Reconsidering Hemingway’s World War II Legacy
As much veneration as he has now garnered, Ernest Hemingway, believe it or not, still has not been given enough credit for what he attempted to write in his coverage of World War II. Hemingway aimed to write his grand heroic epic—covering the land, the sea, and the air—perspectives of World War II he obtained as a war correspondent for Colliers. He wanted to write this grand epic based on the process he had used to write his World War I masterpieces before, using eyewitness observation and historical research. At his best, Hemingway, as clearly demonstrated by Michael Reynolds’ early biographical work, developed his process of being both an eyewitness observer and serious intellectual for his World War I writing, as well as an imaginative genius. However, when it comes to his work on World War II, most critics have ignored or dismissed his fiction and other writings about this particular war. For example, the critics panned Across the River and into the Trees, and his ex-wife, Martha, disparaged his attempts to hunt German submarines in the Caribbean, even though the U. S. government took his and other yacht owners’ efforts there very seriously at the time. Still, the under appreciation of this work may be changing as more scholarship emerges on Hemingway’s life and work during that time. When the Hemingway Letters Project advances that far in his life, an even keener understanding of his work should be realized and with that a better appreciation of his efforts.
During World War II, Hemingway was a major celebrity. There is no question that Hemingway was the most established and recognized American writer on the 1944-45 war front, but that notoriety would often prove to be more of a disadvantage than a benefit. The key benefit of his fame was the access to the best vantage points to view the fighting that other lesser-known journalists could not obtain. However, that benefit had the disadvantage of Hemingway being the target of resentment from the other reporters who did not get this special access, including his wife, Martha Gellhorn. Many of these journalists never forgave their own resentment of Hemingway long after the war was over. But for his part, Hemingway only cared what the actual soldiers thought of him, and they loved him.
Professionally speaking, Hemingway as a writer was also disadvantaged by World War II because it was not his generation’s war to fight or to write. That had been World War I. Hemingway became famous by his post-World War I writings and had maintained and even built on that fame with central publications in many genres, including the novel, short fiction, and journalism. Unlike Modernist compadres Dos Passos and Fitzgerald, who were by then both out of popular success, Hemingway was considered the best living writer in America and among the best in the world when America entered the war on December 7, 1941. He was certainly the most famous, but with that fame came the pressure to maintain his status. Maintaining that status is the main reason why he doubled down on getting even closer to combat and to danger, even if that meant straining collegial bonds with fellow war correspondents or breaking the rules established for noncombatants in the Geneva Convention.
By this exhilarating yet dangerous moment in his career, Hemingway especially enjoyed the fact that he would be a favored guest at the grandest hotels in Europe and the world. Favorite on the list of these top-drawer hotels was the Ritz Hotel in Paris, the setting for newly published short story “A Room on the Garden Side.” When Hemingway checked into the Ritz for on the day of the Paris liberation, August 25, 1944, he had already developed a habit of mind to situate himself among the traditions of the grand masters of writing from the last few centuries. For example, in the story, Hemingway references several French masters, including Proust, whose aesthetic he had begun to model for the next phase of his literary development, a phase that he was not able to master before his death. Thus, when Hemingway would compose his World War II novel Across the River and into the Trees, he would be in the throes of a major aesthetic reformulation of his literary style that is now evidenced in the complex, posthumous texts that have been published since his death. At the heart of that reformulation is Hemingway’s desire to best Proust at the remembrance-of-things-past motif. Regrettably, it took longer to master this new form than Hemingway had time left to live. However, his success with what became A Moveable Feast demonstrates that by his suicide, he was emerging as a Proustian writer right before he ran out of earthly time. Therefore, his World War II Across the River and into the Trees novel needs further reconsidering in light of the success of his posthumous work that shows Hemingway was attempting to liberate his style and mind from all types of conventions of the past. Critics at the time still wanted Hemingway’s code hero and were confused by his new, emerging form of fiction. Perhaps they still are today.
With all of these factors aligned, Hemingway’s contributions to war correspondence were and are significant to World War II, especially if we include For Whom the Bell Tolls as a part of the whole World War II legacy. Though opinions are varied on where the Spanish Civil War is calculated in the World War II experience, consider it as part of the larger whole for Hemingway studies, as the Spanish Civil War is actually a part of the opening salvos to whole world war experience. In the Hemingway ideal, the war was to end Fascism, so any step along that path should be viewed as part of his canon on this global project for mankind. Again, it is imperative to remember that Hemingway knew war history as well as any writer working on the front at that time. His active engagement in journalism and war coverage from the early days of the Spanish Civil War broadened his historical context within the modern context of events that had been unfolding quickly and without precedent since the D-Day invasion. He also was very experienced with combat on the front; he could literally feel it in his bones from the wounding he had suffered while serving with the Red Cross on the Italian front in July of 1918.
Nearly 26 years later, June 6, 1944, the US and Allied forces landed on a stretch of beaches along the coast of Normandy to liberate Europe from the German Nazi forces that had taken over most of the continent. On that day, Hemingway could only observe the action from the sea, off shore. In July 1944, when Ernest Hemingway finally found his turn to step on those same beaches in the Allies’ newly created harbor, the worst of the D-Day invasion was long over. His estranged and much younger wife at the time, Martha Gellhorn, had already landed, as had many of the younger journalists covering the war. Those journalists were working to gain their context and battle experiences, just as Hemingway had done in his early years. But at this point, Hemingway is the senior writer, a presence who could inspire American consumers to buy any newspaper or magazine that touted his name. These chronological realities, however, do not diminish Hemingway’s contributions to the literary coverage of World War II, which are immense and are made deeper and broader by his past.
In July of 1944, Hemingway stayed on the beaches of Normandy only briefly, then headed to London to cover that city’s air defense. He returned to Normandy later that same month and embedded himself in an US Army regiment; he was 45 years of age and already physically bearing the effects of what some might call hard living. In a soldier’s age, he was ancient during those uncertain days in Northern France. Frankly, Hemingway had no business covering the war at such a close range, but such bucking expectations is just another example of the Hemingway method. The August, 1944, short story, “A Room on the Garden Side,” opens by underscoring this nuance. As the story opens, Paris is liberated and serving as a resting place for Hemingway before he would move north to what some might argue were his worst war experiences in Germany’s Hurtgen Forest. This newly published short story from that brief respite at the Ritz gives new tools for reassessing the merits of Hemingway’s role in the World War II experience. The short story also reminds readers that, for Hemingway, Paris was a staging ground, not a destination, in both World Wars. In World War I, he prepares for the Italian front in Paris, and by World War II, he prepares for the worst of the fighting to the north in Germany in that same city. While so many commemorate Hemingway’s civilian days in Paris, the bookends of preparing for the realities of war from Paris give us a new and unique way to enjoy the writer’s life-long connection to the City of Lights.