The Dangers of Populism in All The King’s Men

“Mason city. To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new” (opening lines)

In an age where populist demagoguery has once again captured the hearts of the American voter, it has been illuminating for me to sit down and read the classic novel All The King’s Men, which is loosely based on the career of Huey Long, the notorious governor of Louisiana in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, the story of Huey Long bears striking resemblance to our own political epoch.

About Huey Long
Huey “Kingfish” Long came from Northern Louisiana, a rural section of the state where populist resentments were strong against the more prosperous southern cities of Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Lafayette. Long was a former traveling salesman, a failed businessman, and a higher education drop-out. He attended a few different colleges before being admitted to the state bar in Louisiana. As a lawyer he began litigating a series of lawsuits against big monied interests and even won a notorious Supreme Court case against the Standard Oil Company which spurred him into politics. He won a landslide victory as Governor of Louisiana in 1928 under the slogan “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown” -a phrase he borrowed from an earlier 19th century American populist, William Jennings Bryan. Long took his “kingfish” moniker from the Amos & Andy radio program.

At the time Louisiana’s infrastructure, education, literacy, poverty, and healthcare were all atrocious. Yet it was also the height of the economic expansion before the bubble was set to burst in 1929. Few people in Louisiana had felt the effects of the financial growth. At the time Louisiana was dominated by the Democratic “Old Regulars” who largely held sham elections. They echoed the familiar old “Lost Cause” narrative of the Confederacy and mainly pursued policies that favored the planter class. When Huey Long entered the scene he was a different kind of Democrat. He modeled himself on being a righteous ‘defender of the common man.’ Politically, he promoted an ambitious progressive redistribution agenda (he criticized FDR’s New Deal because it did not do enough to support the common man) and yet he also autocratically threatened assassinations and in some cases physically or verbally assaulted his political opponents. Nothing was too low brow for Huey Long. He held raucous rallies throughout the state and dealt with hecklers violently. He wore white linen suits and often relied on insult-lobbing in order to bulldoze the opposition. The mud-slinging was ceaseless. He lambasted the media which rightly criticized him for staging mass firings and promoting blatant nepotism. In response, Long created his own newspaper which was more favorable to his public image. He took a publicly neutral stance on the Ku Klux Klan, which had risen to prominence in Louisiana at the time, yet he also avoided the standard race-baiting tactics of other Southern politicians. His focus was squarely on economic concerns for the downtrodden people of Louisiana.

In his best moments, Long is fondly remembered for his massive public works projects such as the construction of Louisiana’s first highway system and the provision of free textbooks for students. In truth, his policies did a lot of good things for Louisiana’s poor and dispossessed. However, at his worst Long was a political boss whose tactics were outrageous and Machiavellian. He was impeached in the Louisiana state house for disregard of decorum and perceived dictatorial ambitions. Predictably, he decried the impeachment effort as a hoax sponsored by elites and corporations. Politically, he supported a wealth tax, a “Share Our Wealth” initiative, and he was an advocate of massive federal spending and stimulus. He issued mass firings, often erratically threatening people who disagreed with him, and he publicly argued with his own state Attorney General. He hired state convicts to raze the governor’s mansion and build a new one fashioned in the image of the White House (he hoped it would prepare him for his own future presidential ambitions). As with most populists, Huey Long was first and foremost concerned with his own pride. His impeachment, which was in part connected to his efforts to raise taxes on Standard Oil, led to a massive unruly brawl in the state house. He privately admitted fear of being convicted in the state senate but was saved thanks to a group of political allies who publicly pledged to vote “not guilty” regardless of evidence against him. Following the impeachment trial, Long aggressively campaigned against his enemies, and he continued his public rallies where he prided himself almost exclusively on the applause of the mob. His term as Governor ended when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, however he still refused to relinquish his gubernatorial powers to the Lieutenant Governor. It caused a very public stand-off and, amazingly Huey Long’s tenure ended with a minor insurrection. Does any of this sound familiar? Long’s legacy remains controversial to this day. Opinions on Huey Long vary, some ranking him among either the best or the worst governors in American history.

At the end of his term as governor Huey Long was elected to the U.S. Senate. However, he continued his highly controversial tactics, and his firebrand style of populism was even perceived as a threat to FDR. Huey Long’s career ended when he was assassinated in 1935 at the Louisiana state capital where he was attempting to gerrymander a district against a political opponent. The son-in-law of his opponent approached Huey Long and shot him point-blank in the torso. The blast killed him.

All The King’s Men
In All The King’s Men, Willie Stark is the embodiment of Huey Long. He is a bombastic reformer whose values are challenged when he begins employing morally ambiguous tactics in order to enact long-promised reforms. The fascinating contradiction is that Willie must use illicit means to gain power in the hopes of securing beneficence. Does he ultimately achieve a greater good? The novel remains somewhat elusive and it mainly examines Willie Stark’s career through a glass darkly. Lord Acton’s famous maxim comes to mind in this novel, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Throughout the novel, Willie and his minions are ruled by their own ambitions, while clinging to power in a godless world where justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.

Robert Penn Warren was always troubled by the comparisons between Huey Long and Willie Stark, but the comparison is nevertheless fitting despite there being a few minor differences. Whereas Huey Long’s political career was launched by a devastating flood, Willie Stark (a.k.a. “the boss”) is vaulted into a politics by an accident at a children’s school. Both men share a spectacular start to their respective political careers, only to find an equally devastating downfall.

The novel is told from the perspective of Jack Burden, a former political reporter who becomes Willie Stark’s morally conflicted right-hand man. As a good newspaperman, Jack reflects on his time with Willie Stark and he wonders –was there some underlying principle that made it all happen? Near the outset of the novel, Jack recalls Willie’s ability to speak to a crowd: “You saw the eyes bulge suddenly, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You knew something had happened inside him, and thought, it’s coming.” In the early parts of the novel we find “the boss” stumping through a small town, connecting with ordinary people, posing for carefully constructed photo ops. We also see him berate people, harass the news media, and threaten a judge (Judge Irwin). But this is not just any judge. This particular judge supports an impeachment effort against Willie and the situation puts Jack in a compromising position –mainly because Judge Irwin is one of Jack’s childhood family friends.

