Hemingway and war

Friday, June 15, 2012

Well Papa, I don’t know if I am up for working this morning, but I know it will not feel good if I don’t.

That’s what it is to be a craftsman. And you can figure what World War II did to me if you relate it to the time professional baseball players lost out of their career while at the top of their game. The only difference is in the nature of the trades — theirs was seasonal anyway, and they figured to have only perhaps 20 years. So on the one hand they were used to spending a part of each year neither playing nor training and on the other hand the clock ticked even louder for them than for an author who might reasonably hope to go on as long as Yeats or Joyce. And, of course, whatever happened to baseball players during the war couldn’t improve their game, while a writer would always be learning things.

I do see that. Very well, in your defense, what will you say about Men At War?

I’m proud of it. What would the accusation be?

Well, I don’t know, really. I’ll look around when I get to reviewing the biographies and critical studies, and see if I can find someone criticizing it. I’m sure someone did.

People have such strange images of me — sometimes two or three conflicting images at the same time. Thus they can’t see anything straight. Now, that anthology is a good example. Think of the things you have seen about Hemingway and war:

He glorified war.

He swaggered and postured and pretended.

He encouraged defeatism and pacifism (even though ahead of time, in a book published a dozen years before our entry into World War II and four years before the Nazis took power).

He had no interest in the war effort.

He used sub hunting as an excuse to get government gasoline.

He drank his way across France and didn’t really do the job for Colliers he was paid to do.

He was a coward.

I don’t know that I’ve actually seen anyone accuse you of being a coward. That would be a very hard accusation to sustain, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary.

You’ll find it. Once you are looking for it, it will be there.

All right. Well, I see your bill of particulars. Any others you care to add?

Merely detailed additions. Couldn’t read maps, didn’t understand the situation, that kind of thing.

That’s ridiculous.

I didn’t say reasonable accusations, only accusations that had been made.

All right. So —

So if people would read my introduction to Men At War they would see my attitude toward war and the people who make or allow war and the men who wind up fighting the wars — and the dismal prospect of another hundred years of fighting one war after another, or one act after another in the same war. Not a bad prophecy, by the way.

No. More than 70, to date. It often seems like we should be coming out the other side, but then something new is employed to keep the bombs falling. But to keep this to you —

I predicted the second war in 1934 or ’35. I said we should stay out of it, and you’ll notice that Carl Jung said the same thing in print. I didn’t trust Roosevelt not because I thought he wanted war but because I didn’t trust him to realize the consequences of what he did. The submarine disasters of 1942 demonstrated that I was right about that! And in a way I felt that I and the other sub-hunters were having to clean up after Roosevelt’s policy of attacking German subs before we were at war without realizing that we were going to need a defense against those subs when the war came.

As I have said elsewhere, I saw the second war with jaundiced eyes. I was no fan of the British or French governments, and if I supported the Russians it was in the way that the hero of For Whom The Bell Tolls did — because there was no real alternative in the circumstances.

Neither did I have a great admiration for the military brass. Read Across The River And Into The Trees if you want my opinion — via Col. Cantwell — of the vast majority of them, with honorable exceptions. And if you want my opinion of the poor motherfuckers who did the actual killing and dying, read, for instance, “Black Ass At The Crossroads.” As I said somewhere, war itself is just what Sherman said it was. You couldn’t admire the process or the result. You could only admire the heights individuals could attain while struggling with it. But often enough it was “the cross that lifteth me.” No Calvary was any crueler than what many of those men went through — and I did go through that with them, remember, in Hurtgen forest. I didn’t shirk that.

I put together Men At War, and wrote that introduction, before any of it came to me. When I wrote that, my only experience with combat was observing it in Italy for a few days all told, and observing it in Spain amid many distractions political and personal. But there isn’t much that I said in that introduction that I would take back, or would have to take back.

I don’t know how we will work this into the book. Maybe we won’t be able to. But I’m glad to have it.

Every facet improves your synthesis of the whole jewel, to mix metaphors severely.

I think you could reasonably claim shell-shock, or PTSD, in defense of some of your postwar actions.

Perhaps. We’ll have to see how the trial goes.

Meaning you might not need to?

Meaning the rhythm of it will establish itself and you will shape the material as best you can, and some things will drop out.

And there’s no predicting what.

You can’t know the shape of it ahead of time; too many variables including within yourself.

My present excuse for a plan is to read your books and stories as we go along and get your reaction to whatever occurs to me. But I didn’t read your introduction, I read the piece about Borodino, instead, and a very short piece by Alexander Woollcott.

People forget that those are pieces that I chose. I selected them, for a reason, as I stated in my introduction. It would be a mistake to think of the introduction as mine and the pieces I selected as somehow disconnected from it, as though I were writing an introduction to a friend’s novel. The pieces I chose reflect on me; they show my tastes; they show what I thought it was important for young soldiers to know.

I don’t know the Hemingway scholarship, but I haven’t ever seen an article focused on the book or the introduction.

Writing about me by figuring out who I really was is too complicated for some people, and not dramatic enough. Besides, too much of what there is to be seen contradicts what “everybody knows” about Hemingway. Safer for your career to leave it alone.

Not for my career.

No, a career as academic. Not a career you chose, though you might have done, with very different results.

A road not taken. I’m happy enough with this one.

You could still teach. That path is not quite closed to you.

Well, we’ll see. I’m happy doing this.

You are when you’re working. Not so happy otherwise, and you can’t work all the time.


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