- Hemingway’s Second War: Bearing Witness to the Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil War (1936–39) has been defined in many ways: as a dress rehearsal for WW II, a moral crusade (by both the Left and the Right), and a war against fascism. However it is defined, it was a war that killed half a million people and introduced a new war tactic to the world—mass aerial bombardment of civilian populations. It was a war that extinguished the light of a budding, democratically elected government and ushered in a totalitarian regime that would rule Spain for forty years. In The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge Paul Preston asserts, “It is impossible to exaggerate the sheer historical importance of the Spanish Civil War” (7).
Ernest Hemingway was among the many writers, poets, artists, photographers, and journalists who experienced and gave testimony about this brutal conflict. Now, with Alex Vernon’s Ernest Hemingway’s Second War: Bearing Witness to the Spanish Civil War we have the first book-length literary biography of what he terms Hemingway’s “art and act of witness” to the war (xix).
In his introduction Vernon is quick to point out that in researching and writing the book he sought whenever possible to rely on primary sources, but also drew on scholars who have already discussed and analyzed Hemingway’s political, literary, and personal involvement in the Spanish Civil War (such as such as Carlos Baker, Michael Reynolds, Jeffrey Meyers, Linda Wagner-Martin, and Scott Donaldson). He also states that he does not pretend that his book offers “the full story of Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War” (xviii). Rather, Vernon delivers a brilliantly concise and extraordinarily informative narrative of Hemingway’s journalistic contributions, the details of the production and an analysis of the film and book versions of The Spanish Earth, and a critical discussion of For Whom the Bell Tolls—all solidly within the context of the war.
Vernon’s book is divided into three sections. The first, entitled “Spain in Flames,” can be best described as a total immersion into what has been termed, “The Spanish Tragedy.” Vernon states: “Hemingway went to Spain because he loved Spain and had to see the war for himself ” (13). From the beginning, we are immediately caught up, along with Hemingway, in the labyrinth of political ideologies, battle strategies, corruption, comradeship, and deep-seated rivalries that characterized the war from beginning to end, with the grim realities of death and destruction underlying everything. We get a clear understanding [End Page 128] of Hemingway’s dedication to the Spanish Republican cause through his humanitarian efforts, his disregard for his own safety, and his willingness to pursue all avenues available to him in order to help defeat Franco and his Rebel army.
In perhaps the strongest chapter of the book, “Style, Politics, and the NANA Dispatches,” Vernon tackles the subject of Hemingway’s 31 dispatches for NANA with the goal of “restor[ing] some measure of appreciation for a corpus discountenanced by most commentators” (xix). For example, to critics who conclude Hemingway’s reportage was biased, specifically in terms of his failure to report atrocities on the Republican side, Vernon counters with an illuminating discussion of the strictly enforced censorship that Hemingway, Herbert Matthews, and other reporters worked under in the Republican zone. Vernon also points out that by reporting on the atrocities Hemingway could have lost his access to military leaders and advisors and even negatively influenced the possibility of future aid to the Republic.
We get the same type of respect for historical context in the book’s second section, “The Spanish Earth.” Based on my own extensive research on the film, I can attest that Vernon has provided more information on the inception, production and distribution of The Spanish Earth—including Hemingway’s involvement with the project and details surrounding the print version by Jasper Wood—than has ever been amassed in one book up to this point.
Among other benefits, this unprecedented scholarship...