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Hemingway Reconsiders By: Ron Capshaw
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 25, 2007

By the late 30s, the CPUSA could survey the celebrities appearing on their letterhead organizations and boast that the most popular writers in America were on their side.  Hemingway, a figure a decade ago castigated for being too apolitical, seemingly was inserting class consciousness into his stock doomed individualists with To Have and Have Not and The Fifth Column.  Thus, leftists awaited with baited breath his epic Spanish Civil War novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, as something they could easily bloc quote from in Party propaganda.

But they were soon disappointed.  Party reviewers immediately denounced Hemingway's return to apoliticalness and his documenting of blemishes and even homicidal tendencies on the Loyalist side.  But Hemingway, despite his appearances at Party sponsored events never really changed course even if the Party was doing so furiously by the late 30s early 40s.

For all his supposed ivory tower apoliticalness, Hemingway had been a student of revolutionary politics since the 1920s and had always intended to write a novel with that as a subject. Sixteen years before his "awakening" in The Fifth Column, while covering the Genoa Conference as a reporter, he wrote more articles about the Bolshevik representatives than any other delegation. The next year he reported on Italian Communists sympathetically: "The North Italian Red is a father of a family and a good worker six days out of seven." Seven years before The Fifth Column, nine before For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway expressed a desire to visit the revolutionary scene in Madrid. That he studied the scene intensely is borne out by his letter to John Dos Passos listing the twenty-three different political parties "steaming up" the countryside. Hemingway even lamented that there was really no market for what he knew about the present Spanish situation. But even had there been, Hemingway would not have completed a fictional portrayal. As early as 1913 he had attempted a fictional story about revolution, but had abandoned the project because he did not think he knew enough about the topic. Two years later he made another attempt, but broke it off before completing the first page.

By the supposed awakening period, he had spent fifteen years studying and visiting revolutions. He had the subject matter and now knew enough about the topic to show at least the tip of the iceberg. Thus, the timing of the novels To Have and Have Not and The Fifth Column did not represent the sudden political awareness of Ernest Hemingway; instead these novels reveal that he had now acquired confidence in his subject matter.

What of his embracing and then abandoning left-wing activism? It is true that Hemingway was more politically active in the late 1930s, but only the publicity of these activities had changed, not the sentiments behind them. He had not merely spent the last 15 years studying revolutions and revolutionaries; in some cases, he was a supporter. He had been a sympathetic chronicler of the Italian Communists in the 1920s and an early critic of Mussolini. He supported the overthrow of the Cuban dictator Machado in 1933. In 1934, he financed a benefit show for the Communist revolutionary Luis Quintanilla. In this period, he expressed his sentiments in some of the same venues he would in the "awakening" period--fundraising and reporting. The difference between the two periods was that by the late i930s the journals he was reporting for were more frankly partisan (New Masses, Pravda) and he was now engaging in a new venue for old sentiments--the speech. The antifascism of his speech was not due to the influence of the Popular Front. He had warned against Hitler for years, when the CPUSA was dismissing the Nazis.

What of the politics in the literary works produced from 1935 to 39? If the Left's model is correct, then For Whom the Bell Tolls, which the Left saw as representing Hemingway's break with Stalinism, should differ significantly from his literary efforts in this period. The novels beginning with To Have and Have Not and ending with For Whom the Bell Tolls should follow the emotional journey of an ex-Communist: propaganda followed by ambivalence toward the cause, heroic treatment of the "progressive" side followed by an expose of the homicidal behavior of revolutionaries. There should be no links between the novels of the Popular Front period and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Such is not the case.

To Have and Have Not contains a more forced contrast between classes -- between the yachts of the rich and the boat bearing the dying Harry Morgan. This work criticizes the New Deal more than previous ones, and there is the implication that economics forced a reluctant Morgan to accept dangerous work. But in his coverage of revolutionaries, Hemingway prefigures the treacherous Pablo, a character in the novel considered Hemingway's break with the Popular Front. Witness the description of the Cuban who guns down one of Harry Morgan's friends and fires the fatal shot that kills Morgan: "He is a good revolutionary but a bad man. He kills so much in the time of Machado he gets to like it." What more apt description for Pablo? But Hemingway, in a period when he is supposedly sympathetic to Communist revolutionaries, makes these characters even more one-dimensionally homicidal than the more scheming Pablo. They threaten Morgan with death within minutes of meeting him and kill his friend. These revolutionaries never would have allowed Pilar to take over the cell; she would have been dead within seconds.

