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“Hemingway the artist is with us again,” exulted Edmund Wilson, America’s then-most influential man of letters, in 1940. He was referring to the writer’s Spanish Civil War novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, now 75 years old. What Hemingway had “returned” from, Wilson argued, was a knee-jerk Stalinism, imbibed from his time spent as a correspondent in the 1936-1939 conflict. In Wilson’s eyes, Hemingway had surrendered his artistic integrity by writing agitprop in To Have and Have Not (1937) and The Fifth Column (1938).
In the 1937 novel, Hemingway seemed to eschew individualism by having his character make the dying declaration that “a man alone ain’t got no fuckin’ chance in this world.” In the 1938 novel, and to the delight of communists, he had a heroic American counterintelligence agent in Spain helping the leftwing fighters on the Loyalist side ruthlessly purge fascist spies. (Thus parroting the cover story of Stalin’s minions who, as they moved to coopt the Loyalist cause, liquidated socialist and other left-combatants they falsely accused of collaboration with the enemy.) Literary Reds lauded these works as the best things Hemingway ever wrote and regarded For Whom the Bell Tolls as a betrayal of “the people’s cause.” Wilson saw them as weak efforts, and said it was only with the “political maturity” he displayed in For Whom the Bell Tolls that Hemingway regained his stature as an artist.
This view was shared by the novelist himself. He declared that at the front, he had held “intolerant” political opinions, but in his 1940 novel he would write of “the bad things that happened on both sides.” Subsequent commentators, like Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers, also saw greater political sophistication in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Before testing the validity of this view of the novel—as a “goodbye to all that” with regard to communism—one should look at the Spanish Civil War’s power to create political converts. The conflict, begun by Francisco Franco, an exiled military leader who received arms from Hitler and Mussolini for his revolt against the legally elected socialist government, seemed to pit democracy against fascism. George Orwell testified to the attractions of what he saw in Spain’s Catalan region—a genuinely classless society. In the Catalans and the other Loyalists he saw a cause worth fighting for. He was soon on the front lines, taking a Francoist bullet in the throat. British and American communists, regarding the war as the first real resistance to Hitler, also joined up and glowed with fervor.
And the fall of the government to Franco’s rebels made it a romantically lost cause. The Loyalists, despite being supplied with weapons and advisers by the Soviet Union, lost the battle three years later because the Soviet help they got was ruinous; from the Western democracies, they simply didn’t get any help. (These governments either refused to aid what they saw as a communist cause—the view of Winston Churchill—or feared, as did FDR, alienating American Catholics who by and large supported their fellow Catholic, Franco.)
Hemingway, before arriving, said he hated the “lousy government” in Russia and wanted to stop the fighting in Spain, not root for the Loyalists. But once there he came under their spell. Like Orwell, this seemingly apolitical writer was soon pulled in, stating that “We are all communists now.” In its aftermath, Hemingway felt he had to leave the mesmerizing influence of the war in order to “write truthfully” about the “bad things that happened on both sides.”
At first glance, For Whom the Bell Tolls seems to bear this out. In it, Hemingway depicts atrocities committed by the Loyalists, as we see in the character Pilar’s account of how her village revolt resulted in the death of supposed “class enemies.” She was sickened to see Loyalist forces set up a gauntlet and throw their opponents over a cliff. The Loyalist leader in the novel, Pablo, is not a heroic worker doing battle against fascism but a drunken and duplicitous villain. As for Robert Jordan, an American dynamiter tasked by the Russians to blow up a fascist bridge, Hemingway refused to make him a communist; he tells Pilar he is not a communist but an anti-fascist. Hemingway has him say things that sound more Jeffersonian than Marxist: “He believed in Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness.”
Moreover, through the voice of Jordan, Hemingway expresses his disgust with communists, particularly with cynical Russians who stay behind the lines in comfort at Gaylord’s Hotel. Jordan even suspects that André Marty, the political commissar of the Loyalists (a real historical figure), has been indiscriminately brutalizing friend and foe alike. Jordan/Hemingway castigates Marty as a trigger-happy paranoiac who goes behind the lines and murders Loyalist soldiers for being insufficiently communist. (Marty would later admit that he ordered the executions of about 500 soldiers.) And he castigates himself, for contemplating the kind of ruthless tactics that make him no better than the fascists.
