Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

Hemingway, the Fifth Column, and the "Dead Angle"

Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

Hemingway, the Fifth Column, and the "Dead Angle"

Article excerpt

In a letter first published on 10 February 2008 in the New York Times, Hemingway describes some of the conditions under which he composed The Fifth Column during the Spanish Civil War. In the letter, he describes "rooms 112 and 113" of the Hotel Florida ("where we lived") as being in a "dead angle," safe from the artillery fire then falling on the hotel. In Act One, Scene Two of The Fifth Column Hemingway uses the words "safe" and "angle" to describe the rooms that Philip and Dorothy occupy, rooms 109 and 110. This note relates the "dead angle" to other so-called "good places" in Hemingway (for example, "locus amoenus" and "querencia") and describes the role of rooms 109 and 110 in the play's action, dialogue, and "message."


EARLY IN 2008, The New York Times published an article containing excerpts from a Hemingway letter written 70 years before--a letter, according to the Times, that Hemingway had "hoped" would be published in the newspaper. So we have the title of the article, written by Charles McGrath, "Hemingway, Your Letter Has Arrived." Most of the letter is about Hemingway's stays at the Hotel Florida in Madrid during 1937 and 1938, and more particularly about the wartime conditions under which he composed his only full-length play, The Fifth Column. On the whole, the letter does not add any significant new details about the composition of the play or Hemingway's purpose in writing it. But one phrase in the letter, "dead angle" might be of interest to scholars writing about a common feature of the author's work; namely, Hemingway's interest in what can generically be called the "good place"; a place that also goes under names like "locus amoenus" or "querencia" (Alinei, Monk). (1)

As described by Hemingway scholarship, a good place generally provides safety, rest and contemplation, and pleasant circumstances, as Room 109, Dorothy's room, does in The Fifth Column. Safety, an escape from danger, or troubles, is a particularly salient feature of a good place. A well-known example is the "querencia" from Death in the Afternoon, which Hemingway defines "as a place the bull naturally wants to go to in the ring; a preferred locality.., where the bull makes his home" (DIA 150). A good place can also be an enabling location for a specific action, such as writing: "[Madrid] was always a good place for working.... So was Paris, and so [was] Key West, Florida in the cool months ... Other places" he continues, "were not so good. But maybe we were not so good when we were in them" (SS v).

A large part of the letter, as printed in the Times, goes as follows:

      In the fall of 1937 when I took up playwrighting [sic], there
   weren't any top floors to the hotel [Florida] anymore. Nobody that
   was not crazy would go up there in a bombardment. But the two rooms
   where we lived were in what is called by artillerymen a dead angle
   [emphasis mine]. Any place else in the hotel could be hit and was.
   But unless the positions of the batteries on Garabitas hill were
   changed; or unless they substituted howitzers for guns, rooms 112
   and 113 could not be hit because of the position of three different
   houses across the street and across the square.... It seemed
   eminently more sensible to live in a part of a hotel which you knew
   would not be struck by shell fire, because you knew where the
   shells lit, than to go to some other hotel further from the lines,
   the angles of which you had no data to figure.... [emphasis mine]

Now, please recall the appearance of the words "angle" and "safe" in a scene from The Fifth Column. Shells are falling on the hotel. The Moorish Tart (Anita), Preston, Dorothy, and the Electrician are wondering if they should vacate the room, Room 109. Philip tries to reassure them that they are safe. All but Philip and Dorothy leave the room. We are in Act One, Scene Two.

PHILIP: "This room has an excellent angle, really. …

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