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For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway


In June 1937, Ernest Hemingway addressed the Second Congress of American Writers at Carnegie Hall in New York City. His subject was the Spanish Civil War, which had started in 1936 and which he had observed first-hand for some months as a correspondent of the North American Newspaper Alliance. In his speech, which was warmly received by the audience, Hemingway spoke of his deep hatred for the fascist forces trying to overthrow the Republican government in Spain, particularly for the way they suppressed artists, notably writers.

"Really good writers are always rewarded under almost any existing system of government that they can tolerate," Hemingway said in his speech. "There is only one form of government that cannot produce good writers, and that system is fascism. For fascism is a lie told by bullies. A writer who will not lie cannot live and work under fascism."

Hemingway's apparent devotion to the Republican cause in this war was greeted with cheers by liberals in the United States. Here was Ernest Hemingway, a famous novelist, declaring his allegiance to their cause! His pledge of support seemed particularly welcome, since he had long resisted public political commitment of any kind and had been criticized for his reluctance to become involved in the important issues of the day. Now he had thrown himself into the midst of the controversy.

Hemingway returned to Spain to watch the battle rage, and he became increasingly frustrated by the failure of the Republicans to hold their own against the fascist rebels. He was also sickened by the corruption and ineptness of Republicans and Nationalists alike. He called this situation "the carnival of treachery and rottenness on both sides," and was especially critical of the military leaders. Hemingway decided that he could best serve the Republican cause by writing about the war as honestly as possible. "The hell with war for awhile," he said, "I want to write." The result of his creative urge was the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, which was published in 1940, the year after the Republicans had lost the war.

* * *

For someone who lived his adult years with bold, muscular strokes in public view across three continents, Hemingway's early life was relatively uneventful. He was born in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, on July 21, 1899. His mother was artistic and cultured, and might have followed a career as an opera singer. She tried to urge Ernest to develop musical inclinations, but with no results. His great love was the outdoors, the appreciation of which he learned from his father, a physician, who relished fishing, hunting, and the lore of the woods. Ernest acquired ideals of endurance, physical prowess, and courage that later show up in his writing and his life.

When he was graduated from high school in 1917, Hemingway had no desire to go to college. His interest was World War I, which had been raging for three years. He wanted to participate before the fighting ended, but he was met by disappointment. At first Hemingway's father refused to let him enlist, and when his father finally relented, the American armed forces rejected Hemingway for poor vision in one eye.

Hemingway then worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Star for six months until he found a way to participate in the war- as an ambulance driver with the American Red Cross. By June 1918 he was at the front lines in Italy. During a furious Austrian shelling of Italian troops, he carried a wounded soldier to safety, but was struck along the way by pieces of mortar shrapnel.

The Italian government decorated Hemingway for his heroism, newspapers printed glowing stories, and a hero's welcome awaited him in Oak Park. But Hemingway was nonetheless plagued by rejection in other areas: He had fallen in love with Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse who had cared for him in an Italian hospital, but in 1919 she broke off their relationship. And his determination to be a writer was dampened by rejection slips from one magazine after another.

Coloring almost everything was his disillusionment with the values he had learned while growing up. His experience in the war overseas had changed his outlook, and he became more and more estranged from his parents. In Europe he encountered cynicism about the war, not patriotism, and there was an overwhelming loss of hope and belief in traditional values.

In September 1921, Hemingway married Hadley Richardson. The couple moved to Paris, where Hemingway served as a correspondent for The Toronto Star. Paris was a gathering place for American expatriates- people who chose to live away from their homeland, mostly because they were disillusioned or confused about their lives and their country. One writer dubbed these rootless people "the lost generation."

Hemingway's desire to be a full-time writer of fiction was still unfulfilled. Manuscript after manuscript was turned down by publishers. Another devastating blow came in December 1923 when a suitcase containing almost everything he had written was stolen and never recovered.