Naturally a lot of this didn’t sit well with people like Alvah Bessie, the American communist who fought with the Loyalists in Spain (and who, two decades later, would take on the House Un-American Activities Committee and go to jail for it). Bessie reviewed For Whom the Bell Tolls unfavorably in the New Masses, for besmirching the Loyalist cause.
All of that said, however, the reality is much more complicated and damning to Hemingway.
His protagonist Jordan eventually turns out to be very much a Party-liner, despite efforts to shape his character in a way that puts him above the corrupting influence of the cynics and war-tourists sheltering at Gaylord’s. Despite asserting that the Communist Party could not “own his mind,” he very much surrenders it to that entity. As with any good Stalinist, Jordan says he can “turn off” his thinking, and pledges to follow communist discipline because of its soundness. He needs that discipline in the heat of battle. Any doubts he has are pushed aside for what he terms political necessities.
Whenever he experiences qualms, Jordan wanders back to communist orthodoxy to steady himself. Echoing the poet W.H. Auden, a Loyalist supporter who wrote an infamous poem praising the “necessary murders” of this conflict, Jordan sees “a necessity” in these casualties and thus “didn’t mind” them. Hemingway himself accepted these murders as necessary. The real-life murder of José Robles, the friend of Hemingway’s colleague John Dos Passos, did not perturb Hemingway, who assured a stricken Dos Passos that rumors about Robles being a fascist spy must be true.
One is not sure, in the end, what Edmund Wilson was so overjoyed about. It’s not as though Hemingway—or Wilson, for that matter—could have claimed ignorance of what was really going on among the Loyalists. As early as 1938, George Orwell exposed Stalin’s attempt to import his murderous, rigged purge trials into Spain. (This has been confirmed by declassified documents unearthed by historians Ronald Radosh and Mary Habeck that not only validate Orwell’s version of events, but most chillingly show that Orwell himself was also marked for arrest.)
What, then, accounts for Hemingway’s lingering Stalinism in For Whom the Bell Tolls?
The answer may reside in the writer’s notorious machismo. He found the communist soldiers manly. Before the war, he lauded those “who fought on the barricades,” and denounced communists who stayed at home as cowards. He attacked Dos Passos in hyper-masculine terms: the latter was a “handwringer” and “whiner.” One could even say he consistently created heroes with Stalinist characteristics. It is not a leap from Harry Morgan coolly sipping a drink after snapping a Chinaman’s neck, to Stalin repairing to his personal theater to watch a Tarzan movie after signing one more death warrant.
George Orwell, a wounded front-line soldier, would certainly not have been considered cowardly by Hemingway. But Orwell was hardly a Robert Jordan. He did not put his thinking on hold for the duration of war, but risked hurting the cause by telling the truth, in real time, about Stalinist murders behind the lines. Despite Hemingway’s once praising Orwell’s exposé Homage to Catalonia (1938), as “first rate” and saying he was in “total agreement” with it, one has to wonder if Hemingway even read it. For Orwell disagreed with Jordan’s belief that the war had to be won first, before it could be judged in the moral sense. Instead, Orwell saw the “war and the revolution” as inseparable.
Hemingway’s supposed political maturity in For Whom the Bell Tolls was hardly that; what the novel really is is a time-capsule document of the blinkered political thinking that so many on the Left never abandoned even after they couldn’t deny what really happened in Spain.
There is a reason Orwell’s writing on the subject holds up so much better than Hemingway’s, and it is traceable to where both writers were located during the Spanish conflict. Orwell was on the front line, truly well away from any corrupting influences; then, after he was wounded, he saw firsthand the crackdown on heretical opinion. Hemingway, in contrast, was safely behind the lines and feted by the very people who were betraying the Loyalist cause.