Jack hails from an upper class bubble known as Burden’s Landing, a place that seems to be immune from the problems facing the state. Throughout the novel Jack offers lengthy reflections on life and family, as well as his failed attempt at a doctorate and marriage, both of which he suddenly abandons. He works for “the boss” neither for love nor money, so why does he remain? In a way, Willie Stark gives meaning to Jack’s lawless, licentious, and amoral life. When the boss asks him to dig up dirt on Judge Irwin, Jack begins describing himself as a ‘historical researcher’ who hunts down anything on the good judge because “there is always something…” After considerable sleuthing, Jack discovers that early in Judge Irwin’s career, he bribed his way into a job at the electric company that pushed out an older man out who then killed himself in order to offer an insurance windfall to his sister. Jack traces this information to a letter kept by the deceased man’s sister.

Sometimes stories are started and then continued later in the novel. Examples include Jack’s childhood memories, attending graduate school (only to drop-out), his romance with a girl named Anne Stanton (which falls apart), his friendship with Anne’s brother Adam Stanton, and their father the former Governor (predecessor to Willie Stark), Jack’s attendance at law school, and his ‘perfectly adjusted’ marriage to Lois which Jack also abandons –“Good-bye, Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you.” The background of Jack Burden unfolds in a non-linear, dream-like fashion. One of the best reflections in the novel is when Jack offers details of his ancestors’s and their role in 19th century American slavery as well as the Confederacy during the Civil War. This chapter is mostly focused on Jack’s great-uncle, Cass Mastern. In many ways, Jack Burden is still living in the great waning shadow of his ancestor, Cass Mastern.

In the end, Jack returns to the home of Judge Irwin to reveal the dirt he has discovered, but even the noble judge had forgotten his own mistakes -at least at first. Both Jack and the Judge share certain things in common. They have both lived according to their own set of morals in order to secure promising lives for themselves, however there is a certain quality of virtue in Judge Irwin that we see lacking in Jack. After Jack leaves Judge Irwin’s house, the judge shoots himself through the heart. He prefers an honorable death to the life of shame and disgrace. Shortly thereafter, Jack discovers from his mother that Judge Irwin was, in fact, his true father. Thus in an indirect way, Jack has killed his own father.

Not long after the judge’s suicide, Willie Stark is also assassinated at the State Capitol rotunda by none other than Jack’s childhood friend, Adam Stanton, who has discovered an affair between Willie Stark and his sister, Anne Stanton. All The King’s Men becomes an exploration into the nature of evil and corruption in politics –when all are guilty, none are above reproach. Thus there are remarkable dangers inherent in populist leaders. And behind every noble king is a knave (or a “hatchet man”) like Jack Burden.

Interestingly enough, I enjoyed the 1949 film version of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel more than the book itself (click here to read my review of the 1949 film). The story of the downfall of Willie Stark is dark and compelling –impressive in scope– but stylistically the novel descends from a particular Faulknerian modernist strain that can be a challenge to track for the less sophisticated reader (like myself). It contains long wandering diatribes that have a tendency to burden the reader with too much abstraction. I wanted to enjoy reading All The King’s Men far more than I actually did while reading it.


Here are some memorable quotations from the novel that should hopefully offer a glimpse of Robert Penn Warren’s verbose style:

“It [the boss’s house] looked like those farmhouses you ride by in the country in the middle of the afternoon, with the chickens under the trees and the dog asleep, and you know the only person in the house is the woman who has finished washing up the dishes and has swept the kitchen and has gone upstairs to lie down for half an hour and has pulled off her dress and kicked off her shoes and is lying there on her back on the bed in the shadowy room with her eyes closed and a strand of her hair still matted down on her forehead with the perspiration. She listens to the flies cruising around the room, then she listens to your motor getting big out on the road, then it shrinks off into the distance and she listens to the flies. That was the kind of house it was” (33).

“…maybe you cannot ever really walk away from the things you want most to walk away from” (66).

“…it is possible that fellows like Willie Stark are born outside of luck, good or bad, and luck, which is what about makes you and me what we are, doesn’t have anything to do with them, for they are what they are from the time they first kick in the womb until the end. And if that is the case, then their life history is a process of discovering what they really are, and not, as for you and me, sons of luck, a process of becoming what luck makes us” (94).

“For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying” Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go when you grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go. It was just where I went” (405-406).

“…there is innocence and a new start in the West, after all” (468).

“So by the summer of this year, 1939, we shall have left Burden’s Landing.
We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among trees as soundlessly as smoke. But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time”
(661 -closing lines).


The novel’s title is taken from “Humpty-Dumpty,” an old English nursery rhyme that can be traced to the reign of Richard III or Cardinal Wolsey in 16th century England. At any rate, the title is linked to the theme of political rise and subsequent corruption followed by a spectacular fall from grace.

The novel originated in 1936 as a play by Robert Penn Warren called Proud Flesh. In the play, the character of Willie Stark is replaced by Willie Talos (whose name is based on the brutal character of Talus in Edmund Spenser’s 1590 play, The Faerie Queene). Penn Warren called his Talos character “the pitiless servant of the knight of justice” and “the kind of doom that democracy may invite upon itself.” Ten years after the 1936 play was published, Penn Warren published All The President’s Men, his signature novel. Nearly a half century later, Noel Polk, a Southern academic, took it upon himself to create a “restored” edition of the novel in which Willie Stark is replaced with Willie Talos. The new edition caused quite a stir among literary critics. Apparently it contained significant departures in style from the original. Writing in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates offered the following critique of the revised version:

“…the 1946 text, for all its flaws, is superior to the ‘restored’ text, which primarily restores distracting stylistic tics and the self-consciously mythic name Willie Talos, which Warren had dropped in favour of the more plausible Willie Stark.