But in 1924 a small collection of his short stories, in our time, was published in Paris. In 1925, retitled with capitals, In Our Time was published in the United States and ultimately received high critical praise. His terse, direct style (developed in part by his need to use as few words as possible as a foreign correspondent) and his ability to articulate intense, complex emotions without flowery excess, was greeted with warm welcome by many critics, who saw him as helping initiate a departure from the verbal indulgences of many writers of the 19th century. Hemingway further polished his style in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926). The book, a telling depiction of life among American expatriates in Europe, was warmly received by both critics and the reading public.

In 1927, Hemingway divorced Hadley and married Pauline Pfeiffer, a writer for Vogue magazine. They moved to Key West, Florida, where he worked on A Farewell to Arms (1929) and Pauline gave birth to the first of their two sons. Just as he was completing the final draft of A Farewell to Arms, which would bring him even more critical and financial success, he learned that his father- despondent and ill with diabetes- had shot himself to death. Hemingway considered suicide a cowardly act, and never forgave his father for it. Yet the suicide would ultimately have a grim echo in Hemingway's own life.

The 1930s brought Hemingway adventure and broad, bold experiences. He indulged his love for deep-sea fishing off the coast of Florida and hunting in the American West and Africa. Always seeking intense physical experience, Hemingway spoke with awe about the thrill of the "clean kill." He wrote many magazine articles that glorified these brawny adventures, until the public generally identified him with the image of the hearty and rugged outdoorsman. Hemingway wrote two nonfiction books during this period, Death in the Afternoon (1932), which honored the ritual of the bullfight, and Green Hills of Africa (1935), detailing the glory of an African safari.

The Great Depression and other world problems helped develop a new side of Hemingway. Because the heroes in Hemingway's novels had been loners, independent and aloof from the problems of the masses, the generally left-leaning writers of the time disdained him and his outlook. That's one major reason why Hemingway was cheered so heartily in his address in 1937 to the Congress of American Writers: this was a new, politically committed Ernest Hemingway!

Hemingway's zeal for the Republican, or Loyalist, cause was revealed in actions as well as words. He accompanied both regular Republican army groups and guerrilla bands as a correspondent. He spent time in the Spanish cities, in the countryside, in the mountains. He also bought ambulances for the Loyalists, and helped prepare a pro-Loyalist documentary film, The Spanish Earth.

There was another aspect of Hemingway that lured him to the scene of battle- his love of conflict itself. It would be simplistic to say that Hemingway glorified war, as some have charged. He was as sickened by its cruelty and waste as anyone could be. Yet he was also excited by what he saw as the more positive aspects of battle- courage, camaraderie, loyalty, dedication to a cause. According to one observer, Hemingway was "attracted by danger, death, great deeds"; another said he was "revived and rejuvenated" by seeing those who refused to surrender, no matter what the odds. Hemingway was also buoyed by what he called "the pleasant, comforting stench of comrades" fighting together for a common goal. Instincts similar to those that drew him to a bullfight or to the stalking of wild game sharpened his senses during the Spanish Civil War.

It is the conflicting impulses of attraction and repulsion that create much of the tension in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The publication of the novel was greeted with acclaim by some, but with disdain by others. Some liberals and some conservatives were angered because they felt Hemingway had betrayed them by not writing a novel that favored their respective political outlook. But Hemingway responded, "In stories about the war I try to show all the different sides of it, taking it slowly and honestly and examining it in many ways. So never think one story represents my viewpoint because it is much too complicated for that."

For Whom the Bell Tolls was a great commercial success. Paramount Pictures acquired the film rights for $150,000, an astronomical sum at the time. Hemingway stipulated who the principal actors should be- the very popular Gary Cooper would be Robert Jordan, the main figure in the novel, and the rising star Ingrid Bergman would be Maria, the guerrilla with whom Jordan falls in love.

In the later 1940s and 50s, the novel's critical standing declined compared with some of Hemingway's other works. Readers noted inaccuracies in the use of Spanish in For Whom the Bell Tolls. They criticized details of the presentation of Spanish culture, such as the scene where Agustin, a Spanish guerrilla, asks Jordan about Maria's sexual performance. Such curiosity would violate a strict Spanish code of decorum. Other readers said the relationship between Jordan and Maria lacked credibility.

