Review - Hemingway's Second War Bearing Witness to the Spanish Civil War by Alex Vernon University Of Iowa Press, 2011 Review by Bob Lane, MA Apr 17th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 16)
In 1937 and 1938, Ernest Hemingway made four trips to Spain to cover its civil war for the North American News Alliance wire service and to help create the pro-Republican documentary film The Spanish Earth. Hemingway's Second War is the first book-length scholarly work devoted to this subject.
Drawing on primary sources, Alex Vernon provides a thorough account of Hemingway's involvement in the Spanish Civil War, a messy, complicated, brutal precursor to World War II that inspired Hemingway's great novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. Vernon also offers the most sustained history and consideration to date of The Spanish Earth. Directed by Joris Ivens, this film was a landmark work in the development of war documentaries, for which Hemingway served as screenwriter and narrator. Hemingway had also filed several dispatches from the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Association which are considered in detail by Vernon in a fine study of the relationship between reporting and fiction writing. By studying these various source materials: film, dispatches, photographs, and letters, Vernon is then able to shine a light on the novel that comes from this war. As a literary critic he is insightful, careful, and respectful of the novel -- reading out and not into the text.
Two items to review before reading this engaging and thorough book: watch The Spanish Earth, available here, and, of course, re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway's finest novel. Vernon's book cannot help but remind the reader of Michael Reynolds's Hemingway's First War: The Making of Farewell to Arms which is a landmark text in Hemingway studies and Vernon is aware of the "possible perception of presumption in naming this book" -- but, he need not worry for his work stands beside Reynolds's book quite comfortably as an equal.
The book comprises three parts plus an introduction and an epilogue.
·Part I: Spain in Flames
·Part II: The Spanish Earth
·Part III: For Whom the Bell Tolls
The book begins with a discussion of Hemingway's coverage of the Spanish Civil War as a war correspondent and as one sympathetic with the Republic in its fight against the insurgents: Franco and the establishment Catholic Church. These chapters provide gritty background for the later chapter on the novel and for the film, The Spanish Earth. This period before the beginning of World War II is indeed an explosion of ideas, a conflict between Fascism and Communism, and a stimulus for many of the most important and shocking works of art of the early twentieth century. The notes and sources provided are a boon to Hemingway scholars and provide a strong foundation for the opinions and interpretations presented by Vernon in his delightful reading of the novel.
Vernon is an associate professor of English at Hendrix College, Conway, Arkansas. His specialties include Hemingway, and American War Literature, making him well qualified for the comprehensive analysis of For Whom the Bell Tolls in this context. Vernon sets out to provide a literary biography about the war which includes a nuanced reading of the novel in its context. Vernon says, "Literary biography is one part detective work, one part library science, one part journalism, one part literary criticism, one part history, one part pop psychology and one part gossip column." He certainly achieves his goal. His approach seems to produce a wealth of new information and keen criticism as he "attends to the relationship among personal experience, historical accountability, imagination, and art."
Vernon draws on other correspondents' dispatches, on letters, and on film (in those days the news reel was the visual mass media for current events) to provide the reader with a broad and deep understanding of the time, the conflict, the people, and the process of creating art from experience.
This is a book for the Hemingway aficionado, but also for the general reader with a curiosity about history, literature, film, and politics. And please, do watch the film, The Spanish Earth before or while reading this fine book.
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