That Robert Penn Warren, novelist, poet, essayist, and shrewd literary critic, not only approved the original 1946 edition of his most famous novel but oversaw numerous reprintings through the decades, including a special 1963 edition published by Time Inc with a preface by the author, and did not ‘restore’ any of the original manuscript, and did not resuscitate ‘Willie Talos,’ is the irrefutable argument that the 1946 edition is the one Warren would wish us to read.

That Noel Polk should make a project of ‘restoring’ a text in this way, and that this text should be published to compete with the author-approved text, is unconscionable, unethical, and indefensible.”


The 1947 Pulitzer Prize
1947 was the last year the Pulitzer Prize category was awarded for the best “Novel.” From 1948 onward the title was changed from “Novel” to “Fiction.”

The 1947 Novel Jury was composed of three returning jurists from the previous year. The Jurists were: John Chamberlain, a memorable book reviewer who worked for a variety of publications throughout his career including The New York Times, TIME Magazine, Life, Fortune, Scribner’s, Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, and others. He taught Journalism at Columbia University. The other two Novel Jurists were: Maxwell S. Geismar, a Columbia alumnus and teacher at Harvard who became a famous literary critic for a variety of publications including The New York Times Book Review, The New York Herald Tribune, The Nation, The American Scholar, The Saturday Review of Books, The Yale Review, The Virginia Quarterly, Encyclopedia Britannica and Compton’s Encyclopedia (he also penned a notoriously belligerent critique of Henry James). The third member of the 1947 Novel Jury was Orville Prescott, an esteemed book reviewer for The New York Times for 24 years whose tastes generally leaned toward more conservative novels (i.e. against the grain of Valdimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar). He was a highly regarded book reviewer who became a historian of the Italian Renaissance in his later life.


About Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren (1904-1989) was a fascinating Southern man of letters. He is the only writer to win a Pulitzer in the categories of both Fiction and Poetry (he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice). He also won a variety of honors in his lifetime including the Bollingen Prize (a biannual poetry award issued by the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University), the Robert Frost Medal (a poetry award issued by the Poetry Society of America), Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (now known as the Poet Laureate), the National Book Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a MacArthur Fellow, the National Medal of Arts, the three aforementioned Pulitzer Prizes, and he delivered the distinguished Jefferson Lecture in 1974 at the invitation of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Robert Penn Warren was born along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. He attended Vanderbilt University and UC Berkeley. He also studied at Yale where he became a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford and receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship. In his early writing career, Penn Warren was associated with the “Southern Agrarians,” a group of writers who extolled the virtues of the agrarian south but he later distanced himself from any defense of racial segregation. He openly defended the Civil Rights Movement. Penn Warren is also often associated with the “New Criticism” movement, a philosophy that encouraged careful close readings of classic texts (the movement was sadly cast into the ash heap with the advent of modern critical theory).

He taught for years at Vanderbilt University and Louisiana State University. Today his home has been converted into a museum known as the Robert Penn Warren House in Prairieville, Louisiana. He was married twice and had two children. In his later years he fled the South and lived in Vermont and Connecticut. He died of prostate cancer in 1989.


Penn Warren, Robert. All The President’s Men. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York, New York, 1946 (reprinted in 1974).

Information on Huey Long was provided by several sources, including Ken Burns’s 1986 documentary entitled “Huey Long,” narrated by David McCullough and featuring interviews with a variety of people including Robert Penn Warren.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

The Meaning of Innocence in To Kill A Mockingbird

“‘…before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience'” (105).

I have always loved To Kill A Mockingbird. It is a gentle and compassionate novel confronting a difficult subject matter -the issue of racism in America. As I re-read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the first time in my adult life, the national press was once again afire with the issue of racism. Several widely publicized incidents of police violence against black Americans spawned widespread protests, the scale of which was unparalleled since the 1960s. This has been a time of reflection for a great many people. Similarly, To Kill A Mockingbird was published on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement in 1960: it was published not long after the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts (1955-1956), among other instances of civil disobedience. Like other great books of the Western tradition, such as Aeschylus’s Oresteia or Plato’s Apology of Socrates, To Kill A Mockingbird uses a courtroom drama to explore the question of justice.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a novel told in two parts. Part I patiently sets the scene. While reading, I imagined hearing the story from the novel’s protagonist, Scout. I pictured her reminiscing about the old days while gently rocking back and forth on her Alabama porch, perhaps sipping a mint julep. Harper Lee’s beautiful cadence invites us into the fictional small town of Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression years of the early ’30s. It is a dusty, rural town in Southern Alabama based on Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. The first half of the book offers a series of vignettes spanning several years in the life of six-year old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. She amusingly offers reflections on misadventures with her brother, Jeremy “Jem” (based on Harper Lee’s older brother, Edwin) and family friend, Dill, who visits Maycomb during the summers (Dill is loosely based on Harper Lee’s childhood friend and fellow author, Truman Capote).

The three children: Scout, Jem, and Dill play games in the neighborhood, especially at the end of the street where the dilapidated Radley house stands. The Radley’s son, colloquially called “Boo Radley,” lives inside the house in isolation from the world. The children find him fascinating and mysterious. One night, the children narrowly escape from the Radley home in a dangerous effort to catch a glimpse of Boo Radley, and in another case the children find toys and bubblegum hidden inside the knot of a nearby tree. Along the way we meet the neighborhood ladies: Miss Maudie, Miss Stephanie Crawford, and Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose -an aging widow who has a morphine addiction, but her addiction is unwittingly overcome shortly before her death by Jem and Scout. In another vignette, the children travel with their black housemaid, Calpurnia, to her church and learn about the differences between white and black people in Alabama. Dill and Scout promise to get married one day, while Jem rapidly matures hoping to earn the respect of his father, Atticus.

As the novel progresses we become aware of a controversy that has struck Maycomb. The Ewells, a poor white family led by drunken patriarch, Bob Ewell, accuse a black man named Tom Robinson of raping their daughter, Mayella Ewell. The controversy is explicitly racial in nature. The local magistrate, Judge Taylor, appoints Atticus Finch to defend Tom Robinson in the criminal case -an indication of the judge’s sympathy for the defendant. Many in town begin to publicly scorn Atticus and his children for defending a black man. At one point a lynch mob visits Tom Robinson’s prison to kill him, but they are stopped when Jem and Scout intervene. The innocence of children has a pacifying effect on people. It saves Tom Robinson (and also Atticus) from a potentially violent scenario.