In more recent times the novel has regained critical stature. Some regard it as Hemingway's finest achievement. And few doubt the personal passion and experience he brought to its writing.

How objective a reporter was Hemingway? Can you read For Whom the Bell Tolls as an accurate picture of Spain during the civil war? Opinions vary. His war correspondence itself has received labels that range from "stirring accounts" to "a kind of sub-fiction in which he was the central character."

In For Whom the Bell Tolls he was objective enough to point out deficiencies of the Republican side and to write vividly of the atrocities they committed. He could also show the enemy in a favorable light. For instance, in the novel's final scene, the representative of the Nationalists, Lieutenant Berrendo, is not an odious barbarian but a richly human character for whom you may feel considerable sympathy.

The famous British writer George Orwell, whose books include 1984 and Animal Farm, was another of the many leading writers who became actively involved in the Spanish Civil War. He wrote Homage to Catalonia (1938), a detailed recollection of experiences with one of the Loyalist organizations. You might want to compare the fictional details of For Whom the Bell Tolls with Orwell's account of the way he saw the war. You will also learn about the war by reading Arthur Koestler's Spanish Testament (1937), a vivid account of the writer's imprisonment by Nationalist forces. Man's Hope (1938), by the noted French intellectual Andre Malraux, is considered a masterly depiction of early stages of the war. In addition, several historical works on the Spanish Civil War contain a wealth of material. Such studies include books by Gabriel Jackson (1965), Hugh Thomas (1977), and Peter Wyden (1983).

Hemingway's second marriage ended in divorce in 1940, and he married Martha Gellhorn, a writer and foreign correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. For Whom the Bell Tolls is dedicated to her.

World War II (1939-45) captivated Hemingway. Both his finances and his reputation were solid, and he needed neither the notoriety nor the money from being a war correspondent. Nevertheless, he took a job as chief of the European bureau of Collier's magazine. He accompanied the British Royal Air Force on several bombing raids over occupied France and crossed the English Channel with American troops on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was in the thick of fighting during the liberation of Paris and the Battle of the Bulge, often seeming as much a soldier as a correspondent, according to one source.

In 1945, at the age of 46, Hemingway divorced Martha Gellhorn and married his last wife, Mary Welsh. The couple lived on a luxurious estate outside Havana, Cuba, until the revolution begun in 1959 by Fidel Castro forced them to leave.

Hemingway's novel Across the River and Into the Trees (1950) was eagerly awaited. But when published it was scorned, receiving biting, almost vicious, reviews. Critics accused Hemingway of writing self-parody; another claimed to feel "pity, embarrassment, that so fine and honest a writer can make such a travesty of himself." It became fashionable to consider Hemingway washed up as a writer.

Returning to Africa to re-create some of the adventures of the 1930s, Hemingway was nearly killed in an airplane crash. But he survived, and went on to write The Old Man and the Sea in 1952, the last major work published while he was alive. (A Moveable Feast, Islands in the Stream, By-line: Ernest Hemingway, and The Dangerous Summer were published after his death.) The Old Man and the Sea revived Hemingway's flagging career. He received a Pulitzer Prize for the book, and it helped him win the prestigious Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.

In subsequent years the hearty and death-defying Hemingway began to lose his health. Nothing, including visits to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, was able to restore him to his previous vigor. His illnesses (including a rare disease that affects the vital organs) were compounded by severe states of depression.

Did he decide that, if he could not live as aggressively and boldly as he once had, he would prefer not to live at all? Whatever the reason, he took his own life at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, on July 2, 1961. He shot himself with a silver-inlaid shotgun, choosing a method used by his father years earlier. He thus duplicated an act that he had denounced as cowardly.

Hemingway the artist left a rich legacy of work that has found a permanent place in American literature. That he is likely to endure can be attributed to many factors, but is perhaps best summed up in his own words, spoken to the Writer's Congress in 1937: "A writer's problem... is always how to write truly and having found out what is true to project it in such a way that it becomes part of the experience of the person who reads it." Hemingway wrote truly, and he becomes part of everyone who reads him.


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