In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Birth of Hemingway’s Afición: Madrid and “The First Bullfight I Ever Saw” 1
  • Miriam B. Mandel (bio)


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Illustration One.

Train Ticket, Sud-Express, 26 May 1923. Overnight from Paris to Madrid. Courtesy of the Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, MA

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Illustration 2.

Cartel, Hemingway’s First Bullfight, Madrid, 27 May 1923. Courtesy of the Anthony Brand Collection, Seville

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Illustration Three.

Heraldo de Madrid, night edition, 28 May 1923. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

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Illustration Four.

Zig Zag, 31 May 1923. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

Intrigued by what he heard from Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Henry (Mike) Strater, Ernest Hemingway wrote his first taurine piece in March 1923, several months before he ever saw his first bullfight. 2 It consisted of one paragraph, entitled “The first matador got the horns,” and it reveals his interest in the suffering, pride, and persistence of the artist, in the implacability of the enormous beast that he faces, and in the different responses of “the crowd” to the various events in the bullring. Before having seen one, Hemingway was attracted to the bullfight and to its possibilities as a literary subject and as a metaphor for artistic transactions, both between the artist and his material and between the artist and his audience. In addition, as he explains in Death in the Afternoon, “The only place where you could see life and death, i.e., violent death . . . was in the bullring and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it. I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death. . . . So I went to Spain to see bullfights.” 3 With his friend Robert McAlmon, he traveled to Spain; they were joined a few days later by Bill Bird. On that trip, in 1923, [End Page 127] Hemingway saw sixteen performances in five or six cities. 4

Hemingway’s first bullfight, which might seem an incidental detail, is important because his immediate, intense response to that event sparked his life-long involvement with Spain, the country which, as he wrote in 1959, “I loved more than any other except my own.” 5 Spain and things Spanish became the setting and the subject of several journalistic pieces of his, a dozen or more of his best short stories, and substantial sections of The Sun Also Rises (1926) and The Garden of Eden (1986). They dominate his only full-length play, The Fifth Column (1938); his epic novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940); and two nonfiction books, Death in the Afternoon (1932) and The Dangerous Summer (1985). The American literary canon was enriched by Hemingway’s positive responses, first to his friends’ reports and then to his own experience with the passion of Spain’s national fiesta.

Hemingway wrote about “the first bullfight I ever saw” in his essay, “Bullfighting a Tragedy” (Toronto Star, 20 October 1923) and later used that pivotal experience to focus and structure his encyclopedic Death in the Afternoon (1932). 6 The first six chapters, almost a third of this book, prepare us for the all-important taurine baptism, and the end of the book surveys the reactions of fifteen friends and relatives “to the integral Spanish bullfight,” with particular attention to when “they first saw fights.” 7 The first bullfight opens and closes the book not only because it had been a seminal experience for Hemingway, but because he understood all initiations—first love, first sexual experience, first wounding—as defining events.

Even the photographs which Hemingway collected for the book reflect the importance that he attached to his first bullfight. Although he gathered two hundred photographs, Scribner parsimoniously wanted to publish only sixteen. Hemingway finally talked his publisher into including eighty-one, compressed onto sixty-four pages. The carefully winnowed gallery of photographs represents nearly forty years of bullfighting, from Manuel García (el Espartero, [End Page 128] born c...

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pp. 127-142
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