Reading For Whom The Bell Tolls in 2020

Alex Vernon, M.E. and Ima Graves Peace Distinguished Professor of English, Hendrix College

We all need a break. We all need a bipartisan boost.

This fall marks the 80th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. Our times are a good time to pull it off the shelf. During the 2008 election, the two major political party presidential candidates, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, spoke about the importance of the novel in their lives. They hand in mind the protagonist’s self-sacrifice for a cause greater than himself.

I’m dubious about that overly-romanticized understanding of the novel—I find it a great novel because of its resistance to easy romanticism. But for our present moment, what matters is Hemingway’s ability to recognize the virtues and the sins of people on both sides of the Spanish Civil War.

It was a brutal war between the legitimate, democratically-elected government of the Second Spanish Republic, which had ties to communism, and the rebellion led by the future fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Hemingway was hardly neutral. He never in his life felt as passionately about politics or government as he did the cause of the left-leaning Republic. The wartime film he helped create, The Spanish Earth, is unapologetic propaganda. His war correspondence did not bother to feign neutrality.

He started the novel toward the end of the war, in agony as he watched the Republic crumble. Astonishingly, for all of his partisan commitment and pain, Hemingway wrote a novel that sympathizes with characters from both sides of the war. He wrote a novel that dramatizes his own side’s atrocities and hypocrisies.

Leftists hated the novel. They found it a betrayal of the cause. Rightists also hated the novel because the hero dies for what they perceived to be the advance of global communism. How could that make for the great American novel?

In 1941, the Pulitzer Prize Committee voted to award the 1940 fiction prize to For Whom the Bell Tolls. Then an intervention by Columbia University’s president and chairman of the Pulitzer board, Nicholas Murray Butler, effectively became a veto. He shamed the committee into presenting no award that year.

The reason for the intervention is cloudy. How I wish I could transport myself into the room where it happened. The public reason: the book’s salaciousness. But Hemingway had written his lovemaking scenes about the moved earth, not humping bodies. He cleverly avoided offensive language by literally writing words like obscenity instead of, say, the f-bomb (leading some online reviews of the electronic version to complain that it has been censored, that Hemingway, who knew war’s ugliness, would be appalled if he saw his work expurgated!). 

The novel was sufficiently tasteful at the time to be a Book-of-the-Month-Club main selection. Hemingway scholars are fairly certain Butler intervened for political reasons—because of Hemingway’s and his protagonist’s politics.

Had Butler actually read the book?

In one scene, the pro-Republican protagonist makes an assumption about the cruelty and arrogance of an enemy lieutenant simply because of the nationalism for which the lieutenant fights. The passage then instantly and radically switches perspectives to that of the lieutenant, whom Hemingway shows to be a reluctant and humble soldier. A kind, intelligent, and decent man.

The Library of Congress has recognized Hemingway’s accomplishment by naming For Whom the Bell Tolls one of the eighty-eight “Books that Shaped America.” Maybe in 2021, the Pulitzer organization would follow the example of that passage, correct the error of its thinking, and award the prize eighty years belatedly.

In the meantime, couldn’t we all stand to learn from its example?

Alex Vernon, M.E. and Ima Graves Peace Distinguished Professor of English, Hendrix College 11/01/2020

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