July 4, 2012
The Beinecke Library doesn’t have a great Hemingway Collection (most of his material is at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston), but I did find a rare photo, taken in Madrid in 1937, Hemingway with Langston Hughes, Michael Koltyov, and Nicolás Guillén.
Then it dawned on me: no, the picture isn’t there because of Hemingway, it’s there because of Hughes, part of the Langston Hughes Papers. In any case, there they are: two authors stylistically and even politically quite far apart, yet their footsteps overlapping in so many parts of the world, and never more so than during the Spanish Civil War. Many of us know only For Whom the Bell Tolls, but Hughes was there too. He had gone there in 1937 as a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American, traveling with Nicolás Guillén, the Cuban poet who had interviewed him in Havana in 1926, whose collection of poems, Cuba Libre, he would translate in 1949.
In 1937 Hughes and Hemingway were struck by the same phenomenon: the presence of black Africans – Moors – on the enemy side, brought there at the rate of 300 or 400 a day as part of the Fascist war plan. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, the word “Moor” is almost always linked to the word “Gypsy” (another despised group in Spain); in one of the strangest moments in the novel, it’s the occasion for an abrupt flashback to a lynching scene in Oklahoma. Hughes’s account is less edgy, less visibly awkward and agitated, but it too is circuitous. He wrote about it first in a poem – in the form of a letter by a black volunteer in the International Brigades – and then embedded the whole thing in a longer prose piece, “General Franco’s Moors,” the different envelopes perhaps summing up his attitude more than anything else.
Race in the wrong place, on the wrong side: for both Hemingway and Hughes, the result is a contortion of form, triggered by the United States no less than by Spain.