The celebrated American documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ six-part biopic on the life and writings of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), the iconic American writer and Nobel Prize awardee is currently streaming on BBC Four and I Player.
In an interview carried in The Guardian Burns stated, “once you dive into Hemingway, you’re just stunned at how spectacularly great he is and how difficult it is to find excuses, however simplistic, to cancel him out. The short stories are perfect art; the novels, particularly A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, are great works of literature.” In fact, 2 July 2021, marked the 62nd death anniversary of Ernest Hemingway. Death could not snatch him away; he was responsible for his own death.
He shot himself dead with his favourite double-barrelled shotgun on 2 July 1961. Hemingway was extremely stressed, panic-stricken, seriously unwell and depressed in the last few years of his phenomenal life of great achievements as a writer, apart from his active interest in boxing, fishing, boating, bull-fighting and war reportage. Papa Hemingway had been regarded as the rockstar and trailblazer by students in universities throughout the world in the sixties and seventies.
His comradeship with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and his long sojourns in Cuba, made him the iconic flag-bearer of democracy, equality and a spokesperson for the wretched of the earth. Yet throughout his career as an outstanding writer, Hemingway remained an enigmatic ideologue, for whom justice and freedom were far more important than political grandstanding and bigotry.
Interestingly, CIA archivist Nicholas Reynolds in his book published in 2017, titled, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, described in detail Hemingway’s relationship with Soviet intelligence. When Nicholas Reynolds was asked by a reporter what did the Soviets potentially see in Hemingway, Reynolds had stated, “…So this was a guy who was a powerful propagandist. This was a guy with entrée (sic) into the halls of power. The Soviets, I don’t think, knew exactly what they wanted from Ernest, but they said this is a man with good enough potential. Let’s see if we can get him to agree to work with us, and then we’ll find exactly what his potential is. Maybe it’s continue to slant news in our favor (sic). Maybe it’s just to help out and make introductions to people who could help us further”.
In fact, the Soviets even gave Hemingway a code name Argo. Reynolds argued that the name Argo was eminently appropriate- “Argo was a good codename for him – in calling forth the sailor in Greek mythology”. The appropriateness becomes obvious as we read Hemingway’s outstanding classic text The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952. The novel won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.
The unequal struggle between the ageing sailor Santiago and the blue marlin in the sea was written in a style that created a modern epic hero. Hemingway created a hero in Santiago by deconstructing the traditional notions of victory and heroism. Instead, the glory and power lie in the fact that the winner takes nothing.
Herein I suppose the asceticism of the East blends with Western pragmatism, as Hemingway’s winners in his other novels too, predominantly, Manuel Garcia, Anselmo and Robert Jordan among others have an affinity with the karmic heroes of the Bhagavad- Gita as defined by Krishna to Arjuna, “The doer without desire Who does not boast of his deed Who is ardent, enduring Untouched by triumph In failure untroubled.
He is a man of sattwa (energy of inspired truth) In his widelyacclaimed novel For Whom The Bells Toll, a fictionalized narrative of the Spanish Civil War, published in 1940, the protagonist, American language instructor Robert Jordan’s responses to queries about his ideological standpoint, clearly gesture towards the author’s independent, non-committal philosophy of life.
So, when Robert Jordan is asked, “Are you a Communist?”, he replies, “No I am an anti-fascist.” When he is further asked, “For a long time?”, he replies categorically, “Since I have understood fascism.” On 1 August 1938, an English article translated into Russian titled “Humanity Will Not Forgive This” appeared in Pravda, Russia’s premier newspaper. The article was written by Ernest Hemingway.
The typescript of this article was discovered in the Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, more than twenty years after Hemingway’s death. It was published in the Toronto Star on 27th November 1982 and was subsequently published in many North American newspapers. Along with Hemingway’s articles on page 4 of Pravda there were articles by Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong, leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.
Moscow considered Hemingway politically reliable, for in his Ken magazine articles on the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway, in fact, supported Communist strategies as a member of the Communist Party would have done. Referring to a particular Ken article William Brash Watson wrote, “Hemingway’s Ken piece was virtually a Communist Party polemic on the subject.”
In 1948, in a letter Hemingway wrote, “I can take oath at any time that I am not nor never have been a member of the C.P. (Communist Party).” John Raeburn, a Hemingway critic observed, “He had been drawn to the Loyalist cause not to defend an ideology, but simply out of compassion.” Lionel Trilling conjectured that Hemingway’s socialist concerns were a result of the pressure exerted on him by the American Leftists.
The formidable literary critic Edmund Wilson accused Hemingway of immaturity and ideological dilettantism ~ “His anti-fascism was simple minded and derived from his compulsion to aggrandise his public reputation now as a dedicated warrior against fascism rather than as a fearless hunter stalking lions.” Yet it seems Hemingway had been skeptical about fascism for a long time.
Some of Hemingway’s Toronto Star articles of 1922 were significantly titled, “Fascist Party Now Half Million Strong” and” Mussolini Europe’s Prize Bluffer” among others. He interviewed Mussolini twice and reported that the famous scowl was merely a way of hiding a weak mouth and that when the dictator refused to look up from a book he was presumably concentrating on as the interview went on, Hemingway edged closer and found that Mussolini was holding a French-English dictionary upside down.
But in his reports Hemingway repeatedly warned about the imminence of another widespread war in Europe with the dominance of fascism ~ “the question is now what does Mussolini sitting at his desk in the office of the Popolo d’Italia and fondling the ears of his wolfhound pup, intend to do with his political party organized as a military force?” He urged the American government to revise its position of neutrality as the Spanish Civil War went on and sell arms to the Republicans thereby consolidating America’s political position in Europe along with the arms trade.
But Roosevelt and his foreign policy advisors thought differently. On 4 June 1937 Ernest Hemingway addressed The American Writers Congress at Newark, Carnegie Hall with an audience of 3,500. The meeting was organized by the League of American Writers. The president of the League was Donald Ogden Stewart and the speakers for that evening included Earl Browder, the Secretary of the Communist Party of the USA.
The brief extract from Hemingway’s historic speech below will prove the Hemingway critic and biographer Michael Reynolds’ observation that “Hemingway, after years of insisting upon his political disinterest, was now publicly committed to antifascism, if not to communism itself.” The text of Hemingway’s speech was published in New Masses, a Leftist newspaper on 22 June 1937 but understandably “the New York Times buried the story on page 9, covering it in three column inches, less than it gave to a local meeting of the Notre Dame alumni association.”
In his seven-minute speech, Hemingway spoke about the horrors of fascism and the role of the writer in troubled times: “Fascism is a lie told by bullies…it is condemned to literary sterility. When it is past, it will have no history except the bloody history of murder that is well known…It is very dangerous to write the truth in war, and the truth is also very dangerous to come by…But there is now and there will be for a long time, war for any writer to go to who wants to study it. It looks as though we are in for many years of undeclared wars.”
(To be continued)
(The writer is former Professor, Dept of English, Calcutta University)