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Alex Vernon’s Hemingway’s Second War takes its name from Michael Reynold’s Hemingway’s First War: The Making of A Farewell to Arms, but treats Hemingway’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War rather than World War I and, largely, For Whom the Bell Tolls rather than A Farewell to Arms. The book covers much else besides, including the film The Spanish Earth and Hemingway’s newspaper dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, and while one might at times wish for a more focused construction, the book’s unwieldiness stems from its very necessary breadth of knowledge. At its best, the book synthesizes a great variety of material, including an extraordinary amount [End Page 224] of primary source material, published and unpublished, from both Hemingway and his peers. Hemingway’s Second War is grounded in a thorough understanding of the whole of Hemingway’s work and the critical discourse surrounding it, the politics and broader culture of the time, and the literature of Hemingway’s contemporaries.
Vernon presents the book in three parts of two to three chapters each; these parts do not fit together easily. The early chapters are truly superb, real treasure-troves of information. They are dense, however, and would benefit from more guideposts to the overarching argument. But this is a quibble: a book making use of this much archival material is rich and rare. Vernon’s eye in choosing and arranging the material is flawless, and his narrative voice is active, straightforward, intelligent, and comprehensible throughout. He excels at spotting and working through discrepancies and clarifying factual information. When Hemingway writes in a North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA) dispatch about “‘A hard ten days visiting four central fronts,’” for instance, Vernon tells us that “Hemingway clearly did not spend ten consecutive days and nights away from Madrid” and proceeds to present and analyze the evidence (29). If the book gives us access to a number of archives, Vernon is our guide through them, pointing out the most pertinent bits and giving us the context with which to make use of them.
Vernon clears up some mistakes in the criticism as well: a couple of scholars “misread a June 1937 letter from Gellhorn to Hemingway, which they believe shows that [filmmaker Joris] Ivens picked Hemingway for the speech, MacLeish for the writer’s chair, and excluded Dos Passos. The letter . . . is actually about the new composition of the Contemporary Historians, Inc. board” (258). Vernon devotes a page of endnotes to teasing apart the misunderstanding and explaining his own interpretation. Literary history depends on scholars’ reinterpreting the evidence in such a manner, and Vernon makes such valuable contributions to the literary historical record throughout the book.
Part I, “Spain in Flames,” deals primarily with Hemingway’s experiences on the ground during the war itself and the dispatches he wrote for the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA). Hemingway went to Spain both as a correspondent for the NANA and as chair of an American Friends to Save Spanish Democracy ambulance committee; shortly before he left, he had agreed to help make The Spanish Earth. Vernon explains Hemingway’s multiple projects in Spain as all of a piece: “Hemingway went to Spain because he loved Spain. He had to see the war for himself. He also had to do what he could to save Spain from fascism, by providing the ambulances and by promulgating his perspective through his writing and the film—the proceeds of both he turned into material support” (13). This, too, is [End Page 225] central to the book’s range: to treat For Whom the Bell Tolls properly is to treat all of this background. The story in these chapters gets a bit tricky, as Vernon guides us through the complications of the NANA dispatches, which were censored and which Hemingway wrote with the goal of aiding Spain in mind. Teasing out fact becomes difficult here. For instance: “It is possible that Hemingway’s dispatch stating that ‘not one friend . . . has been executed...