November 28th, 2005

Literary leftists (Part II): Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Spanish Civil War

[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.

22 Responses to “Literary leftists (Part II): Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Spanish Civil War”

  1. troutsky Says:

    “think artists, and more so writers, are drawn to passion that can be expressed in overarching themes and unambiguous (as they see it) conflict-struggles.”

    That would make the Bush administration a bunch of artists and writers.Is the real world black and white ,or not?you people have to make up your minds.Was the Spanish civil war evil commies against evil fascists or was it more nuanced? How about our current war?

  2. Michael B Says:

    Rebecca Pawel has a fictional trilogy based in the immediate aftermath of Spanish Civil War, supposed to be terrific stuff, all written very recently, though have not yet purchased or read any of it myself, have simply read a couple of enthusiastic reviews:

    Death of a Nationalist, Law of Return and The Watcher in the Pine

  3. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Writers of fiction are used to having things go their way–in the book. They may have to write a hundred-page backstory bio of a character to make his actions consistent. But they make up the backstory, too.
    And they use coincidence and they use anything else they need to make things go their way.
    So, perhaps they have the habit, eventually, that when they think things are a certain way, that’s the way the things are.
    Have to be.
    Always been that way.

    If true, this is a sure way to miss reality.

  4. Eric Says:

    I think artists, and more so writers, are drawn to passion that can be expressed in overarching themes and unambiguous (as they see it) conflict-struggles.

    That’s where they find their poetry, what they define as nobility. They see the Marxist revolutionary, or even today’s terrorist, and they see a purity of essence that they cherish.

  5. cakreiz Says:

    Fascinating stuff, neocon. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  6. David Says:

    A beautifully-written memoir about Spain and the Spanish Civil War is “The Forging of a Rebel”, by Arturo Barea. The author was on the Republican side, but is honest about its atrocities as well as those committed by the fascists. I reviw it here.

  7. chuck Says:

    I read Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers when I was a teenager. Although I don’t recall much detail, the atmosphere of the novel lingers and vaguely reminds me of dark fantasy/science fiction, so that is where I would shelve it in a modern bookstore.

    Three Soldiers was also my first introduction to the concept of fragging and the book pretty much embodies the attitude of the modern left to the military. It is amazing how old many leftist tropes are: the whole blood-for-oil thingee derives from Rockefeller and Standard Oil a hundred years ago and the anti-military rhetoric traces back to the aftermath of WWI. To enter the leftist world view is to enter a time warp and live in the oldern days. The left offers a sad bit of nostalgia for a forgotten time. I suppose that is part of its appeal.

  8. Ymarsakar Says:

    The communists and the fascists are natural allies. Not because of any particular love one has for the other, but because to survive against all odds they must unite their strength against their common foes. The enemy of fascism becomes also the enemy of communism.

    THe Spanish Civil War is an example of what happens in any society or culture, without the aid of enlightened principles of governance. Europe may see itself as the beacon of social justice and civilization, but the truth is somewhat cruder.

    In the case of the SCW, it seems to be that both sides were destroying the middle, the enemy, and partitioning what was left between them in a final free for all. Using whatever means available, or whatever persons available, to accomplish the task of partitioning the spoils.

    We saw it in Poland, between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. We saw it between Nazi Germany and xenophobic and militarist Japan. We even saw it with Osama Bin Laden and Saddam.

    There comes a point however, when not even the unified power of both radicals and status quo conservatives, can defeat their common foe. Dividing an alliance based upon hate, is rather easy, but it does require some strength of character. Of national character.

    It is this aspect of the strategy in combating political and ideological extremism that Bush either doesn’t know how to communicate or doesn’t want to communicate.

    The advantage of the alliance of hate, towards American, towards human dignity, is simply that they acquire a bunch of useful idiots in enemy territory. The disadvantage is that they need it, to break the alliance of human dignity and rights.

    Our actions should be to separate our enemies from each other, to make their actions harm each other by necessity, and then to swoop in and take out the weakened party. As you can see, Europe believed it had its own grand strategy during the first half of the 20th century. It didn’t go so well. Sure, they left the fascists and the communists fight it out, but they were supporting both the communists (ideologically and propaganda wise) as well as the fascists (political appeasement).

    America crafted a different national policy during the 20th century, which is simple in its elegance of form. Divide the enemy, and then conquer them. Divide dictators from terroists, then divide terroists from the Arab street, then divide the Arab street from our useful idiots. Divide the Emperor of Japan from his military, divide the island of Japan from other islands. Divide Germany from Japan. Divide Russia from Germany. France from Russia. Then initiate the coup de grace, obliterating each group in succession. First Germany, then Japan, then Russia in the Cold War. (As you might notice, skipping France might not have been optimal, although it was very clever of the French to side with the apparently winning party and then switch sides in order to get a UN seat after the war with the winners.)

    This strategy is simple. That is not the curious aspect, the curious aspect is how many people in the world know nothing about it. And how many Europeans seem to think diplomacy and social justice brought about perpetual peace upon their continent, rather than the Grand Strategy of uncouth Americans.

    Look at Europe today. They have no military to stage coups. They have no Soviet union to fund coups and revolutions. They have no threat but the ones they invite to their own countries. I cannot accept that this came about because Europe became enlightened, ahead of all other continents on Earth. Many other continents, South America or Africa perhaps, would love to find themselves in the same situation of perpetual peace and prosperity (mebe not prosperity).

    Unfortunately for them, it seems, they can’t get American interventions as easily as our extended family in Europe can. Talk about nepotism.

  9. Andrew Scotia Says:

    For what it is worth as an insight, John Dos Passos, while born to privilege, was illegitimate. His father was a self made attorney/investor and his mother a high born Virginian. He grew up using his mother’s last name.

