Monday, September 16, 2013

For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls
By Ernest Hemingway

I am doing this review as part of of Banned Book Week. I am participating in a blog tour hosted by Sheila over at Book Journey. This is my second year participating in this event. I feel privileged to be invited back. When I got the email invite last week it just so happened that I was in the middle of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, a book I had never previously read and, it just so happens, to be number 30 on the American Library Association's list of Most Banned Books in America. Serendipity, indeed.

I can't believe I have to do this but For Whom the Bell Tolls follows about a week in the life of Robert Jordan, an American fighting on the side of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War. Jordan is charged with blowing up a strategic bridge in advance of a Republic offensive. In the course of the week leading up to the explosion, Jordan meets Maria, a young Spanish woman who was the victim of a brutal gang rape at the hands of the Fascists. As time passes and a lot of Hamlet-esque drama unfolds, Jordan begins to rethink his commitment to the war and his mission.

Published in 1929, For Whom the Bell Tolls was Hemingway's literary confessional about the Spanish Civil War, a conflict he covered as a writer. I'm of the opinion that if it weren't for Hemingway and the enduring legacy of his literature, the Spanish Civil War, which was Europe's dry run prior to the Second World War, would be largely forgotten today. So in that way one might liken For Whom the Bell Tolls to M*A*S*H, which has kept the Korean War from becoming a historical footnote. And if it weren't for Banned Book Week, this was where my blog post was going to go. I'll have to find another book in which to compare to M*A*S*H.

So let's get to the $50,000 question. Why was For Whom the Bell Tolls book banned?

I use the past tense here because it is not a book that gets a lot of attention from Book Banners these days. Indeed, there are no For Whom the Bell Tolls is the sort of innocuous novel about the graphic brutality of war set during on the last century's most obscure conflicts. But graphic depictions of wartime atrocities were not a new concept. A slew of novels about World War I including classics such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Hemingway's own A Farewell to Arms had sufficiently shocked a generation of readers with their grotesque accounts of death and disease during history's most pointless war. But back in the 1940s and especially the 1950s For Whom the Bell Tolls was a novel of quite a bit of discussion not for it's graphic accounts of rape, torture and murder but because of its pro-Communist slant (Of course, it was also banned in Spain under the rule of Franco and, interestingly enough, in Nazi Germany where it was burned in bonfires prior to the Second World War).

So let's make this clear. For Whom the Bell Tolls was banned because it was perceived as pro-communist. What a dated reason to ban a book. If there are people who supported this ban who are still alive today, I have to assume they are pretty damned quiet about it. It would be hard to convince anyone that this is a viable reason to ban a book in 2013. Hell, it would be hard to convince someone that this is a viable reason to ban a book in 1983.

Allow me to explain...

As the years progress and the Baby Boomers fade into cultural obscurity it will be increasingly difficult for us as members of the modern Western World to fully comprehend the fear, the sheer terror that Communism evoked in the American psyche in the years immediately after World War II. Obviously there are millions of people who still remember the Cold War (myself included) and the fear that it was capable of invoking but as it slips ever farther from our public discourse it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile the blood-curdling frenzy of McCarthy era America and its obsession with eliminating all remnants of communism from its social, political and cultural landscape. Censorship and suppression of seditious literature was a big thing in during the early days of the Cold War.

Unfortunately for Ernest Hemingway, his novels about the Spanish Civil War, and particularly For Whom the Bell Tolls, fell squarely in the crosshairs of America's suppression set. It was guilty of several political crimes that seemed to be of the utmost importance at the time. For Whom the Bell Tolls first unthinkable mistake was to give the reader an accurate depiction of the Spanish Civil War in which the Republican forces, which consisted in large part of communists and communist-sympathizers from around the world, fought valiantly against the (eventually victorious) Fascists. It would have been difficult for Hemingway to write a well-reasoned novel about the Spanish conflict without making it clear that the Republicans were littered with communists, some of which were American.

