Hemingway’s Second War
University of Iowa Press
$29.95, paperback, 264 pages
Release date: May 15, 2011
In the late 1930s, Ernest Hemingway filed dispatches from the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Association. His experiences covering the war would inform his masterpiece For Whom the Bell Tolls along with other works. He would be one of the driving forces behind the documentary film The Spanish Earth, serving as its narrator and shaping the content.
Alex Vernon’s Hemingway’s Second War examines this critical period in Hemingway’s life and investigates the ripples it cast in his writing, his relationships and his politics.
Vernon is an associate professor of English at Hendrix College, Conway, Ark. 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.
The book begins with a biographical overview of Hemingway’s coverage of the Spanish Civil War. The opening chapters provide background for subsequent parts discussing The Spanish Earth and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Vernon’s intention is to provide a literary biography, not merely a recitation of facts about the war (sadly, not well known to many Americans) or a straightforward criticism of the novel. As Vernon puts it:
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.
Vernon accomplishes what he sets out to do, but his work is perhaps best appreciated by fellow academics and Hemingway scholars. At times, the book reads as a series of academic lectures, complete with asides and apologies from Vernon that don’t always feel smooth. “It is worth quoting at length this dispatch’s transition to first person,” he writes at one point. The frequent commentary on the act of writing the book can be intrusive. On occasion, Vernon can also introduce a thesis and provide strong support for it, only to reject it (with equal support) paragraphs later. For academia which encourages debate, this would be suitable. A reader here may wish Vernon had chosen a side and stuck with it.
That is not to say Hemingway’s Second War is a dry piece of academia. At times, it sings. A section on life in Madrid stands out in particular. Quotes from Hemingway’s fellow journalist Virginia Cowles help draw a detailed picture of the circus and camaraderie among correspondents who live close to war but are not active participants. Vernon’s references to Hemingway’s contemporaries are one of the stronger points of the book, although without a preexisting understanding of the players, some nuance may be lost on a casual reader.
The bulk of the book devoted to For Whom the Bell Tolls also stands out. Vernon digs into every layer of symbolism and finds parallels with reality, and draws strong comparisons to Hemingway’s life and other works.
By organizing the book by subject matter – biography, film, novel – a sense of chronology is lost, but as Vernon pointed out, the book is not merely a history. The organization, which may work well in a class devoted to Hemingway, leaves a scattershot impression on the casual reader who picked up Hemingway’s Second War to learn about Hemingway or the Spanish Civil War and finds himself confused about the book’s focus.
The section on The Spanish Earth could stand on its own as a lengthy article or complete book. As with his discussion of war journalism, Vernon provides valuable insights into the documentary process from funding and initial planning onto lighting through editing and distribution. It’s when Vernon really digs into a tight subject that the book becomes alive.
The breadth of Vernon’s task is both a fault and a merit of Hemingway’s Second War. The examination of almost anything and everything related to Hemingway, The Spanish War and For Whom the Bell Tolls is comprehensive and certainly of interest to Hemingway aficionados. Other readers may feel pulled in too many different directions as they search for a through line.