“Scout… every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change” (76).

Part II of To Kill A Mockingbird focuses on the trial of Tom Robinson. It takes place on a hot summer day. The children sit in the upper balcony with the black citizens and they watch Atticus cross-examine the witnesses. They are impressed with their father’s demeanor and temperament. Atticus is a good man who always does the right thing. Despite no evidence to convict Tom Robinson, and in fact evidence to the contrary (namely Tom Robinson’s defective left arm), the jury still unanimously finds Tom guilty. The trial ends in tragedy -a gross miscarriage of justice.

In the end, Bob Ewell vows vengeance on Atticus. He dramatically attacks Scout and Jem in a particularly terrifying scene on Halloween night. During the course of their tussle, an unknown assailant comes to their rescue. Bob Ewell winds up dead with a knife stuck in him, and Jem is carried away with a broken arm. We soon discover the anonymous man to be Arthur “Boo” Radley, a pale-faced and child-like man. It was he who left those gifts for the children in a tree-hole many years ago. At the Finch house, a small crowd gathers at Jem’s bedside until Boo Radley gently whispers to Scout to walk him home. When they get back to his home he quickly enters, shuts the door, and Scout never sees him again. She reflects on the life of Boo Radley in contrast to the life of the children playing outside in her neighborhood. She remembers the words Atticus once said:

“…you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” (279).


In To Kill A Mockingbird the serious subjects of racism, rape, and injustice are contrasted with the light-hearted and innocent perspective of the children. All three children, Scout, Jem, and Dill, are not fully aware of the gravity of the situation unfolding around them. By bringing readers into the eyes of children the novel asks us to look beyond our prejudices and recall our own childhood, and in doing so, to seek out the better angels of our nature. Youthful innocence and adult severity are brought together in the character of Arthur “Boo” Radley, who is an adult yet child-like recluse. At first, he is frightening and mysterious, but by the end of the story he is a hero. The difference is that we come to understand him, rather than fear him. The notion of childlike innocence is further alluded to in the novel’s title. Mockingbirds are referenced perhaps only once or twice in the novel, but they are shown to be respected creatures because they are harmless. They merely offer songs for other people to enjoy. According to Atticus it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, in other words, it is a sin to destroy innocence in the world:

“Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird'” (90).

The dedication at the outset of the novel reads to “Mr. Lee and Alice in consideration of Love & Affection” and an epigraph from English essayist and poet, Charles Lamb: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.”


To Kill A Mockingbird Controversies
As with many other Pulitzer-Prize winning novels, like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (read my reflections on the novel here) or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind (read my reflections on the novel here), Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was ensconced in controversy upon its release. It was criticized by many as immoral or obscene for its colorful use of racial epithets and its controversial content. Many schools boards, particularly in the American South, attempted to ban the book -most notoriously in Hanover County, VA, until public outcry reversed the decision. Harper Lee, herself, wrote a letter to the school board expressing disappointment at their decision (she questioned whether or not any of the board members could, in fact, read). Over the years since its publication there have been numerous attempts to ban the book from American libraries. In 2016, To Kill A Mockingbird, along with Huckleberry Finn, was removed from a school library in Virginia, and in 2017 a school board in Mississippi removed To Kill A Mockingbird from its longstanding position in the elementary school’s curriculum. Thankfully, free speech and free inquiry advocates continue to push back against censorship at American schools and libraries. Recently, To Kill A Mockingbird won PBS’s “Great American Read” for favorite American novel by the general public.

The 1961 Pulitzer Prize Decision
For the Pulitzer Prize decision in 1961 there were only two members of the Fiction Jury: John Barkham, a South African by birth who became an American book reviewer at publications including TIME, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Post and others. John Barkham served on many Pulitzer juries in the categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, and Biography over a period of approximately 20 years. The other Fiction Juror in 1961 was Irita Van Doren, a former editor of The Nation and a book reviewer at The New York Herald Tribune Books. She was formerly married to Carl van Doren, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Ben Franklin in 1939. In her later years she ran in many literary circles while developing a deep fascination with Southern literature. She led a storied life that included a secret romantic affair with Wendell Willkie, Republican presidential nominee in 1940.


About Harper Lee
Nelle Harper Lee (1926-2016) published only two novels during her lifetime: To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) and Go Set A Watchman (2015). She chose “Harper Lee” as her nom de plume because she was afraid of being misidentified as “Nellie.”

She was born in Monroeville, Alabama, the youngest of four children. Growing up, she became close friends with Truman Capote (he was actually the basis for the character “Dill” in To Kill A Mockingbird, and in return Truman Capote based a character in his first novel on Harper Lee). She studied law at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, but much to her father’s chagrin, she dropped out one semester before graduating. Harper Lee was generally considered the bohemian of the family while her older sister, Alice, pursued a legal career.

In 1949, Harper Lee moved to New York City to become a writer while working various odd-jobs, such as an airline reservation agent or a bookstore clerk. In her spare time she wrote stories. She moved into a townhouse at 50th East Street and her friends offered a years worth of wages to free up her time to write. She lived near her old friend Truman Capote, and traveled with him to Kansas while researching the story of a small town murder that eventually turned into his magnum opus, In Cold Blood. Eventually, Harper Lee grew apart from Truman Capote as his lifestyle became more flamboyant and hers drew further inward. By 1957, Harper Lee submitted a manuscript for publication entitled Go Set A Watchman, but it was not entirely ready so she re-worked it for several years and eventually retitled it To Kill A Mockingbird. It was a long and grueling process of editing and re-editing (at one point a tearful Lee apparently tossed her manuscript out a second story window into the snow before her editor phoned her up and calmly reassured her of the process). Harper Lee’s editor was Therese “Tay” von Hohoff of the publishing house, J. B. Lippincott (later acquired by HarperCollins).

