Written 76 years ago, For Whom The Bell Tolls is Senator John McCain’s favorite novel, also an “inspiration” to Obama.
Toward the end of the Spanish civil war, up in the mountains looking over a steel bridge the American hero Robert Jordan must blow up to stop the Fascist advance on Madrid, he faces certain death on a mission he fatalistically knows is messed up.
Even so, while sighting his machine gun, he engages in a serious political argument with one of his comrade guerrillas, El Primitivo.
Jordan, a former Montana college instructor, lectures Primitivo that the United States isn’t like Spain; democratic change is possible. He cites President Roosevelt’s mild tax reform. Primitivo warns Jordan that any attempt to take money from the American rich will surely make them angry enough to violently revolt, “exactly as the fascists have done here”.
“It is possible,” Jordan says. “Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here.”
“Yes, we will have to fight.”
“But are there not many fascists in your country?”
“There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find out when the time comes.”
In Hemingway’s time American fascists either wore Nazi-like uniforms in street brawls or $1000 suits and stiff collars scheming up at the opulent offices at 23 Wall Street where a small group of J.P. Morgan rich men calling themselves “Sentinels of Liberty” were so envious of Hitler and Mussolini that they plotted to sacrifice part of their fortunes to overthrow the new “socialist” president Franklin D. Roosevelt. They dreamed of molding unemployed war veterans into a “Khaki Shirt” fascist army to take over the White House whose New Deal tax scheme drove them nuts.
With riots in the factories, farmers lynching bailiffs and even Boy Scouts marching in protest against hard times, the rich truly believed they were witnessing their own Last Days, the apocalyptic end of capitalism. They were angry and frightened with a poor sense of reality, although they were astute enough to own or run businesses that, combined, had more assets than the U.S. government they wanted to overthrow.
As far as I know the Koch Brothers have not (yet) given money to Donald Trump in the way that, for example, German “captains of industry” loaded up Hitler with slush funds to finance his path to power.
They too felt existentially threatened by social disorder, economic instability and the absence of Strong Leader who “tells it like it is” to the despairing German masses hungry for jobs and a hatred for the old elite.
For Whom The Bell Tolls was written out of Hemingway’s own despair at Gen. Franco’s fascist victory in his beloved Spain. Critics like to pass lightly over Ernest’s politics. He could be, and was, anti-Semitic (until he married a half Jew), racist (until he fought side by side with African American volunteers in the Lincoln Brigade), sexist (always), and let’s not even think what this most macho of men felt about his youngest transgender son Gregory or Gloria.
But most consistently, in his gut, Ernest was antifascist and on the side of the losers. He knew that US soldiers under General Douglas MacArthur bayoneted starving war-vet Bonus Marchers within sight of the Capitol. And from his Florida house he’d seen hundreds of jobless, messed up war vets drowned in a Matecumbe Key hurricane into which they’d been exiled by FDR to rid himself of potential troublemakers.
Hemingway wrote Bell in the white heat of anguish, rage and the bloody unfairness of it all.
Let’s rewrite Hemingway. After all, this is Hollywood. A Sierra Club mountain climber just died at the age of 103. “What if” by some miracle Robert Jordan had survived the Spanish debacle and was alive today, how would he vote?
(Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.)