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A Pox on Ernest Hemingway



     As I struggle to write my eye-witness account of Spain from monarchy to civil war (1931-36), I am reading or re-reading many of the innumerable books on that period. I am impressed, indeed awed by the patience and skill with which the authors have assembled a vast documentation and transmuted it into accurate and well-written accounts. Let me single out one, no longer with us, for whom I have a special admiration: Burnett Bolloten. He happened to be in Barcelona when the Civil War broke out, and it changed his life. He could have gone into his father's business, but he chose instead to devote his life to the study of the conflict. When the defeated Republicans found asylum in Mexico, he followed them there to get their testimony and to collect documentation. He then came to World to write his book. It required great personal sacrifice; he sold encyclopedias from door to door and later real estate lots to stay alive. It was then that I got to know him, and I gave him all possible encouragement. Painfully objective, he was deeply hurt when the Franco government tried to use his book for propaganda purposes. His book did not make a great splash, but it slowly won the deep respect it deserved. It was even translated into Japanese. He must have died happy knowing that his sacrifice had not been in vain.
     While buried in books like his, I am jolted by the news that Spain has begun to celebrate early the centennial of Ernest Hemingway. While men like Burnett Bolloten toiled like Benedictines, that huckster dashed off his trash and got the glory, the gold and the Nobel Prize for Literature. There are modern writers like Edith Pargeter (alias Ellis Peters) who keep alive the majestic cadence of traditional English. Hemingway persuaded the young and the Nobel Committee that his choppy style was the language of the times. It is not even good journalistic writing.
     Serious Spaniards and Hispanists have been trying to persuade an ignorant world (including Hemingway) that Spain is not the romantic country of Carmen, raw material for popular writers. Blasco Ibanez wrote his famous novel Blood and Sand (1908) about the transient glory of a bullfighter who was injured and forgotten as the mob cheered its next hero. The novel ends: "he wild beast was roaring, the real one"--in other words, the crowd, not the bull. As for Hemingway's craze for that "sport," I refer to earlier memos on the San Fermin festivities in Pamplona, exalted in his novel Fiesta (1927), which gave many American youths the idea that this was the way to excitement and even glory.
     Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls gave a simplistic vision on the Civil War in painful contrasts with the delicate, careful shading of the accounts referred to above. His criticism of Franco was really a passing phase. He went to live in Franco Spain in 1955, where he was befriended by Luis Castillo Puche, who wrote Hemingway in Spain (1974) praising his fascination with "death in the afternoon." Hemingway's obsession with death led to his suicide in 1961, an indication that as a man he was a mess.
     Hemingway was born in 1899, but Castillo Puche has already organized a Hemingway exhibition in Madrid's Fine Arts Circle. The little-known Castillo Puche is not Boswell, and Hemingway is certainly not Dr. Johnson. While all this belies the idea of the moral and intellectual progress of humanity, at least the Spanish crowds have advanced to soccer, while bullfighting is going through death in the afternoon. Yet the bulls of Pamplona will remain a tourist attraction for young Americans. They are fortunately few in number compared with the number taking up soccer. There are no bull moms.

Ronald Hilton - 08/06/98


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