Philip Rawlings, the Communist counterespionage protagonist of The Fifth Column, shares similarities with the disillusioned Robert Jordan. Both are disgusted with the means (assassination and torture) that their progressive ends involve. Both have doubts about their religion, but they have decided to suspend thinking about these doubts until the war is won. Both eschew any Marxist terminology to describe their activities. Rawlings recoils from those who describe him as a "commissar." Jordan makes distinctions between the term antifascist, which he accepts as an accurate description for what he believes, and Marxist, which he rejects.

Rawlings seems to have been reconverted at novel's end when he rejects the love of a rich debutante. But the novel's theme is war between the sexes, rather than the classes, with the usual dose of Hemingway's misogyny thrown in. Hemingway is rejecting the comfortable life the woman leads rather than her particular class; it is not an example of loyalist over conservative, but an affirmation of machismo over the "feminine life" -- a theme Hemingway explored throughout his works.

Robert Jordan is the end result of Rawlings, a disillusioned priest fully aware that his religion has elements of fascism: "You were fighting against exactly what you were doing and being forced into doing to have any chance of winning." Jordan is aware of the necessity of the Party line -- the war must be won before the Revolution can be achieved -- but that does not mean he sees it as democratic or without blemishes. Jordan's political pronouncement sounds more Jeffersonian than Loyalist: "He believed in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

That there are links between these novels not only destroys the model of Hemingway's embrace and then abandonment of Communism; it also reveals that Hemingway still believed that good literature was neither Left nor Right. Like George Orwell, whose anti-Stalinist but pro-Loyalist Homage to Catalonia he admired, Hemingway was far too honest a writer to ignore the blemishes of the Left. He presented real-life characters -- not characters designed to make a propagandistic point. This willingness to record honest experience put him at odds with a Popular Front that wanted revolutionaries to be noble, not bloodthirsty.

For all of Hemingway's supposed susceptibility to the Popular Front, he never succumbed to one of its foremost tenets: the need for America to arm to fight fascism. Throughout this period, Hemingway sounded more like an America Firster than a collective security Communist. In 1935, the first year of the Popular Front, Hemingway declared in a letter to Esquire that the only country worth dying for was one's own and that America should never be "sucked" into a European war. Exposure to the Spanish conflict had not changed these views. Never once in his famous American Writers' Conference speech is there a mention of arming against fascism, merely a warning of many "years of undeclared wars" for "writers to study." A year after this speech, he was still urging the United States to stay out of the European conflict, even advancing the position that the United States should not sell arms to either side. In foreign policy, Hemingway's focus was always on the carnage of the Great War, not the Party line of the moment. Hemingway maintained this consistency, arguing for war only when his country was attacked at Pearl Harbor. By then, the remnants of the Popular Front had reversed their position twice.

Hemingway had other lifelong allegiances which led him into heretical deviations from Popular Front orthodoxies. In a time when the Party supported Roosevelt and Stalin, Hemingway denounced both. He despised the literary Left in America and complimented Franco. He believed in the "absolute minimum of government" at a time when the Popular Front praised collectivist efforts. Hemingway's lifelong admiration of those tested by combat partially accounted for his attacks on the sacred cows of the Popular Front. In his view, the Communist Luis Quintanilla gained his respect -- he had "been on the barricades"; the literary Left had not. Hemingway's dislike of Stalin and FDR, and his libertarian view of government, was traceable to a distinct strain of anarchism in his political makeup. In a 1932 letter, he defined his political philosophy with the statement "tearing down is more important than building up." He disliked FDR, Stalin, and the Russians headquartered at Gaylords for the same reason he later denounced HUAC, Joseph McCarthy, the FBI, and Batista: they were in charge. The drowned veterans of Key West and the front-line Loyalist soldiers were not. Like a true anarchist, he denounced whoever was in power, be they Left or Right.


But in one certain respect, Hemingway shared a commonality with Stalinists: his love of brutality.  Jordan does subscribe to the then popular view of the Spanish Civil War that the war must be won first and then the revolution can occur.  Hence, executions of those with a different timetable can be justified.  And Jordan, throughout the novel, reminds himself to quit thinking -- a necessary action for any Stalinist.  The Party and Hemingway basically found each other in the late '30s, rather than the latter seeking the former, for it was in this period that the Party was acting most Hemingway-like, with Stalin coolly watching a Tarzan film after ordering one more execution (much akin to Harry Morgan sipping a drink after snapping a china man's neck).  Hemingway demanded lifelong toughness and it is on this he departed ranks from the Party when they suddenly discovered the virtues of peace with the Hitler-Stalin Pact and civil liberties during the blacklist period.  Codes of toughness were to be adhered to in Hemingway's world, not abandoned or rediscovered based on political necessities.


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Ron Capshaw has written for National Review, the New York Sun, Partisan Review and the Weekly Standard. He lives in Richmond, Virginia and is currently writing a biography of Alger Hiss.

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