Hemingway, the Red Cross, and the Great War
Kent (Ohio): Kent State University Press, 2014
Hardcover. 199 p. ISBN 978-1606351628. $49.00
Reviewed by Matthew Nickel
Misericordia University, Dallas (Pennsylvania)
It is with great pleasure that I received my copy of Steven Florczyk’s Hemingway, the Red Cross, and the Great War and gained access to a world of which many Hemingway biographers had merely scratched the surface. Florczyk’s astute scholarship offers a detailed account of Hemingway’s life before, during, and after the war, and with clean prose uncluttered by academic jargon his exact and exacting style makes for an enjoyable read. Florczyk’s main objective: to reveal the circumstances preceding Hemingway’s involvement in World War I, his experiences enlisting in the Red Cross and during active duty in Italy, and the reverberations of the war throughout Hemingway’s life and writing. Florczyk’s strongest assets are his precision, his discernment of previous scholarship and unearthed facts, and his diligent research.
Unlike most scholarly and biographical accounts of Hemingway’s life, Florczyk’s does not partake of that popular sport called Hemingway bashing. His account of the Red Cross and Hemingway’s involvement in Italy is based on specific facts, and by leading with the historical record, the book offers an objective portrait of the young Hemingway, neither hagiographic nor denunciatory. His background on the Red Cross is particularly intriguing for Hemingway enthusiasts and for anyone interested in World War I.
Hemingway, the Red Cross, and the Great War offers a unique perspective on the history of the Red Cross due to Florczyk’s relationship with the descendants of Robert W. Bates, a captain in the Red Cross and an influential force as the Director of Ambulance Services in Italy. Because of this connection, Florczyk is able to begin with key documents that fill in a significant gap of life at the Italian front. For instance, Lieutenant Edward Michael McKey, the first American Red Cross fatality in Italy, represented an exemplar among the ranks. Florczyk quotes McKey’s thoughts on the meaning of the Red Cross, an organization “born as a protest against war and its brutalities. Our task is to wipe away the blood of the wounded and to spread the spirit of fellowship. The true symbol of the Red Cross is not the Sam Browne Belt, but the rope of the Cappucine” [qtd. in Florczyk : 73]. Bates himself was affected deeply by McKey’s death, after which he issued warnings to volunteers to “avoid unnecessary risk taking as the fighting intensified” . Hemingway’s occupation in the Red Cross took place shortly thereafter and near the location of McKey’s death, and Bates’ leadership was a direct influence on Hemingway’s participation in the war. Florczyk seamlessly merges the story of McKey’s life and death and the unpublished Bates letters with Hemingway’s experience up to and through his climactic wounding by trench mortar and machine gun fire, 8 July 1918, at the Piave. Shortly after his wounding there were several miscommunications about the nature of his injuries—by Hemingway himself, by witnesses, and subsequently in periodicals back in Ernest’s hometown of Oak Park, Illinois. The contradictions between the reports of his wounding, his alleged rescue of a fellow injured beside him, and subsequent medals for his service are numerous, and Florczyk dedicates significant space to revealing all sides of the wounding story. His ability to weave the historical into the biographical, to discern fact from fiction, is paramount to a closer consideration of the war’s impact on Hemingway and his writing.
Some of the most interesting and enjoyable passages of Hemingway, the Red Cross, and the Great War are those in which Florczyk draws from the factual to inform and understand Hemingway’s subsequent fiction. Florczyk focuses on those stories that include actual World War I characters, experiences, or details, such as: “Chapter 7” from In Our Time, “Soldier’s Home,” “A Way You’ll Never Be,” “Now I Lay Me,” The Sun Also Rises, and A Farewell to Arms. Florczyk’s account of Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises is particularly interesting, for he looks closely at Jake as a wounded veteran. Jake must reconcile with the physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma as a result of the war (a struggle much like Hemingway’s), and the novel focuses on Jake’s ability to accept the burden of these consequences. Florczyk’s conclusion about Jake’s journey is refreshing given the typical critical assessment of the novel, for he emphasizes how Jake seeks “solace in the rituals of Catholicism,” how he “devotes much of his time as a bullfight aficionado,” and how he “takes pleasure from the pastoral settings he visits while fishing” . Florczyk accurately points out how Jake develops positively throughout the novel, reconciling with the trauma of the past by grounding himself in that which Hemingway also found healing: the Church, toreo, the natural world.
Florczyk also considers the influence of the war on Hemingway’s unpublished and/or posthumously published material. After an analysis of how “the details of his active duty inform” Hemingway’s early fiction, such as “The Woppian Way” and “The Passing of Pickles McCarty,” Florczyk looks closely at an early poem, “Killed Piave—July 8—1918.” Of interest are two details: one, that Hemingway initially titled the poem, “Killed—San Dona di Piave. June 15, 1918,” a possible tribute, as Michael Reynolds sees it, to McKey (who died on June 16); two, that Hemingway’s poem associates “traumatic injuries with spiritual awareness” . As I have argued elsewhere, this poem indeed marks a key transition in Hemingway’s writing from parody—as evidenced in his Ring Lardner-esque Pickles McCarty story—toward a more profound recognition of the spiritual implications of his wound.
Though he does not consider these spiritual recognitions at length, it is clear in Florczyk’s analysis that the wound for Hemingway illuminated the spiritual dimension: his injury in World War I led to his conversion and lifelong commitment to Catholicism. There were numerous other influences and factors along the way, such as the intense French Catholic awakening throughout the 1920s, the symbolic and Catholic landscapes of Europe, and the attraction to—as it was for Charles Baudelaire and T.S. Eliot—a theology that accepted the doctrine of Original Sin and the Incarnation. That which Florczyk identifies as fundamental to Jake’s healing throughout The Sun Also Rises is rooted in the sacred and the profane.
I enjoyed every part of Steven Florczyk’s book, but the one criticism I have is that the book ends too soon. It seems he has a lot more to say about how the impact of the war and wound formed each of the stories. Perhaps if we are fortunate enough, Florczyk will continue to publish on the subject of Hemingway and World War I. I look forward to it.
Florczyk’s scholarship points toward a serious critical consideration, and if his thesis had to be summed up in brief, it might look something like this: Hemingway’s lifelong fictional pursuit was grounded in his World War I experience and the reconciliation of those experiences coupled with the trauma, realizations, friendships, and heartbreak resultant from the war. Subsequently, as Florczyk writes, “his protagonists are tested not on the battlefield but in the aftermath. Their most significant struggle comes with surviving a near-fatal wounding that leads to a profound awareness of the inevitability of death” .
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