Which brings me to strike two. Robert Jordan is an American citizen that seems to be at the very least sympathetic to the communist plight in Spain. This was never going to sit well in the parlors and cocktail parties frequented by the McCarthites of the 1950s. Just like homosexuals in Iran, communists didn't exist in post-war America, and if they did, they would be silenced. Hemingway was one of the victims of that suppression. The nail in the proverbial coffin was the inclusion of one particular sentence: Hold out and fortify, and you will win. This was a verbatim Communist Party slogan and therefore seen as proof positive that Hemingway was perpetuating the Communist menace in America. It got so bad that in 1941 the U.S. Post Office refused to mail the novel due to it's perceived Communist sympathies.

It all looks rather silly to a reader of this blog in 2013. A novel being banned because it perhaps, maybe favored one political ideal over another seems rather heavy-handed. In fact, as I read this novel I noted that it was wonderful that we now live in an age in which one's politics will not land one in hot water, least of which a writer. That is until I thought a little harder. We like to assume that political freedom is a hallmark of our post Cold War world. But when we take a closer look, such heavy-handed tactics are still very much in play, though not so much on the literary front. Consider the cases of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. None of them are writers but their particular situations are at least akin to those of Ernest Hemingway's from over a half century ago. By adhering to a political ideal that falls outside the accepted social parameters (ironically, Communism is well within those parameters now, precisely because it has been rendered marginal) they have been demonized, harassed and muzzled.

But I digress. This is not a political blog and I have no intention of making it so.

I do, however, think there is a cautionary tale to be told here. When looking back on the rationale for the banning of For Whom the Bell Tolls we can collectively roll our eyes at the absurdity of the reasoning.As I mentioned earlier, it all seems so silly. So what of today? what of the slew of books banned for excessive violence and/or sex or novels that portray particular religious groups in a negative light? what will we say about these bans twenty, thirty or fifty years from now? Will we look back on the furor over these novels and say to ourselves: "Yeah, we were fighting the good fight and those decisions were right decisions." or will we look back and say: "What the hell were we thinking? That was much ado about nothing."

Given the fact that it has been decades since For Whom the Bell Tolls has provoked the ire of American cultural police, I'm going to assume the latter.

In conclusion, there is never, ever, ever, ever an acceptable reason to ban a book.


The Book Club said...

Good Review. Joined your site. Will wait to read more from you.:)

Sharon Wilfong said...

I thought the book was about a man who lived in his Ivory tower where his political ideologies made sense until he was confronted with the sheer brutality of his ideals being put into practice.

It's interesting that you think that ideas and beliefs aren't suppressed. Try being a Christian and express your beliefs in the public arena.

Ryan said...

I wanted to focus on the reasons for the banning rather than the themes of the novel, otherwise it was going to be a bit of a long post, so I kept the story outline simple.

I purposefully refrained from bringing up religious suppression for the very reason you mention. That (along with graphic sexuality) are the primary reasons why books get banned in 2013 and deserves a post of its own.

I tried to stick to the topic of political suppression, which is more or less disappearing in North America. Politics are mocked, ridiculed and marginalized, yes, but rarely suppressed. Being a communist in America in 2013 would hardly get you in hot water. You'd simply be ignored.

Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary Ryan.

Though I would quibble a bit with just how much Communist ideas might be tolerated in America these days. This work was relatively subtle, but I could see a local school board coming under pressure to ban a work that more overtly advocated for the belief system.

It has been a few years since I read this one. It was indeed a very powerful work.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

Awesome. Thanks Ryan your post is fantastic and well worth the wait :)

Laurel-Rain Snow said...

I recently watched the movie J. Edgar, and was reminded of the Communist fears that plagued us, as a country, back in the day. Even as recently as the 1950s, these were very real fears for some.

I don't recall much about the political overtones of Hemingway's book, having read it when I was quite young...but I loved his prose.

Your explanation was interesting, but this part?

"As the years progress and the Baby Boomers fade into cultural obscurity ..." OMG! Could it happen? lol

Thanks for sharing.

Ryan said...


You know, I'm not even so sure. If the Boomers can hang on until the advent of Singularity, we may have to endure them forever. Egads!

Ryan said...

@Brian Joseph. I just don't see a school board banning the Communist Manifesto in 2013. Harry Potter, yes. Das Kapital... so very unlikely. Politics just aren't the threat to national security they once were. Religion, on the other hand...

Lisa said...

Very true that what seems a threat in one time and place may seem ridiculous in another.

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