by Merritt Clifton
A strong literary argument might be made that while Ernest Hemingway justly regarded Mark Twain as the most influential American author before Hemingway’s own time, Hemingway himself was the most influential American author of the 20th century, chiefly for popularizing the terse writing style that has dominated men’s writing done for mostly male audiences ever since.
Along the way, Hemingway constructed for himself a macho image tinted (and tainted) by his perceived enthusiasm for bullfighting, fishing, wing shooting, and trophy hunting. A case could be made that the “running of the bulls” at Pamplona and even bullfighting itself might have lapsed into history by now without the publicity boost these pursuits received from Hemingway and his legions of imitators.
But Hemingway’s actual attitudes toward bullfighting, fishing, wing shooting, and trophy hunting are no easy read, despite the superficial simplicity of his writing.
From the opening sentence of Death In The Afternoon (1932), the Hemingway opus lauding bullfighting, Hemingway bluntly acknowledged the cruelty of it, with emphasis on the injuries done to horses. Hemingway described his horror at how Greeks evacuating Smyrna in 1922 broke the legs of their pack donkeys and pushed them into the sea to drown, an episode he covered for the Toronto Telegram Syndicate as a young reporter and described again in his 1924 short story On The Quai At Smyrna. Hemingway further recounted his intervention on many occasions (also described by others) to assist downed horses in the streets, and his fondness for dogs and cats––especially cats, who were his desk companions for most of his life.
Hemingway then analyzed why his response to horse injuries in the bullring was not what he had expected it would be, not what he had thought would be in character for him and in keeping with his values, and went on to explore why bullfighting audiences respond to the injuries suffered by the horses quite differently from their response to the suffering and death of the bulls, even laughing as horses are disemboweled.
Hemingway stated that he did not consider horses being disemboweled something to laugh at. Then he explained that in the classic definitions of Greek theatre, one of the venues in which modern bullfighting evolved (chiefly in Minoa), the horses in the bullring are cast in the “comic” role, while the bull’s role is “tragic.” This is a matter of the structure of the event. The bull bravely faces an unavoidable fate; the horses are agents in bringing it about, whose “failure” sets up the final confrontation.
“The tragedy is all centered in the bull and in the man,” observed Hemingway. “The tragic climax of the horse’s career has occurred off stage at an earlier time, when he was bought by the horse contractor for use in the bull ring.”
Hemingway concluded, “I suppose, from a modern moral point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is certainly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it. To do this I must be altogether frank, or try to be, and if those who read this decide with disgust that it is written by some one who lacks their, the readers’, fineness of feeling I can only plead that this may be true. But whoever reads this can only truly make such a judgment when he, or she, has seen the things that are spoken of and knows truly what their reactions to them would be.”
During this discussion, Hemingway also wrote, in one of his most often misrepresented passages, “From observation I would say that people may possibly be divided into two general groups: those who identify themselves with animals, and those who identify themselves with human beings. I believe, after experience and observation, that those people who identify themselves with animals, that is, the almost professional lovers of dogs and other beasts, are capable of greater cruelty to human beings than those who do not identify themselves readily with animals. It seems as though there were a fundamental cleavage between people on this basis, although people who do not identify themselves with animals may, while not loving animals in general, be capable of great affection for an individual animal, a dog, a cat, or a horse, for instance. But they will base this affection on some quality of, or some association with, this individual animal rather than on the fact that it is an animal and hence worthy of love.”
The context of the time is essential. Hemingway then, at age 32, had never had any evident direct association with anyone who was formally involved in humane work. However, as a journalist, Hemingway not only wrote somewhat critically about bullfighting and the Pamplona running of the bulls, three years before writing The Sun Also Rises, but also reported about and warned against the rise of fascism and Nazism.
Hemingway was aware that some of the Nazi leadership espoused anti-vivisectionism and even vegetarianism, as a frequent cover for anti-Semitic activity, and to court foreign support. Hemingway never directly addressed the creeping influence of fascism and Nazism within organized humane work in the 1930s, which he may never have known about, but he recurrently mentioned the hypocrisy of people who purported to gentility, including in pampering pets, while glibly endorsing atrocious social and political policies. In unfavorably commenting about such people, Hemingway sometimes expressly exempted their pets from his judgement.
Death In The Afternoon appeared shortly before the Nazis banned kosher slaughter, in the first of 32 “humane laws” enacted by the Third Reich between 1933 and 1942. Typical were laws that banned cropping the ears of Alsatians, Dobermans, and other “Germanic” breeds, but did not protect other dogs, and which forbade pet-keeping by Jews and gypsies. Most of the Nazi “humane laws” were passed before 1938; many were uncritically lauded by leading humane societies in the U.S., France, Britain, and Switzerland. Several humane societies urged that the Nazis should be emulated, to their later chagrin.
Former Nazi sympathizers remained prominent in animal advocacy for decades––including the anti-vivisectionist Hans Reusch, 1913-2007, who for decades often bitterly attacked Animal Liberation author Peter Singer, born shortly after his parents fled Nazi Germany. Their conflicting backgrounds may either have little or much to do with their differing outlooks. Reusch drove for the Nazi-sponsored Auto Union racing team in 1938. He reputedly influenced the renowned Italian driver Tazio Nuvolari to also drive for Auto Union, which was the original maker of the Volkswagen “beetle,” and may have annoyed Hemingway when his novel The Racer (1953) was favorably mentioned by critics alongside The Old Man & The Sea (1952), which won Hemingway the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Hemingway’s only real success written during his last 21 years, The Old Man & The Sea portrayed killing a large fish as a tragic event, that the killer lived to regret.
Hemingway’s concern about the Nazis and their U.S. and European backers, visible in most of his work during the 1930s and 1940s, is not to be confused with what he might have thought of the modern animal rights movement, which he did not live to see.
Hemingway did state several times his respect for opponents of bullfighting and hunting who practiced vegetarianism, in contrast to his contempt for hypocrisy.
Both Death In The Afternoon and The Green Hills of Africa (1935), about Hemingway’s first African safari, emphasize his view that a man killing an animal should exhibit the same virtues that Hemingway saw in animals who may charge their killers, defending themselves, their mates, and their young. In both books Hemingway addressed aspects of blood sports that he felt were open to moral question.
Certainly the young Hemingway acknowledged much more mixed feelings about harming animals than the middle-aged Hemingway, who after winning the Nobel Prize lapsed into alcoholic self-parody.
Ironically in The Sun Also Rises, about a man who lost his genitals to shrapnel in World War I, Hemingway used the Pamplona bull run as a thematic device to satirize the lengths men will go to in trying to demonstrate manly qualities which might be called into question––lengths that he himself later went to, and beyond.