Hemingway at War
By Terry Mort
304 pages $27.95
Not another Hemingway book, please. Two books about Hemingway, “Everybody Behaves Badly” and “Hotel Florida” have been reviewed this year.
But in fact, Terry Mort is a fine writer who has put his finger on an element in Hemingway’s career that hasn’t been broadly considered: his adventures as a World War II Correspondent.
About this our author writes, “Hemingway had a talent for being at the center of important events. Those events – and some of the people connected with them – are a large part of this story. He was with the Allied landings on D-Day. He flew with the RAF on at least one bombing mission. He operated with the French Resistance -- as the Allies advanced to Paris -- and he was active during the battle for the Hurtgenwald in Germany’s Siegfried Line.”
So that’s what this book is about: expanding our understanding of those events and how they affected Hemingway professionally and personally.
For that I say, solid work, Mr. Mort.
Hemingway (1899 – 1961) stood above it all during the WWII years. He was at the peak of his fame. Earlier, his novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls," published in 1940, was a great success. Somehow he had squirreled away reportage for the novel from his employ by Collier’s Magazine, which earlier had sent him on assignment to Spain to write dispatches.
Hemingway’s responsibility was to report on the war with features, and opinion pieces, not straight news, Mort explains. Hemingway was committed to the Spanish Republic’s side of the war, notwithstanding its squabbling parties but because of its anti-fascist stand.
Not everybody, including our author, thought Hemingway was a great man. He could be a fine writer at times, but he was also a preening character, interested in not much other than his writing, chasing skirts or downing drink. He could be charming - if it was in his interest. Andy Rooney got it right. Rooney was a fellow WW II correspondent with Hemingway. Rooney wrote: “He was not your ordinary run-of-the-mill jerk. He was a Big Jerk and more often than not a poor writer.”
Of course this remark was a huge rebuke to Hemingway, who thought of himself as an artist, while the other fact-chasers in the scrum, as early as 1936 in Spain for the civil war, were just reporters. About the objectivity of the press at this time, George Orwell wrote, “No event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which bear not any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie.”
Then there was his affair and marriage with Martha Gellhorn whom he had met in Key West in December of 1936. She was Hemingway’s third wife of four, and a successful journalist in her own stead who was “glamorous, beautiful, and fiercely ambitious,” our author tells us. Gellhorn often ignored facts if they got in the way of her story. A famous instance: she reported a lynching down south from a dubious source.
She was a "looker." Hemingway later wrote that Martha’s legs "began at her shoulders." Gellhorn knew her way around men, had a number of lovers, but said she didn’t enjoy sex; “It was never any good.” She went to bed with Hemingway “as little as [I] could manage.” Gellhorn became friends with the great man’s second wife, Pauline, the way Pauline had become friendly with his first wife, Hadley.
Gellhorn’s goal in all of this was to engage in the world of action and write about it, according to Mort. Sex was her soft currency payment to life’s battles. “Living in sin” involved fewer obligations, she mused. I can do very well without marriage” she obliged, although Hemingway carried with him, our author notes, a streak of middle-class conventionality -- that included marriage -- which survived wars and his bohemian expatriate life.
You can guess that their relationship deteriorated into acrimony.
By the early 1940s, something was missing in Hemingway’s writing, Mort indicates. He quotes Scott Donaldson, a critic who wrote about Hemingway, “There can be little doubt that he chose the image of a rugged warrior-sportsman as a shield against invasion of his extraordinarily complicated personality – in particular his emotional vulnerability - by outsiders.”
Perhaps, as Terry Mort suggests, if Martha had been a compliant wife, Hemingway might never have gone to Europe in the spring of 1944. The big man might have been content to stay in Cuba, half-schnozzled and fishing for marlin in his boat, the Pilar, around Cuba’s coast – and looking for German submarines - while Martha was cooking dinner at home.
But scratch that thought as a non sequitur.
This was the context in which Hemingway went late to WW II.
The other side, as exemplified by German Field Marshal Walter Model’s instructions to his troops populating the Hürtgenwald forest, showed what the Allies were up against. He wrote, “The long-awaited enemy offensive has begun…Disappointed peoples stand behind the mercenaries of America and England. Peoples who had promised Germany’s collapse this year. Behind them stand the reedy Jew, lusting after gain, and the murderous, blood-thirsty Bolshevist. … Our women and children look to us. With blasting hatred and unceasing courage we will fight for the honor and security of the German fatherland.”
As Mort indicates, this was a battle that many on both sides wondered about, both at the time and in retrospect. What was the point? Had the Americans gone around the forest, there would have been little German opposition. The American 22nd regiment had already lost nearly 4,600 men since D-Day. Hemingway called the Hurtgenwald battle “Passchendaele with tree bursts,” after the WW I that was the bloodiest, more than half a million casualties combined. The American troops, who survived, says Mort, were “burnt out cases.”
Hemingway was predicting war’s end by Christmas. But it didn’t work out that way. He wasn’t a "tourist in a helmet." He had been in the thick of one of the worst battles of the war.
Perhaps it’s best to remember Hemingway as our author puts it:
“Hemingway was at his best in combat, in situations that shattered both the bodies and the minds of many around him. He was at his worst in domestic situations that suffering GIs like Willie and Joe could only dream of and long for. The Manichean dark side for most people – war – was where he found his light.”
Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.