[The first part of this series on literary leftists can be found here.]
The Spanish Civil War was famous for many things, including attracting the participation of some of the most well-known literary lights of the day. The October 31 New Yorker features George Packer’s review of a new book by Stephen Koch about two of those lights, one greater and one lesser (although, as you will see, the review may change your mind about which is which): The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles.
Hemingway’s involvement in the war is extremely well-known; he mined the experience to create the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. But does anyone recall Dos Passos? Most of us have only vaguely heard of him; few read his books any more.
In his day, however, Dos Passos was no unknown. Quite the contrary, as Packer writes:
It’s hard now to remember that, several generations ago, the trio of great novelists born around the turn of the century—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner—was a quartet, with the fourth chair occupied by Dos Passos…Dos Passos was, to the core, a political writer, whose radical vision was crystallized the night of Sacco and Vanzetti’s electrocution, in 1927…Though Dos Passos’s characters had some resemblance to the downtrodden figures of the proletarian novel of the thirties, his technical brio belonged to the defiant, avant-garde twenties, when radicalism had more to do with art than with politics.
Prior to the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway was not known for being an especially political man, but Dos Passos’s works always had a political agenda, a leftist one. Both were drawn to the Republican cause in Spain, although for somewhat different reasons.
The Spanish Civil War itself is a topic far beyond the purview of this short essay, and I’m certainly no expert. But if you’re interested in a comprehensive look (and in making your head spin with confusion), see this. Suffice to say that the war was a violent mess, with each side a loose coalition in which the moderates were dominated by power-hungry extremists eager to take control and force Spain into totalitarianism of the left or the right, respectively.
Here’s Packer’s summary of the war’s beginning:
In February of 1936, Spanish voters elected by a narrow plurality a center-left coalition government of Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, and Republicans. It was the third democratic election in five years in a country that had not yet shed its feudal and clerical past. Some factions in the elected government had revolutionary goals, with those on the far left calling for “democracy of a new type,” meaning a prelude to the dictatorship of the proletariat; after five months of chaos, two of the Spanish institutions that had long exercised repressive power under the old monarchy—the military and the Church—were ready to overthrow the Republic. The civil war began on July 17th, when General Francisco Franco launched a rebellion from Spanish Morocco that quickly cut Spain in half. The Western democracies imposed an arms embargo on both sides, but Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy began giving troops and matériel to Franco’s rebels almost immediately, even as the Soviet Union advised and armed the Republic.
Because it attracted so many writers, the war was extensively written about almost from the start. Packer again:
Spain became the cause celebre for the left-leaning intelligentsia across the Western world, and many prominent artists and writers entered the Republic’s service (as well a larger number of foreign left-wing working class men, for whom the war offered not only idealistic adventure but an escape from post-Depression unemployment). Among the more famous foreigners participating on the Republic’s side were Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, who went on to write about his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. Orwell’s novel Animal Farm was loosely inspired by his experiences, and those of other Trotskyists, at the hands of Stalinists when the Popular Front began to fight within itself, as were the torture scenes in 1984.
Orwell found his metier and Hemingway found his novel in Spain; what did Dos Passos find? Like Orwell (and unlike Hemingway, who was relatively apolitical and already cynical when he got there), Dos Passos encountered profound political disillusionment. The details are too lengthy to go into here, but I encourage you to read Packer’s entire review, which is extraordinary.
Koch’s book is somewhat fictionalized, in more ways than one–he fills in some of the blanks with incidents from the fiction writings of the men involved. So not every scene can be taken as strictly true (for example, there are some scenes which reflect poorly on Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s wife at the time, in which Koch seems to have taken particular artistic liberties).
But, at least according to Packer, the basics seem to not be in dispute, partly because the men involved wrote some nonfiction about them, as well. And the huge role that Moscow played in the Spanish Civil War comes straight from the horse’s (that is, bear’s) mouth, since it’s based on information acquired since the opening of Soviet archives after the fall of the USSR.
In turns out that Dos Passos was, without realizing it, a pawn of those Soviets. He had actually been wooed by the Communists to come to Spain in order to convince his friend Hemingway to lend his name and his fame to make a propaganda film in favor of the Republican cause. Dos Passos’s main contact in Spain was to have been a good friend of his named Robles, a left-wing intellectual who seems to have angered Moscow at some point and who was “disappeared,” apparently shot by the Communists after being accused of being a Fascist spy.
Dos Passos tried to discover what had actually happened to his pal Robles:
Dos Passos…made the rounds of Spanish officials, only to encounter an unctuous series of bureaucratic lies and brushoffs—now that they had Hemingway, they didn’t even need to be polite to Dos Passos. Still, Dos Passos’s response to his friend’s disappearance reflected his sense that progressive politics without human decency is a sham. Hemingway, in a thinly disguised magazine article about the episode published in a short-lived Esquire spinoff called Ken, described these scruples as “the good hearted naiveté of a typical American liberal attitude.”
