Daily Archives: 4 June 2005

Ernest Hemingway, Lousy Reporter

One other symbol in Spain was Ernest Hemingway, by far the most famous of the English-language writers there during the war, an influential figurehead in the fight against Fascism–“How could this fight be lost now, with Hemingway on our side.” Hemingway had already worked on one propaganda film, Spain in Flames, and had agreed to help with another, The Spanish Earth, when he accepted an offer from the North American Newspaper Alliance [NANA] to report the war. He arrived in Spain for his first visit in March 1937, and altogether made four trips. He travelled widely, usually with Martha Gellhorn, Herbert Matthews, and Sefton Delmer, saw a lot of the fighting, and got to know many of the Republican leaders and supporters. Yet his performance as a war correspondent was abysmally bad. On a technical level, his descriptions of battle and bombardments are monotonous; his emphasis on his own close location to the action smacks of boastfulness; his accounts of blood, wounds, and severed legs are typical of his desire to shock; and his reporting of conversations is so totally Hemingway in style as to make the reader doubt their authenticity. NANA had to ask him to confine his work to human-interest features and, when that failed, to report only developments of vital importance. As his biographer, Carlos Baker, puts it, “His eye for telling details and individual traits was not nearly so sharp as that of Dos Passos, nor did he commonly rise to the meticulous exactitude and inclusiveness which characterised the best work of Matthews and Delmer.”

True, Hemingway grew up politically in Spain and believed it was the place to stop Fascism, before Hitler’s Brownshirts and Mussolini’s Blackshirts could precipitate a second world war. But he was unjustifiably optimistic about the Republicans’ chances of doing this. One of his principal informants was Mikhail Koltzov–the Pravda and Izvestia correspondent who quarrelled with Louis Fischer over an accurate but pessimistic dispatch Fischer had written–and this might explain the views Hemingway expressed to reporters in New York in June 1938. Franco was short of troops, Hemingway said, and handicapped by friction among the foreign elements in his army; the Republicans were well organised and their chances of winning were good. Actually, at that moment the Republicans were only six months away from defeat. But these criticisms are the least serious of Hemingway’s shortcomings as a war correspondent. The most important concerns his total failure to report the Communist persecution, imprisonment, and summary execution of “untrustworthy elements” on the Republican side, when he knew this was happening and when disclosing it might well have prevented further horrors like this….

In the end, Hemingway did write it all, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, but from a war correspondent the reader has the right to expect all the news the correspondent knows at the time, not as interpolations in a work of romantic fiction published when the war is over. The truth was that Hemingway, for all his compassion for the Spaniards, for all his commitment to the Republican cause, used the war to gain a new lease on his life as a writer. As Baker says, “Refusing to waste the best of his materials in his newspaper dispatches … he had gathered and salted away a body of experience and information which he described to [his editor Maxwell] Perkins as ‘absolutely invaluable’.” For a novelist, this was understandable. For a war correspondent, it was unforgivable.

SOURCE: The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, by Phillip Knightley, with an introduction by John Pilger (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2000; first published in 1975), pp. 230-232

Okay, the price for this second excerpt from the chapter on the Spanish Civil War is a total embargo on excerpts from several chapters on the two world wars.

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