When To Kill A Mockingbird was finally published it was an extraordinary success. Lee’s celebrity rapidly grew out of control and she worked hard to protect her anonymity. Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, became her attorney. They lived together, both unmarried, and filed for an unlisted telephone number to prevent the growing requests for interviews (Harper Lee denied nearly every interview). She preferred to live a private life. However, it is not fair to call her a recluse. Lee merely enjoyed her quiet and frugal existence far away from the spotlight. She was content to view herself as the Jane Austen of the American South, as well as a documentarian of the American small town -a vanishing way of life in contemporary society.

When Universal Pictures purchased the movie rights to her novel, Harper Lee helped with the script and casting for the film. During the process she grew particularly close with Gregory Peck, whose granddaughter was later named in honor of Harper Lee. The film was released in 1962 to great acclaim.

Harper Lee lived a lengthy and mostly anonymous life, all while collecting numerous awards over the decades for To Kill A Mockingbird, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of the Arts, and numerous literary and collegiate merits. She spent a few months every year in New York, but most of her life was happily spent in Monroeville. She lived with her sister, Alice, and together they made weekly trips to David’s Catfish Cabin for seafood. Harper Lee had many friends and was apparently a delightfully funny person.

A sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird was controversially published in 2015 entitled Go Set a Watchman. Apparently the novel tells the story of Scout twenty years later as she returns to Maycomb from New York only to find Atticus an older man who has grown more bigoted and disappointing (he expresses certain sympathies for the Ku Klux Klan). Much of the novel was an early draft of To Kill A Mockingbird that was mysteriously discovered by publishers. Upon its publication there was a media firestorm. HarperCollins was criticized for allegedly taking advantage of Harper Lee, an 89 year-old woman with impaired eyesight and hearing loss. The decision to publish went against her many decades of resistance. To make matters worse, Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, who was her sole caregiver and attorney, died shortly before HarperCollins was granted permission to publish the book.

Harper Lee died in her sleep on February 19, 2016 in Monroeville, Alabama at age 89. She never married and she never had any children.


Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. Warner Books, December, 1982.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

The Writer’s Endurance: The Old Man and the Sea

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish” (opening line).

The Old Man and the Sea is a rich and deep novella about an old fisherman named Santiago and his Herculean efforts to overcome a dry-spell of fishing. Much like the book’s protagonist, Ernest Hemingway was also going through a dry-spell of his own at the time. The Old Man and the Sea was written at a time when Hemingway was believed to be a writer in decline. His last critically praised work was published over a decade prior (For Whom The Bell Tolls in 1940 – read my reflections on For Whom The Bell Tolls and its Pulitzer controversy here). Hemingway had published Across The River And Into The Trees in 1950, his first post-World War II book, and it was mostly panned by critics. By the time The Old Man and the Sea was released, it too was met with skepticism from certain critics. In a word, The Old Man and the Sea was not unlike a great fish captured by an old fisherman only to be torn apart by sharks and dragged into the harbor.

Hemingway dedicated The Old Man and the Sea “To Charlie Scribner And To Max Perkins,” his old friends. Charlie Scribner was the President of the famous New York publishing house Charlie Scribner & Sons, and Max Perkins was Hemingway’s editor (Mr. Perkins was also the editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and other famous writers). Both Scribner and Perkins had passed away before the publication of The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway’s new editor at Scribner was Wallace Meyer. After the lukewarm reception of Across The River and Into The Trees, Hemingway wrote to Mr. Meyer with the hope of reviving his reputation with a new book. When finished, Hemingway said it was “The best I can write ever for all of my life.” After some initial mixed reviews, The Old Man and the Sea elevated Hemingway’s literary reputation to new unparalleled heights. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and in 1954 Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his acceptance speech, which was delivered by John M. Cabot, U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, Hemingway offered a terse assessment of the life of a writer – a solitary experience which compels one to stretch out beyond known horizons. He dedicated his Nobel Prize to the Cuban people, but instead of giving his medal to the Batista government (the military dictatorship in Cuba) Hemingway donated it to the Catholic Church to be placed on display at the El Cobre Basilica, a small town outside Santiago de Cuba.

Hemingway first mentioned the idea for The Old Man and the Sea as early as 1936 in an interview with Esquire Magazine. The inspiration for the story was likely based, in part, on Hemingway’s own fishing boat captain, Gregorio Fuentes, a blue-eyed Cuban fisherman who led a storied life on the ocean. A portion of The Old Man and the Sea was initially published in Life Magazine and even these small snippets became wildly popular. After it was officially published, Hemingway won a string of accolades. The Old Man and the Sea was made into a 1958 movie starring Spencer Tracy (click here to read my review of the film). In later years, a miniseries was aired in the 1990s and a stop-action animation version was also released. It won an Oscar in 1999. I recently watched the animated film and was struck by its beautiful, impressionistic re-telling of the story.


The short novella reads like a fable. Unlike Captain Ahab’s fiendish and maddeningly obsessive quest in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Hemingway’s old man, Santiago, is a sympathetic character. He is hopeful but down on his luck. He is a staunch fan of baseball, and regularly compares himself to the ‘Great Dimaggio,’ or Joe Dimaggio, the famous center fielder for the New York Yankees (1936-1951). Santiago remains undeterred and steadfast in his support of the Yankees even if they lose a game. His commitments are unwavering. He believes in the power and mythos of the ‘Great Dimaggio.’

The other fishermen of Cuba generally do not respect Santiago so he befriends a young boy named Manolin, but Manolin’s parents prevent him from fishing with Santiago because of Santiago’s bad luck. Santiago has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish, branding him unlucky (or a salao, the worst form of unluckiness). Santiago is “thin” and “gaunt” with speckled brown skin and deep blue eyes:

“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated” (10).

Santiago is a reader of newspapers (there are many references to newspapers and baseball games throughout the story). In the story, we are offered little glimpses into Santiago’s upbringing. As a young man, Santiago spent time along the “long golden beaches” of Africa. He now dreams of lions who hunted along those beaches –a memory of his early years growing up along the Canary Islands.

