However, despite Hemingway’s intense speech and despite the fact that he visited Spain several times during the Spanish Civil War as a commissioned NANA (North American Newspaper Alliance) correspondent, he did not enlist in the International Brigade, the voluntary regiment comprising students and intellectuals from both sides of the Atlantic who risked and lost their lives for a cause.
Emphasizing the lack of bias in his dispatches, Hemingway wrote to John Wheeler, the General Manager of NANA, while haggling with him about underpayment, “My stuff on Spain has been consistently accurate…I gave full accounts of government disasters and criticized their weaknesses in the same measure I reported their success.”American intellectuals and humanists supported the Republican cause in Spain and disapproved of U.S. government policies.
Perhaps inspired but surely sensing the popular trend, Hemingway titled his 1937 novel To Have and Have Not. In it the dying declaration of Harry Morgan, “One man alone ain’t got. No man alone now. No matter how a man alone ain’t got no bloody chance” To Have and Have Not has been cited by Hemingway critics as the turning point of Hemingway’s weltanschauung. His detractors who had so long described him as a bourgeois bohemian, a megalomaniac, a life member of the Lost Generation, veered round and declared that at last Hemingway had matured into a writer of significance.
Indeed, this was the most productive period of Hemingway’s writing career. He published seven Spanish Civil War short stories, wrote the only and most overtly political play of his career, The Fifth Column, wrote the script and was also the narrator of the propagandist documentary film The Spanish Earth. Moreover, in Chapter 13 of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan’s self-introspection while participating as an embedded volunteer in the guerilla group is remarkably significant: “He was under Communist discipline for the duration of the war.
Here in Spain the Communists offered the best discipline and the soundest and sanest for the prosecution of the war. He accepted their discipline for the duration of the war because, in the conduct of the war, they were the only party whose program and whose discipline he could respect.”
However, not unlike the author Hemingway himself, the protagonist Robert Jordan clearly self-analyses, stating that he was not an indoctrinated follower of Communism, as he ruminates about his status as a bourgeois bohemian: “What were his politics then? He had none now, he told himself. But do not tell anyone else that, he thought. Don’t ever admit that. And what are you going to do afterwards? I am going back and will earn my living teaching Spanish as before, and I am going to write a true book…” Hemingway remained consistently inconsistent about his ideological space.
His ambivalence regarding politics is however not exceptional but expected in the circumstances. I am tempted to quote this excerpt from a letter written to me by his fourth wife Mary Hemingway on 17 February 1979 ~ “You ask if there were a ‘positive end or goal’ that Ernest was ‘in quest for’. No, I don’t. He enjoyed writing and as far as I know, was pleased when the critics and the public liked it. But otherwise I don’t know of any ‘positive goal or end’.” But historical records and statistics prove that the Spanish Civil War was indeed an ideological war, a war of attrition.
Records show that 40,000 foreigners fought in the International Brigade. There were 2,800 volunteers from the USA of whom 999 were killed. Michael Ferrara, the biographer, notes that there were 3,354 Americans in Spain, of whom 1,819 were Communists. In his second NANA dispatch from Spain Hemingway noted, “…Italian regular troops now in Spain number 88,000. German troops numbered between 16,000 and 20,000” Yet, Ernest Hemingway was not a writer committed to any particular ideology; writing truly was his personal purpose, profession and politics, amply proving the veracity of Edward Said’s observation that novels are not reducible to a sociological current though they may emphatically express social concern and involvement.
A writer’s independence is what Hemingway privileged in his texts. In a pathbreaking essay titled “False Documents” the celebrated American novelist E.L. Doctorow had argued that “fictional texts, though overtly false documents, were far more reliable as resources of culture than the socalled true documents, the nonfictional texts of politicians or journalists. As unacknowledged legislators of the world, as Shelley had once declared, the independent writers combined with felicity dreams and social responsibility”. It is therefore obvious that Hemingway’s critiquing of the career of a writer in his outstanding Nobel prize acceptance speech, 1954, traces in a personalized impersonal style the career graph of a committed writer: “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.
Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day. “For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.”
The powerful narratives of Ernest Hemingway must be read in order to recognize the fact that he shares the same platform with all advocates of human solidarity, universalism, egalitarianism with committed respect for diversity and inclusiveness. In these aspects the relevance of Hemingway remains unchallenged as does his superbly terse and epigrammatic style of narration. In fact, his narratives can be cited as profound and penetrating discourse which can open up the windows of perception in these troubled times of the 21st century, where political, social, economic, racial, religious, and local divides have fragmented the world with appalling energy.
Therefore, to regard Ernest Hemingway as just an American writer will be the most myopic understanding of a writer, whose outstanding narratives were often located outside the geographical locations of the United States. Hemingway’s genius and empathy, scripted in his narratives, will enhance his relevance through all times of the evolving saga of human history, for he belonged to the world and not to a specific nation.
Therefore, it is not surprising that in 1935 in a letter to his Russian friend Ivan Kashkin Hemingway wrote, “I cannot be a communist now because I believe in only one thing: liberty… A writer is like a Gypsy. He owes no allegiance to any government… A true work of art endures forever; no matter what its politics”.
(The writer is former Professor, Dept of English, Calcutta University)