Hemingway Raids the Library for for Whom the Bell Tolls

By Hays, Peter | The Hemingway Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Hemingway Raids the Library for for Whom the Bell Tolls


Hays, Peter, The Hemingway Review


This article contends that Hemingway's writing is based on more than just personal experience modified by imagination; it is often based on research as well, a fact critics often overlook. I suggest literary sources for For Whom the Bell Tolls including H.R. Knickerbocker's Alcazar: A Warlog of the Spanish Revolution and Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution.

CRITICS FREQUENTLY STATE their belief that Hemingway's writing is largely autobiographical, based on personal experience altered or enlarged by imagination. Such a view ignores Hemingway's own comment that his best writing was invented.(1) And while the experiential view of his writing privileges Hemingway's creative imagination, it denigrates the reading and research that went into each of his novels after The Sun Also Rises. Although this process has been documented for A Farewell to Arms by Michael Reynolds in Hemingway's First War and by Giovanni Cecchin in Alle origini di Addio alle armi, thus far criticism of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls has largely overlooked possible sources for the novel beyond his own experience in the Spanish Civil War. I would like to suggest two such sources here.

Although neither Reynolds's Hemingway's Reading nor Brasch and Sigman's Hemingway's Library mention it, the author owned a copy of H.R. Knickerbocker's The Siege of Alcazar: A Warlog of the Spanish Revolution (I have seen Hemingway's signed copy in the personal collection of David Meeker, owner of The Nick Adams Bookstore in Sacramento). Knickerbocker, one year older than Hemingway, was a foreign correspondent for the United Press, Hearst, and the International News Service; he covered Russia's five-year economic plan in the 1930s (and got a Pulitzer Prize for doing so), Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, the Sino-Japanese War, and World War II. He is what. Hemingway might have been had he remained a foreign correspondent. Knickerbocker's log of the Spanish Civil War's early days, from August and September 1936, records the conflict as seen from the Nationalist or Fascist side. Knickerbocker mentions the Col de Leon on the Guadarrama (3-4), site of For Whom the Bell Tolls. He describes a photograph showing an officer being executed--as Pablo executed the four guardias civiles--by a "wildly grinning Red militiaman holding an automatic revolver to the officer's head. Another shows bodies of ... officers in the court of the Montana barracks" (22). Did Hemingway get the idea for Pablo's use of the unfamiliar Mauser taken from an officer (Knickerbocker's "automatic revolver" is unlikely(2)) and the gray slumped bodies of the dead civiles from similar photos (FWTBT 100-102)? Did he read Knickerbocker while composing For Whom the Bell Toils to refresh his own memories of things he had seen?

Another possible historical source in Hemingway's library is Carlyle's The French Revolution (both Reynolds and Brasch and Sigman report that Hemingway owned a two-volume edition of this work, one of several texts he owned on the French Revolution).(3) There are minor similarities between Carlyle's history and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Both detail the killing of Catholic priests as representatives of the aristocracy. Both detail the drunkenness of the killers: Carlyle states "Man after man is cut down ... the killers refresh themselves from wine-jugs" (III, 29); Hemingway writes "The drunkards were handing around bottles of anis and cognac ... drinking them down like wine. Those that did not drink from the bottles of liquor were drinking from leather wineskins.... To kill gives much thirst" (FWTBT 115). Carlyle describes the proud death of a Swiss guard:

   "I go first" said he, "since it must be so: adieu!" Then dashing his hat
   sharply behind him: "Which way?" cried he to the Brigands: "Show it   me,
   then." He stands a moment motionless; then plunges forth among the pikes,
   and dies of a thousand wounds. (III, 29)

Hemingway describes the death of Don Ricardo Montalvo in similar terms:

   "Good-by" he said. … 

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