Santiago awakens early in the morning on the eighty-fifth day without a fish and he takes his little skiff out to sea –he loves the sea. He follows a circling bird outward until a huge fish catches his line. Santiago wrestles with the fish (a marlin) for two days and nights as it drags him eastward out to sea. He watches it through the water and cannot believe how big it is (we later learn the fish is 18-feet long). However, unlike Ahab, Santiago has no antipathy toward his catch. In fact, he respects the marlin and refers to him as a brother. Exhausted, he finally catches the marlin by piercing it with a harpoon. As he tows the marlin back to harbor, he also battles and kills several sharks who strike at the best meat of the fish. One wounded shark takes Santiago’s, while the other sharks are struck by Santiago’s knife and oar. When he finally arrives back in the harbor, Santiago’s marlin has been mostly eaten except for his head and tail.

Santiago, sore and fatigued, trudges back to his shack and collapses. The boy, Manolin, awakens Santiago in the morning with coffee and a newspaper. The boy cries at the sight of Santiago’s injured hands. He describes how the townsfolk searched for Santiago when he did not return after two days. Once rested, Santiago decides to donate the head of the marlin to Pedrico, another fisherman, and he offers the skeleton to Manolin so that he may fashion a spear. Nearby, a group of tourists at a cafe gaze upon the great marlin still attached to Santiago’s skiff and they mistake it for a shark. At the end, Santiago falls sleep again and he dreams of the lions on the beaches of Africa.

Below is a collection of some memorable passages I found while reading The Old Man and the Sea:

“The clouds over the land now rose like mountains and the coast was only a long green line with the gray blue hills behind it” (35).

“It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the old man had always considered it so and respected it. But now he said his thoughts aloud many times since there was no one that they could annoy” (39).

“He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But he could see the prisms in the deep dark water and the line stretching ahead and the strange undulation of the calm. The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea” (60-61).


William Faulkner, at the time Hemingway’s greatest literary rival, praised The Old Man and the Sea in the following single paragraph review published in Shenandoah Magazine (a major literary magazine of Washington and Lee University):

“His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.”


Lastly, below is a copy of the text of Hemingway’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1954 (delivered by the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden on account of Hemingway’s poor health):

“Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.

No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.

It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.”

To read my notes on reading The Paris Review’s famous interview with Hemingway (1958) click here.


The 1953 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The Fiction Jury in 1953 consisted of Roy W. Cowden, an English and Creative Writing Professor from the University of Michigan; and Eric P. Kelly, a Dartmouth English professor and author of children’s books –most notably The Trumpeter of Krakow (1929), winner of the Newbury Medal.


Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York, Scribner’s and Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Love and War In For Whom The Bell Tolls

For Whom The Bell Tolls is the novel that was supposed to win Ernest Hemingway his first Pulitzer Prize in 1941. However, like Sinclair Lewis before him, Hemingway was denied the prize by the President of Columbia University. As the story goes, the 1941 Novel Jury recommended several books for the Pulitzer Prize including, but not primarily, For Whom The Bell Tolls. Upon receiving the Jury’s recommendations the Pulitzer Advisory Board favored the critic’s choice For Whom The Bell Tolls. However, before the Board could complete a vote on the matter they were blocked by one man: the President of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler. He was ex-officio Chairman of the Pulitzer Advisory Board and he objected to the ‘lascivious’ content in the novel (Sound familiar? Nicholas Murray Butler also blocked the Pulitzer Prize from being bestowed upon Sinclair Lewis in 1921 for his novel Main Street. Instead, the 1921 prize was awarded to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence).

Why did no member of the Pulitzer Advisory Board stand up to Nicholas Murray Butler? How was he able to railroad the whole process? His story is worth mentioning as he was a fascinating American figure. Nicholas Murray Butler was viewed as something of an autocratic ruler at Columbia University, often wantonly dismissing staff and faculty, prohibiting entry for Jewish students, in a word – he ruled Columbia with an iron first, and yet he was also a respected American statesman. He was the former running mate of William Howard Taft in the Presidential election of 1912. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 along with Jane Addams, for his efforts as President of the Carnegie Endowment For International for Peace. He helped to negotiate peace in Europe using his elite relationships with leaders like Kaiser Wilhelm II. Nicholas Butler Murray was also a popular cultural figure. Each year The New York Times printed his annual Christmas Greeting to the nation. He is recognized today as the longest serving President of Columbia University (43 years), a tenure which first began with his role as Interim President in 1901 before he was officially elected President of Columbia, serving from 1902-1945. So when Nicholas Murray Butler stood in the doorway of the Pulitzer proceedings refusing to move or relent on the Hemingway question while shouting “I hope you will reconsider before you ask the university to be associated with an award for a work of this nature!” -no one dared to stand against him. The full details of the confrontation were later brought to light in 1962 by Arthur Krock, a New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Board member at the time. As a consequence of the fight, no novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1941.

That year, the Novel Jury welcomed a newcomer: Dorothy Canfield Fisher, to replace Robert M. Lovett from the previous year. Dorothy Canfield Fisher is perhaps best known for bringing the Montessori School system to the United States, but she also achieved other important cultural milestones. She was praised by Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the most influential women in America. Alongside Fisher, two veteran Novel Jurists also reprised their roles on the Jury in 1941: Jefferson B. Fletcher (Literature Professor at Columbia University), and Joseph W. Krutch (Literature Professor at Columbia University and naturalist writer). For the Pulitzer Prize the trio also considered several other novels aside from For Whom The Bell Tolls including The Trees by Joseph Conrad, The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Native Son by Richard Wright, and Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. The Jury apparently reluctantly favored The Trees by Joseph Conrad before the Pulitzer Board unilaterally selected For Whom The Bell Tolls until Nicholas Murray Butler blocked its nomination.

Of course, despite being robbed the first time, Hemingway later won the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for The Old Man And The Sea (feel free to read my reflections on The Old Man and the Sea here).


