In the '30s Ernest Hemingway expounded the mystique of bullfighting in Death in the Afternoon. It was a best-seller too, but the Green Hills of Africa, in which Hemingway expounded the mystique of big-game hunting, showed a falling off. The depression was on; strident voices were asking when Ernest Hemingway was going to become socially conscious. He kept on boxing, riding, hunting, fishing, did not say.
Some feared that the legend of Hemingway virility was about to develop into a new Byronism. Quipped Westbrook Pegler: "Ernest Hemingway--the fur-bearing author. . . ." Critic Bernard De Voto observed. "So far none of Ernest Hemingway's characters has had any more consciousness than a jaguar." Critic Max Eastman wrote his Bull in the Afternoon, one day traded blows with angry Author Hemingway in the most diverting literary brawl since Theodore Dreiser punched Sinclair Lcwis. There was a feeling abroad that Hemingway was a little too obsessed with sex, a little too obsessed with blood for the sake of blood, killing for the sake of killing. Even his admirers wondered where he was going to find another experience big enough to make him write another A Farewell to Arms. If ever he did, they thought, he would produce another great book. They misunderstood Hemingway's apparent obsession with killing, forget that the dominant experience of this age is violent death.
In 1936 Hemingway found the great experience--The Spanish Civil War. This week he published the great novel--For Whom the Bell Tolls. He took the title from a passage by Preacher Poet John Donor: "No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, . . . any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."
For Whom the Bell Tells is I) a great Hemingway love story; 2) a tense story of adventure in war; 3) a grave and somber tragedy of Spanish peasants fighting for their lives. But above all it is about death. The plot is simple, about a bridge over a deep gorge behind Franco's lines. Robert Jordan, a young American International Brigader, is ordered to blow up the bridge. He must get help from the guerrillas who live in Franco's territory. The bridge must be destroyed at the precise moment when a big Loyalist offensive begins. If the bridge can be destroyed, the offensive may succeed. If the offensive succeeds, the struggle of the human race against fascism may be advanced a step. The courage of the Spanish peasants is linked to the fate of all mankind.