Cryptic note suggests hero of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls was based on the author himself

Oct 25, 2020 by

What the novelist did not suspect was that while in Spain he would end up leading a behind-the-lines mission — an episode that does not appear in any biography

On Feb. 27, 1937, Ernest Hemingway embarked on the SS Paris from New York and headed into a war zone. “For a long time me and my conscience both have known I have to go to Spain,” he wrote before leaving. Hemingway saw the ongoing fighting in his most cherished “damn wild country” as nothing less than a “dress rehearsal for the inevitable European war.”

What the novelist did not suspect was that, while in Spain, he would end up leading a behind-the-lines mission targeting General Franco’s Nationalist forces — an episode that does not appear in any biography and of which even his most devoted readers remain unaware. Nor could he know that the experience would inspire his next great novel.

For Hemingway, the trip was a deeply serious affair from the start. At 37, he had hit a crisis: his second marriage (to the heiress Pauline Pfeiffer) was failing and, more catastrophically, his popularity among readers was waning while his writing was drying up. He hadn’t published a novel in seven years, since A Farewell to Arms.

Hemingway had described his problems in a story published six months earlier — The Snows of Kilimanjaro ­— about a dying writer who does not love his wife. “He had destroyed his talent by not using it,” he wrote, “by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions.”Nominally, Hemingway was now going to Spain to practise his original trade as a journalist, with a generous contract from the North American Newspaper Alliance, but really he was after inspiration. He found what he was looking for. In October 1940, after four long spells in Spain, he published For Whom the Bell Tolls, about the fortunes of an American volunteer called Robert Jordan. A former university literature lecturer and explosives expert, Jordan joins a guerrilla unit fighting to defend democracy and the Spanish Republic, before going on a daring raid behind enemy lines. In just a few months, the novel sold half a million copies.

Jordan’s character is based on the volunteers of the International Brigades — a remarkable army of around 35,000 people from 80 countries, who formed an “anti-fascist” force in Spain that contemporaries compared to the crusades and the Tower of Babel. Several of these volunteers would be mooted as specific models for Jordan. They included the Coney Island muscleman, acrobat and adagio dancer Irving Goff, who famously went on to spring 300 Republican prisoners from a seaside fort and joined General “Wild Bill” Donovan’s Office of Strategic Studies (a precursor to the CIA) in the Second World War. The daring Polish volunteer and guerrilla commander Antoni Chrost is another contender.

Source: Cryptic note suggests hero of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls was based on the author himself | National Post

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