For Whom The Bell Tolls is as tense a novel as it is tender. It is the story of love and war -a soldier’s duty contrasted with a lover’s embrace. The book takes us covertly behind enemy lines during the destructive Spanish Civil War of the 1930s (a war which lasted from 1936-1939). The book spans approximately four days, and within that narrow timeframe a lifetime occurs: we gain a profound and complex glimpse into the nature of heroism and cowardice among ordinary people. Amidst the chaos of war and the looming specter of death, For Whom The Bell Tolls also pulls back the curtain on a budding romance between an American soldier and an innocent Spanish girl.

For context, during the Spanish Civil War, battle lines were drawn between a coalition of conservatives, nationalists, and Catholics, led by the military dictator Francisco Franco; and on the other side, a loose-knit federation of republicans, liberals, communists, and anarchists. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported Franco, while Soviet Russia and Mexico supported the communists, but the United States, England, and France maintained a public stance of neutrality. After years of violence in every major Spanish city, the Spanish Civil War was eventually brought to an end in 1939 with the fascists taking over the country under Francisco Franco. During the war writers like George Orwell pleaded with the West to support the republicans against the fascists (see Homage To Catalonia). The war was later dubbed a “dress rehearsal” for World War II by Claude Bowers, U.S. Ambassador to Spain.

In the novel, Hemingway introduces us to Robert Jordan, a Montana-native and Spanish language professor. Robert Jordan has unfortunately found himself in the midst of the Spanish Civil War while on leave in Spain during the outbreak of the war. He is a volunteer in the International Brigades (a international coalition of fighters organized by communists). During this time Robert Jordan has become an experienced soldier and dynamiter. He is tasked with destroying a key strategic bridge inn order to block supplies and munitions from reaching the fascists through the Sierra de Guadarrama. The order comes from Golz, a Soviet officer.

En route to complete his mission, Robert Jordan encounters an old man named Anselmo who takes Robert Jordan high up into the mountains outside Segovia in central Spain (north of Madrid) where a band of guerrilla warriors is hiding out in a cave from the fascists below. While there, Robert Jordan meets Pablo, a jaded rebel who once led the revolt against fascism but now spends his time ignobly drinking wine and sarcastically deriding the war. He also meets Pablo’s wife, Pilar, a strong-willed woman who serves as the de facto leader of the group in Pablo’s abdication (“Pilar” was a nickname for Hemingway’s third wife, Pauline, and also the name of his fishing boat); a gypsy named Rafael; and several other soldiers like Agustín, El Sordo, Fernando, Andrés, Eladio, Primitivo, and Joaquín. The group exists there by a “miracle” according to El Sordo. The fascists are unaware of their presence. The group quickly grows accustomed to Robert Jordan and they call him “Inglés” or simply “Roberto” (the whole novel is rife with Spanish idioms, including edited obscenities). However, the people in the cave are strange and unfamiliar. All throughout his days in the cave the reader asks: can Robert Jordan really trust these guerrilla fighters? How can we be certain they are not going to sabotage the mission?

The most important character Robert Jordan meets in the cave is María, a young Spanish girl whose town was ravaged by the fascists. She taken alive by the fascists -her hair was hacked off and she was raped, but she was then rescued and cared for by Pilar. Robert Jordan and María quickly strike up a romance, and Pilar essentially gives María to Robert Jordan as his lover with the promise of marriage. Robert Jordan calls María his little “rabbit” and they spend most evenings together in Robert Jordan’s sleeping bag just outside the cave.

While introducing us to the tenderness of Robert Jordan’s new love, the first half of the novel also delivers an extraordinarily tense series of moments. The impending mission to destroy the bridge plagues the reader’s mind. Will the weather be good? Will the fascists retaliate? Will they find the cave before the bridge can be blown? Will Golz call off the mission? Who will die? Who will live? Filled with hope and worry, Robert Jordan hides out with the rebels in the mountains while trying to keep a low profile, careful about what information he reveals. At the same time, skepticism grows regarding Pablo’s loyalties, and Robert Jordan places his faith in Pilar.

Suddenly, Robert Jordan is surprised one morning when an unsuspecting fascist patrolman stumbles onto his outdoor sleeping bag. Robert Jordan quickly leaps up and kills the patrolman. Then a skirmish breaks out across the mountain killing El Sordo’s entire band of fighters. Robert Jordan and the remaining fighters wait a day, and then assault the bridge (undeterred by a momentary lapse of judgment from Pablo when he steals some of Robert Jordan’s explosive equipment in the night, casting it into a ravine. Pablo eventually rejoins the fight in an effort to redeem himself). As the group approaches the bridge, they quietly kill the fascist sentries. Robert Jordan and the old man Anselmo then successfully wire, detonate, and destroy the bridge, but the explosion kills Anselmo along with several others in the process. The remaining guerrillas flee back up into the mountains having completed their mission.

“Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond” (312-313 on the last moments of Sordo’s life during his last stand against advancing fascists before he is killed in a plane raid).

For Whom The Bell Tolls tells the true account of war far greater than mere fact or history: it presents the experience of a soldier in all its complexity. Robert Jordan is a multi-faceted man: he is anxious, confident, distrusting, steadfast, competent, sorrowful, determined, and yet friendly. He is both a lover and a fighter who experiences the great depths of love amidst the heart-pounding threat of war.

“You felt, in spite of all bureaucracy and inefficiency and party strife, something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in the Chartres Cathedral or the Cathedral at Leon and saw the light coming through the great windows; or when you saw Mantegna and Greco and Brueghel in the Prado. It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. It was something you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of duty. But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling and this necessity too. You could fight” (235, on the experience of war).