Suddenly these characters seem familiar: Dos Passos is what Norm Geras has called a “principled leftist,” concerned about preserving democratic values and basic human rights. Dos Passos worries about too many eggs being broken when those proletariat omelets are being made. Hemingway, on the other hand, is the literary type who uses politics to tell us something about himself. Much less politically aware or astute, he is mainly interested in pose and style, his politics a tool to show how hard-boiled he is (there are those egg metaphors again!), and to solidify his rep as one tough dude. To him, Dos Passos’s principles make him a hopeless softie, and Hemingway is having none of it.
In his detestation of Hemingway, Packer writes lines more critical of the literary wartime dilettante than any I’ve ever seen appear before in the New Yorker. Unless there’s something I’ve missed, Packer (and/or the New Yorker editors) seems unaware of the irony of the publication therein of passages such as the following:
Koch’s story illustrates, among other things, the danger of writers plunging into politics and war, and it offers an unlovely portrait of the engage artist as useful idiot…The reasons for Hemingway’s partisanship were entirely personal and literary. The imperative to hold the purity of his line through the maximum of exposure, which in 1931 made him an aficionado of bullfighting and in 1934 a crack shot in Kenya, in 1937 turned Hemingway into a willing tool of Stalin’s secret police. It was a rough brand of radical chic that also created a new type: the war correspondent as habitué of a particularly exclusive night club, who knows how and how not to act under shelling, where to get the best whiskey, what tone to use when drinking with killers. He’s drawn to violence and power for their own sake; war and the politics of war simply provide the stage for his own display of sang-froid. The influence of this type helped to mar the work of successive generations of war writers up to our own.
Hemingway set the new template for war correspondence, but Dos Passos was unable to respond adequately, because he was so undone by what happened in Spain that he appears to have lost the ability to write effectively about it (he did try his hand at a failed novel, as opposed to Hemingway’s successful one):
As for Dos Passos, Spain seems to have killed something in him. He had gone there to see what he had given up on seeing in America—workers and peasants struggling to create a more just society—not to drink anis with Russian commissars in range of enemy artillery. The betrayals he experienced in Spain, personal and political, were so devastating that he could not bring himself to write an account of what happened to his murdered friend José Robles and his former friend Ernest Hemingway. (Hemingway, meanwhile, was spreading the news back home, in person and in print, that Dos Passos was a coward and a traitor to la causa.)
I can’t help but quote extensively from the Packer article, so astoundingly important some of it seems to be, so relevant to what is happening today. Here is Packer again on the subject of novelists and other artist types, and what seduced–and seduces–so many of them into becoming “useful idiots”:
Spain was where the twentieth century’s great lie, the totalitarian lie, flowered. And yet for decades the Popular Front line that the war was a simple black-and-white struggle between democracy and fascism remained one of the century’s most stubborn myths. In 1984, when I was in my early twenties, I saw a documentary, narrated by Studs Terkel, called “The Good Fight,” a direct descendant of “The Spanish Earth”; and the heroic testimony of those aging survivors of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, sitting on neatly made cots in narrow furnished rooms, overwhelmed me. I knew that most of them were Communists, under Party discipline, and I knew (having read “Homage to Catalonia” earlier that year) that Moscow-backed agents had engineered the violent betrayal of the independent worker movement in Barcelona in May of 1937, just after Dos Passos left the country. Somehow none of this mattered in the face of a struggle in which neutrality seemed impossible. The whole point of Spain to several generations of left-wing intellectuals was the need for people ordinarily disposed toward equivocation to take sides. Auden, who contributed a statement to a pamphlet on Spain called “Authors Take Sides,” expressed the reluctant longing in “Spain,” the poem that he wrote just before the street fighting broke out in Barcelona, and later repudiated: “What’s your proposal? To build the Just City? I will, / I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic / Death? Very well, I accept, for / I am your choice, your decision: yes, I am Spain.”
Hemingway fully accepted that suicide pact. Dos Passos rejected it and never was the same again. Orwell somehow found a way to reject it and yet use it artistically to write his classic works, although he remained an economic socialist to the end of his days.
Packer offers the following caution:
Intellectuals can hardly keep away from politics any more than other citizens, and probably less, especially in decades like the nineteen-thirties (or this one, for that matter). But, because they typically bring to it an unstable mix of abstraction and narcissism, their judgments tend to be absolute, when nothing in politics ever is. This is why a writer as devoted to the visible, concrete world as Hemingway could nonetheless stumble so badly during his time in Spain: he lacked a sense of politics. The writer forever in search of one true sentence ended up accepting a whole raft of lies.