The Spanish Civil War in Literature Analysis

At Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In 1931, thousands of Spaniards danced in the streets celebrating the abdication of the king, Alfonso XIII, and the establishment of a republic. This euphoria was short-lived. The new government, besieged on all sides by bitter partisanship and impossible demands, began to flounder as unrest grew into violence in the streets. The assassination of the Monarchist leader José Calvo Sotelo provided the spark that would lead to three years of brutal civil war, culminating in the victory of the Nationalist forces under the command of General Francisco Franco. The war was a foreshadowing of what was to come in Europe and around the world. The Soviet Union on the Loyalist side, and the Axis powers on the Nationalist side, used Spain as a training ground for men and weapons.

The prelude to the great armies marching through Europe at the end of the decade was ideological warfare whose battles were fought not only in the political arena but also in the literary. Most writers of the 1930’s did not feel free to isolate themselves in any type of ivory tower. Not merely content to have their works mirror society, they wanted, by means of their art, to influence society, preferably to guide it in the direction of greater social commitment and responsibility. Before 1936, however, the political affiliations of various writers were diffused. Some seriously, some not, involved themselves in leftist, even anarchist, movements; most would have simply defined themselves as liberal. The war in Spain changed this condition. It forced them to choose. In overwhelming numbers, writers and artists chose the Loyalist cause. Aligning their own dreams and fears with those of the Republic, they became Loyalists and viewed the Spanish Civil War as a morality play, with good versus evil, capitalists versus peasants and workers, Fascism versus freedom.

American writers were determined to force Spain and the Loyalist cause into the forefront of American consciousness. Rallies were held, petitions were signed, and marches were organized against American nonintervention. Literary journals were flooded with reviews of Spanish literature, and translations such as And Spain Sings (1937) by poets John Peale Bishop and Edna St. Vincent Millay, among others, became the rage. For some, participation was more than empathic, as writers joined medical services or even enlisted in the famous International Brigades, the non-Spanish volunteer soldiers fighting for the Republic.

The War as Literary Symbol

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Some writers, such as Upton Sinclair in No Pasarán! (1937), saw in the causes of the war a vindication of their own ideologies. No Pasarán! (The title refers to the famous Republican response to the siege of Madrid—“They shall not enter!”) is a diatribe against the corruption of international capitalism, whose vast coffers financed the uprising of Franco. In this scenario, the war is seen as the ultimate worker-oppressor class struggle. Helen Nicholson, the Baroness de Zglinitzki, on the other hand, in her one-act play Shelter for the Night (1937) and novel The Painted Bed (1938), is not afraid to describe the war as a holy crusade against the godless tyranny of Communism. Nicholson is almost unique in her open support of Franco. Other Nationalist sympathizers, such as Ezra Pound, who yearned for an aristocratic, monarchist return in Spain, kept silent during the war. Although Nicholson’s politics may have differed from the majority of her fellow writers, she was not alone in perceiving the war as a symbol of the impending annihilation of another world war. Spain, in this context, is seen as the helpless victim of mechanistic, brute forces. This view of the war is common in the literature. The symbol of this devastation, an airplane raining death from the skies, was given horrible historical realization with the destruction of the small Basque town of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe on April 26, 1937. Norman Corwin’s play They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease (1942) was written in direct response to the bombing as were Archibald MacLeish’s drama in verse Air Raid (1938) and William Merrick’s one-act play Forgot in the Rains (1939). Edwin Rolfe, Langston Hughes, Norman Rosten, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Aaron Kramer, and Muriel Rukeyser were among those who used the airplane in their poetry as the central, haunting image of blind fate and destruction.

In Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man at the Bridge,” a peasant tries to flee from Fascist planes, but stops, exhausted, unable to continue. Facing death, his main worry is still his household animals that he has had to leave behind. They are what really matter, not ideologies. The old man’s perspective is also Hemingway’s. Although considered the prototypical Loyalist, and certainly his sympathies were with the Republicans, Hemingway wanted, above all, to describe exactly and graphically what was happening to his beloved Spain. Spain, the real protagonist of his works that deal with the civil war, is seen as the victim of violence and betrayal.

Hemingway, a correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance, wrote during the war...

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Implications for Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Spanish Civil War, the great cause of a generation, was the turning point for many writers. Not only did it serve as a focus and symbol upon which to base their literary works, but it forced them to confront, and sometimes question, the political and philosophic assumptions of their professional and personal lives. They came to be identified with certain ideological positions, and the war was their challenge to act. Some did, and went to Spain to fight or to serve in medical or other service organizations. Others wrote or were politically active to espouse their cause. A few writers’ works were open propaganda, but in most cases, no matter what the political bent, writing on the Spanish Civil War became inextricably mingled with reflections on social commitment and individual action. The war triggered an identity crisis for a generation and, for many writers, the tragedy of Spain became a personal defeat. Nine years after the fall of the Republic, Albert Camus would write that his generation carried Spain within their hearts like an “evil wound,” because it was there that “men learned that one can be right and yet be beaten.”


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Benson, Frederick R. Writers in Arms. New York: New York University Press, 1967. Discussion of how the Spanish Civil War galvanized the literary world of the 1930’s. Contains a good chronology of the war and an extensive bibliography.

Brenan, Gerald. The Spanish Labyrinth. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1943. Invaluable for its insights into the causes and consequences of the war.

French, Warren. The Social Novel at the End of an Era. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966. Places writers such as Hemingway and Dos Passos in the political and social context of their time.

Gibon, Ian. The Assassination of Federico García Lorca. London: W. H. Allen, 1979. Historical research into the senseless murder by Nationalists of the famous dramatist and poet.

Guttman, Allen. The Wound in the Heart: America and the Spanish Civil War. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1962. Excellent introduction to the literary and political debate in the United States about the war.

Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1961. The definitive and most readable account of the war. Indispensable for an understanding of the politics behind the literature.

Waldhorn, Arthur. A Reader’s Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972. An analysis of the writings of the American most closely associated with the war.