Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Stephen Spender on the Last Good War, but We'll Never Know

From Bruce Jackson, The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009. Project MUSE. Web. 19 Aug. 2015.

While a graduate student Jackson had occasion to drive Stephen Spender to the airport. On the way they chatted about this and that, including the Spanish Civil War, which had occasioned Picasso's Guernica and a good bit of Hemingway (pp. 41-42):
I didn’t tell Spender about my fascination with Guernica or my affection for the Weavers, but I did tell him about John O. McCormick and how he always referred to the war in Spain as the "last good war."

"I’m sure it was," Spender said in a voice that was dry and flat. He was silent for a while, then he said in a lower and different voice, "I’ll tell you about Spain.’"

I don’t know what I expected: a story about privation or a story about heroism or a story about blood and guts or a story about how the Brits who volunteered for that war were every bit as idealistic and true-hearted as the Americans who had volunteered for it. Whatever it was I had expected, I got something else.
A meeting was called by the officers of his unit, Spender said. There was discussion of that day’s battle and the casualties inflicted and suffered. That was followed by a description of the engagement planned for the following day. Then someone from a higher level of authority, a man Spender had never seen before, began talking about financial problems. Contributions from England had declined significantly, the man said. Something had to be done to get the con- tributions from England coming in again because that money paid for weapons and food and trucks and medical supplies.

Everyone agreed.

The British, the speaker said, were a sentimental people, so if the right pitch moved their hearts, they would be stimulated to contribute again.
Everyone, including Spender, agreed with that, too, and said so.

"We think," the speaker said, "that they would be deeply moved by the death of a young poet in combat; don’t you agree?"

He was looking directly at Spender, so Spender answered him: "I certainly do. They would be very moved by that."

"So," the speaker said, "tomorrow, Stephen, you’ll go out with your unit but you won’t come back."

"Where will I go?" Spender asked.

There was, Spender told me, a curious silence in the tent. He later realized that everybody else had gotten the speaker’s point, and some of them, no doubt, had known of it beforehand. They all waited until Spender got it.

"You were supposed to go out and get killed?" I said.

"I was supposed to go out and get killed. And if I wasn’t successful, they would kill me."

"To increase British contributions?"

"To increase British contributions."

I said something totally inadequate, like "wow" or "Gosh." Then
I said, "So what happened?" At that moment we were approaching Indianapolis, Indiana, so it was obvious that he hadn’t gotten killed by foes or friends.

"That night," Spender said, "after everyone was asleep, I packed my things, and I left the camp, and I kept going until I got back to England. My war in Spain was over."
That's not the end of it, however. Jackson sent a draft to Pete Seeger (as part of a chapter) and Seeger had his doubts (p. 44):
P.S.—I can’t believe any leading communist being so stupid as to talk that way to Spender. I think it was a rank and file soldier’s way of getting rid of a dangerously poor soldier. They were sure he’d go AWOL. They wanted him out of their way.
He'd also published the story in The Antioch Review, which elicited this note from Spender's wife (pp. 45-46):
Dear Mr. Jackson,

Today I have seen your story about Stephen Spender on the Internet. I must point out that in the ‘telling and retelling’ of it you have it confused it to the point of total transformation.

You will find the authentic account in chapter 4 of World within World (1951) to be republished as a classic by Random House in 2001, and in The God that Failed (1949), edited by Richard Crossman.

In the 54 years I was married to Stephen I did not ever hear him deviate from these well-documented accounts. The facts you have misremembered or erroneously reconstructed are:
1. Spender was never a soldier nor "attached to any unit" in the Spanish Civil War.

2. As a civilian he visited the Front where a young soldier ‘‘Nathan’’ predicted his own death. But Spender himself was not in any meeting where he was expected to take military ac- tion. The conversation you describe is invented.

3. The young soldier ‘Nathan’ (not ‘a committee’) invited Spender to linger at the Front as a visitor but he left.

4. At a later writers’ congress an English novelist in pri- vate’s uniform who claimed to be a general told Spender that as an officer in the Republican Army he had sent a cowardly soldier to a place in the Front where he knew the soldier would be killed. Spender disbelieved the story and thought the novelist was merely showing off.
I would be grateful for an acknowledgement and public correction of these errors of established fact. 
Yours, etc. Natasha Spender
A bit later Jackson notes (p. 47): "The cynical plan to capitalize on the death of a young British poet works whether Spender was carrying a rifle or a notebook. Her other three numbered points, though interesting in their own right, tell us nothing either way about the story I remember Spender telling me."

There's more. But you get the idea.

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