as in September 1936 the Republican government ordered the withdrawal of women from the front lines) leads Vernon into an interesting development on the role played by women in the War, their political involvement and action, and how they became the targets of insurgent aggression by nationalist soldiers. Nationalist propaganda portrayed them as whores, by fear of the idea of emancipation and free love spread by the Republicans. Although she is a “Red” (a Republican), Maria is neither a militiawoman nor a feminist. Her rape is an example of innocent sexual victimization, and her love affair with Jordan is no free love but a way for her to undo the loss of her virginity to rapists, as Jordan is the one who delivers her safely back to sentimental single-partner love. Conversely The Spanish Earth portrayed women in traditional roles as mothers, wives or girlfriends, but never as soldiers, or as field or industry workers.

Jordan spends the novel resisting ideological subordination, yet dies a willing hero’s death, observes Vernon, who also contends that the novel may be read as an extension of basic internal conflicts: although Jordan fantasizes about marriage and domestic life (unlike Pilar’s, Maria’s name suggests devotion to conservative principles), his death relieves him of the dilemma between his loyalty to the progressive Republic and to his own comforting American capitalist identity (his admiration of Pablo’s horses is presented as one more hint of the nostalgic bent toward richness and bourgeois property).

The feminine theme is put in perspective with the gendering of the technology vs nature contest: the Nationalists have the technological advantage, the guerillas embody nature. The language blends natural and technological imagery as shown by some phrases like “the neck of Pablo’s horse curves like a viaduct,” or “the fascists’ planes look like sharks and bellow like lions.” Yet, for all its romantically feminized depictions of the land, the novel also expresses a sense of betrayal. Vernon is more suspicious of the mythic criticism that makes Pilar’s story a ritualistic feminine Dyonysian usurpation of the masculine, dictatorial Apollonian spirit, judiciously arguing that it would make the Ronda massacre a necessary healthful and scared process. He advocates a more prosaic understanding of the novel as epic romance in the Spanish tradition. Beyond the traditionally gendered earth imagery (displayed in many novels about war and political exploitation), he underlines the propensity in Hemingway’s era to fetishizing and exoticizing the foreign, with clichéd images of African primitivism: in the Anglo-American imagination, Spain was a part of a Dark Continent extending to Africa. Jordan participates in the Western fantasy of primitivism and of the erotic animalism of the primitive. Vernon manages to voice his own reading when explaining that Jordan’s last lovemaking with Maria takes on a symbolical meaning as a fantasy of integration with the Spanish earth, through the Spanish woman. He views Jordan’s death as an escape out of the conflict between the two gendered discourses and the woman who bears them, or more positively as a successful divorce of the discourses from the person: in dying for Spain, he dies for Maria and vice versa, and in dying for Spain he frees the person from his ideological baggage. It is not only a soldier’s death for a noble cause, but a personal resolution.    

The last chapter, “From Frederic Henry to Robert Jordan,” compares A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, both having romantic plots, but with different outcomes for the heroes, and sharing a common rejection of the rhetoric of monarchy and nationalism in favor of people and place. In Vernon’s reading, both novels foreground Hemingway’s preoccupation with suicide, by dramatizing suicidal acts with Henry’s fictional memoir and Jordan’s fateful mission. Vernon’s approach is supported by a number of critical statements on Henry’s “self-imposed withdrawal” (Reynolds), his failure to come to terms with the events and his consequent death-wish (Nagel and Brenner), and Laura Marcus’s theory of autobiography as thanatography in Auto / Biographical Discourses. Lynn, Young and Koch also argue for Jordan’s suicidal melancholia, whose “solitary, tragic, individual heroism” serves the purpose, not of a “separate peace,” but a “separate war” and a “separate death.” Pervaded by disillusionment, Hemingway’s fiction recurrently dramatizes a suicidal impulse, as exemplified by Vernon’s quoting from In Our Time (“Indian Camp” and “Cat in the Rain” in particular) and The Sun Also Rises. More recent criticism on gender identity (Moddelmog, Spilka) prompts Vernon to consider that Henry’s and Jordan’s insecurities yield textual expressions of gender insecurities. In that respect, For Whom the Bell Tolls may anticipate The Garden of Eden, with its evocation of Spain, Africa and the primitive, the gender play being inseparable from the racial play. Coming back on his main issue, Vernon concludes that For Whom the Bell Tolls never strictly bore witness to the Civil War and baffles readers invested in the book’s historical project. It combines documentary impulse, autobiographical investigation and sheer invention in a way that encourages a multitude of approaches.

The epilogue adds a few words about how bullfighting was related to the Spanish Civil War. It also pays due homage to the June 2006 gathering of Hemingway scholars in Ronda, on the occasion of the 12th International Hemingway Society Biennal Conference, during which James Meredith, President of the Hemingway Society and Foundation said that the year 1937 was a time of dramatic change for Hemingway, in terms of his various personal, public, moral and literary lives. And Vernon concludes on the literary and biographical material he wished he could have exploited: the Ken essays, nonfiction pieces, unpublished notes and fragments held in the Hemingway collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, and much more of what has been written on For Whom the Bell Tolls, thus showing the way for further enquiries to be made by dedicated scholars.


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