    He never seemed to be the “go along to get along” type that Hemingway was.

  10. erasmus Says:

    Tatterdamalian

    Sorry you’re under the weather tonight. Read slowly, sip a cup of tea, and perhaps things will clear up. A copy of “Elements of Style” might hel.
    Cheers.

  11. Tatterdemalian Says:

    Wow, you must be spot on, seeing as how you have set erasmus off on a foaming rant. “How about all those business gurus–plenty narcissistic and visionary,” indeed. “I’M NOT ABSTRACT AND NARCISSTIC! YOU’RE THE ONES WHO ARE ABSTRACT AND NARCISSTIC! YOU AND YOU AND YOUYOUYOUYOUMOTHER****ING YOU!”

    And the funny thing is, nobody even accused him of anything. Just goes to show you, all you gotta do is pull the tailfeather and see who squawks the loudest.

  12. xrivhjnj Says:

    Brad

    OK, tell me how Saul Bellow has “betrayed us?” Or, years ago, how did Robert Frost do it?
    What are you talking about?
    Whom did artists betray? The country? The people? Their audience?
    Generalizations are fun at 2am college bull sessions, but God is still in the details.

  13. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Lots of people stumbled in this situation, and others.
    Is the proportion of writers and intellectuals who stumble greater than that of normal people?
    Probably, but the problem is that the writers can’t stop themselves from telling us how they went about the entire process.

    I’ve read a couple of parodies of Hemingway, and it was hard to tell the difference.
    My guess is that he got his style from Kipling. Try the latter’s “The Bull That Thought” and see if you can think you could fool somebody into thinking it’s an unfairly obscure Hemingway story.

  14. KierkegaardKTV Says:

    ‘Tender is the Night’ was the ‘Bridges of Madison County’ of the 1930s. Grisham, while trash, is a better stylist than Hemingway.

    I’ve suffered at the hands of all four of these authors for many a long hour. They were mawkish and maudlin, self-serving and self-parodying. Fitzgerald at least was an excellent stylist; the rest could be (and in some cases have been) taught in writing classes as examples of ‘how not to’.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Good one, neo. 10% (1 million people) of Spain’s population perished in the Civil War, as Fascist battled Communist. It was a dress rehersal of the totalitarian horrors already in the making, and the totalitarian horrors to come.

    “Papa” was heavily invested in himself. His suicide, imitated by some of his descendants, was itself the ultimate narcissistic act. And you’re correct: Hemingway was a dupe at best, a stooge at worst. And as my old English professor liked to say, it was his style that set him apart, not his substance.

  16. Brad Says:

    Totally disagree with erasmus:
    The “unstable mix of abstraction and narcissism” is spot on. Couldn’t be better put. We face the danger of this mix today, and our most beloved artists will always betray us because of the mix. Love the movie, the book, the song, the role, the poem, etc, but always be aware of the simplistic abstractions that drive such creations. “The opium of the intellectuals” and “seduction of unreason” are forefront in human disasters. Nietzche went to mental hell because of his aphoristic genius. I love his writing but I don’t want to follow him. As a young man I sat in a cafe that Hemingway frequented and thought it fantastic; now I think he was a simple jerk (BTW the article gets the operation wrong; it is intended to constrict; Hemingway was probably also a sexual jerk).

  17. erasmus Says:

    KierkegaardKTV:

    All those four writers are “unreadable” today????? How so? You can’t read them? Who else?
    Or, do you mean “unread?”
    And, to give just one example, nothing Grisham has written comes even close to Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night.”

    I

  18. KierkegaardKTV Says:

    I am unconvinced that Hemingway was in any way obsessed with his prose style; otherwise he might have hired someone to improve it. In fact, all four of the writers cited–Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos are all but unreadable today, other than ‘The Great Gatsby’. And with the exception of Faulkner, all were tireless self-promoters; further, with the exception of Dos Passos, all were famous drunks as well. They were, in short, the John Grishams, Norman Mailers, and Robert James Wallers of their day. Only Orwell, who is mentioned in the article, and Steinbeck and Lewis, who were not, are ‘literary lefties’ of any genius or lasting worth.

  19. neo-neocon Says:

    See this about abstraction and how it can affect political thought.

  20. Michael B Says:

    “Bull.” erasmus

    Such commentary, wit and incisiveness; the dismissive “achievement” of an equivocal leveling. Abstract-tossing and narcissistic indeed.

  21. erasmus Says:

    True:
    1. Spain was caught between two fires (Communism and Fascism), and its citizens betrayed by both.
    2. Spain’s top army officers initiated plans to r4eplace the republic with a military junta before Franco assumed the leading role in the “rising/”
    3. Guernica, the grandfather of terror/civilian bombing, done by the German Condor Legion for Franco.
    Yet, what’s with Packer’s intellectual-baiting, the unstable mix of “abstraction and narcissism?”
    Why is that mix necessarily “unstable?” Christopher Hitchens and Henry Kissinger possess plenty of both qualities; are both “unstable” in the same or different ways?

    How about all those business gurus–plenty narcissistic and visionary. Also an unstable mix?
    It’s a catchy phrase, but intellectuals are no more alike than the narcissistic hairdressers of NYC or abstraction-tossing philosophers at a Arendt seminar or Kierkegaard symposium.

    New Yorker critics display an unstable mix of cleverness and shallowness. Bull. Some do, others don’t.

  22. Anonymous Says:

    Ever the impassioned observors with fingers safely on the pens and not the triggers. No! There’ll be no late night hauntings of brains blown onto the sides of buildings and artery blood to be wiped off the face from close quarters work with a knife or pistol, rather the memories of bad food and dysentary will sustain the illusion of really being in the thick of it, keeping them safe from the responsibility of participating in war’s real dramas.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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