Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell were clearly polar opposites. Hemingway had much more plush circumstances owing to a rich wife; Orwell by turns was subsisting with his wife on an almost all-potato diet. But ideologically Hemingway claimed Orwell on the basis of the latter’s attack on Stalinist duplicity in Spain. But the history of both men’s experiences in 1930s Spain said otherwise.
Their one and only meeting accentuated both men’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War. In recently liberated France in 1945, Ernest Hemingway reported soothing George Orwell as he would a mental patient. Instead of a drink, he calmed the author’s fears “the communists were going to assassinate him,” by loaning him a broken pistol.
Hemingway’s apathy and Orwell’s seeming paranoia reflect their different experiences a decade before in Loyalist Spain. Hemingway was feted there as a celebrity, given plentiful food and gasoline; stateside, the CPUSA praised his worst books, To Have and Have Not and The Fifth Column, and distributed them at Party-sponsored events. Only with the ambivalent treatment they received in For Whom the Bell Tolls did the Stalinists at home and abroad castigate him, and only in print.
Orwell, on the other hand, had an entirely different reception. Distrusted from the start by the CP recruiters because of the anti-Stalinist nature of The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), he was shuffled off to a Trotskyite regiment, wounded by a fascist bullet, and then branded a “fascist” traitor by the CP in Spain.
Orwell was also marked as a spy to be rounded up along with others such as the doomed Andres Nin, head of the POUM, who were tortured to death by the Stalinists seeking to import the purged trials.
“Something will defeat you,” Winston Smith said through cracked leaps to O’Brien watching him drop incriminating documents down the memory hole. Orwell believed to his dying day that a true history of the Spanish Civil War could never be written because documents were either falsified or destroyed. But Big Brother was a good record-keeper. Declassified documents from the Kremlin showed that Stalin had urged a massive purge of Trotskyite elements in Spain and that Orwell and his wife, Eileen, were labeled with that certain death sentence as Trotskyite sympathizers.
Orwell must have known how close he came to the bullet in the back of the head. Indeed, decades later, while in his own self-imposed exile in Barnhill, Orwell feared that similar fate that befell another exile, Leon Trotsky, who also was writing.
Hemingway, on the other hand, spent another decade traveling and, at the same time, fighting off the personal demons that would ultimately kill him. But he had not learned enough from the Spanish experience to make him twice shy when another people’s revolution occurred, this time with Castro in Cuba. The difference may lie in who was marked and who was a celebrity but it may also boil down to personality; both Hemingway and Orwell had streaks of brutality in their nature, but only one tried to master this side, while the other defended it in life and in print as the stuff of “grace under pressure.”