The question of death, namely what is a good and noble death, also looms large over the novel. Robert Jordan’s father had committed suicide, an act which he considers cowardly. He occasionally reflects on his troubled father throughout the novel. Robert Jordan recalls the story of a compatriot who requested he be shot instead of falling into the hands of the fascists. Instead, Robert Jordan values a man who ends his life fighting without surrender. And Robert Jordan is also contrasted with other characters in the novel, particularly Pablo, who has become cowardly and all-too-comfortable in his hidden cave while drunk in a bowl of wine. Sadly, Pablo’s fear of death has overcome his desire for virtue or honor, and even his own wife does not respect him. In contrast, El Sordo dies bravely in battle. In the end, we are led to believe Robert Jordan dies a good death, as well. Perhaps the most striking moment that discusses a noble versus ignoble death occurs when Pilar recounts the brutal killings of fascists in her town square. Some people go to their death bravely and without fear, while others are weak and cower before the crowd of people.

“‘If you have not seen the day of revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing…'” (106, Pilar sharing a horrific story of anti-fascists, including Pablo, who assassinate sympathetic townsfolk with the fascist cause, one by one. Some die nobly and willingly, while others die in disgrace and dishonor. It is a jarring but instructive scene).

In the end, Robert Jordan ends his life as an honorable man. After blowing up the bridge, and while running back into the mountains, Robert Jordan’s leg is horribly broken in an explosion. He is dragged up to safety by the others but he simply cannot carry on. Knowing his fate, he calmly develops a plan. He says goodbye to his lover, María, and tells Pablo, Pilar, and the others to press on without him. Hemingway dramatically leaves us with this scene in the end: a mortally wounded Robert Jordan waiting beside a tree, feeling his heartbeat against the pine needles on the forest floor, while a fascist cavalry unit turns the corner and Robert Jordan prepares to open fire.

“I have fought for what I believed in for a year now. If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it. And you had a lot of luck, he told himself, to have had such a good life” (467).


Ernest Hemingway was a lifelong lover of Spain, particularly the encierro in Pamplona. He was a supporter of the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War (the anti-fascists) -he served as Chair of the Ambulance Committee for the Medical Bureau of the American Friends of Spanish Democracy. He also publicly supported the Spanish Republic in 1937 when he produced an hour-long pseudo-documentary movie The Spanish Earth together with Jörg Ivens and John Dos Passos (read my review of the film here). Hemingway wrote the script and narrated the film (Orson Welles was originally slated too narrate the film). A beautiful technicolor film version of For Whom The Bell Tolls was released in 1943 (read my review of the film here). Hemingway was also a war correspondent reporting on the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Association (NANA) between 1937-1938. He left Spain for the last time in 1938 and wrote a series of short stories about the Spanish Civil War before setting himself up at the Hotel Sevilla Biltmore in Havana where he began writing For Whom The Bell Tolls. His writing regimen began at 8:30am and continued until 2pm or 3pm, the same practice he had established when writing A Farewell to Arms.

After traveling in Cuba and Montana, he searched for a title for the novel, first turning to the Bible and Shakespeare, before discovering John Donne’s poem “For Whom The Bell Tolls” in the Oxford Book of English Verse:

“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, as well as if a Mannor
of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death
diminishes me me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And
therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

The allusion to John Donne’s poem, which was originally published in 1624 from his presumed deathbed, points us to themes of isolation, death, and the need to belong. The Spanish Civil War offers Robert Jordan the chance to find fraternity and purpose in fighting the threat of fascism. If there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends, then Robert Jordan finds his deepest love on the battlefield of central Spain. His life is an important piece of an intricate puzzle in a worldwide chain of being. The war in Spain is not an island, but rather a part of a broader global conflict set to explode with World War II. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, the idea of war comes to light as a harsh teacher, a bearer of unforgiving truth, a life-affirming cause of brotherhood and meaning in a meaningless world. Love and death have the power to unveil the hidden character of modern man, by testing his prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. War reveals to us the grandeur and also the limits of mankind.


About Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) led a fascinating and storied life. He was born in Oak Park, Illinois, a small town outside Chicago. He cut his teeth writing as a journalist for the Kansas City Star in 1917. There, he built his signature writing and editing style: concise, direct, and honest sentences that tell the truth above all else.

Hemingway posing for the original dust jacket of For Whom The Bell Tolls

During the outbreak of World War I, Hemingway became a volunteer ambulance driver for the Red Cross on the Italian front but was wounded and sent home. He married his first wife Hadley Richardson and moved to Paris where he joined a circle of post-war artists and critics: Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and others. In Paris, Hemingway began writing his first collections of poetry and short stories. In 1926, he published his first modernist classic, The Sun Also Rises, a reflection of his years as an expat in France and Spain.

In the late 1920s, Hemingway returned to the United States and published his World War I novel, A Farewell To Arms. He had an affair and divorced his first wife to marry Pauline “Fife” Pfeiffer. He then moved to Key West and Cuba. While traveling widely throughout the world, he wrote books about bullfighting (Death In The Afternoon) and an account of big game hunting in Africa (The Green Hills of Africa). Hemingway had another affair and he left his wife for another woman -he remarried a third time, this time to Martha Gellhorn (he dedicated For Whom The Bell Tolls to Martha Gellhorn).

In the 1930s, Hemingway became an international reporter on the Spanish Civil War, which eventually spawned For Whom The Bell Tolls, and with the growing turmoil in Europe, he hand-delivered the novel manuscript to his publisher Max Perkins at Scribner’s in New York in July 1940 (the book would later be praised by two adversaries and American statesmen: John McCain and Barack Obama). Hemingway then hunted U-Boats in the Caribbean and reported on the European front in World War II. He remarried for the fourth and final time to Mary Welsh who remained with him until his death. In 1952 he wrote The Old Man And The Sea. Shortly thereafter, he won the Pulitzer in 1953 and the Nobel Prize in 1954. At the end of his life, Hemingway’s mental health had deteriorated, particularly after he received electroshock treatment. He killed himself by a self-inflicted shotgun blast in Ketchum, Idaho in 1961 -the same way his father had also died (and the way Robert Jordan’s father died in For Whom The Bell Tolls).

For my full notes on Ernest Hemingway’s life, click here.

To read my reflections upon reading The Paris Review’s famous interview with Hemingway (1958) click here.


Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom The Bell Tolls. New York, Scribner, 2003.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.