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The Starched Blue Skies Of Spain by Josephine Herbst is a small, mostly overlooked gem of reportage/memoir from the Civil War in Spain. Originally written in 1960 as a long magazine piece for Saul Bellow’s new literary magazine, “The Noble Savage,” it is available in book form with three other pieces, as The Starched Blue Skies of Spain and other Memoirs, in several editions.  Although about the war she reported some twenty-three years earlier the essay is not of grand design nor something to read as an introduction to that war. It is a pared down account of her observations and impressions of the weeks she was there and of some of the people she met, both famous and unknown. Noticeably, to those who have read other Civil War accounts, it is not a romantic account of  the conflict or the people nor predictable from her political beliefs.

Herbst was one of a small group of groundbreaking women who came to report in a war zone. The turbulent twenties and the women-in-the streets suffragette fight had ripped holes in, if not completely torn up, the fabric of dos and don’ts for many women.  Her colleagues, Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowell arrived in their Saks 5th Ave clothes and high heels.  The photographer Gerda Taro wasn’t fashionable, but turned heads wherever she went. “Josie” was  midwestern plain and came with some serious reportorial bonafides. She was also the most political of the Americans, having reported from Cuba during an anti-government general strike and had lived in Germany during the early years of the Nazi regime.

Like all the women, she got to the trenches in Spain and lived under near daily bombardments of Madrid along with their male colleagues — Hemingway, Herbert Matthews of the NY Times,  Jay Allen, once of The Chicago Tribune.  They also did more: from bombed-out or threatened villages and farms they reported on the daily lives of ordinary people, those remaining in ruined homes, and those fleeing from one dangerous place to another.

Though Herbst had unembarrassed Marxist views and was publicly sympathetic to communism she did not come to Spain on an ideological mission, at least as she tells it here.

I have never had much heart for party polemics, and it was not for factionalism that I had come to Spain. I did my best to find out “the facts” …

As George Orwell did on his return from Spain, Herbst found a disturbing inability of her left-wing friends and readers to accept the facts she had come to know: they got in the way of strongly held beliefs.

There was one thing you could not do when you came back from Spain.  You couldn’t begin to talk in terms of contradictions.  Everyone I knew wanted the authoritative answer. There were characters who had never left New York who were angry with me because I couldn’t say for certain that the Trotskyist leader Nin had been murdered.  Other characters raged because I refused to accuse Nin of leading a Fascist plot in complicity with Franco.

She confesses that she does not really know why she came –perhaps to test her behavior in fearful circumstances, perhaps “to find in Spain an antidote to the poison I found in Germany in 1935,”  perhaps just swept up in the “hurricane” of the thirties, as she calls it.

But in the end she went because:

Why do you write a book? Why do you fall in love? Because. It is the one conclusive answer that comes from the bottom of the well. Later you may dress it up with reasons; some of them may very well apply. But because is the soundest answer you can give to an imperative.

Though she is interested in the young men she meets in the trenches, including German soldiers of the International Brigades it is not their battle toughness nor war making prowess that captures her attention.

The cinnamon colored uniform gave his body an appearance of health; underneath, the skin shivered with a kind of phosphorescent light. … the pale cage of their ribs looked pathetically vulnerable, the tanned faces, the ready-looking brown hands didn’t belong to the stem-like bodies, which held some of the translucency of Indian pipe that only grows in dark woods.

On another occasion she is with a mixed battalion in the evening.  It has been quiet for some time and spontaneous entertainment begins.

A soldiers’ chorus of Yugoslavians …  an accordion solo … a long narrative poem in German … Czech soldiers singing with the tenderness of men who were actually serenading a real sweetheart…  It was kind of an enchanted world.

She she does not hide what she sees, even when it is ugly.

 Did I remember that fellow at the front, the dark guy with a cut on his cheek? He had been killed, and it was an awful thing to say but it was a kind of relief. You know what? He actually liked to kill, and it was all they could do to keep him from killing the prisoners they sometimes brought in. Why, that fellow would actually cry, and bite his hand until the blood came, and say, But it’s so nice!

Like all the writers in Spain she was impressed with the people. In Madrid,

Houses with the tops sliced off still held occupants, who continued to water the plants in the windows and keep the bird cages, in which little birds were hopping and chirping, out in the open air.

Out in bombed out villages  “…the olive trees looked like they’d been split open with an axe.  The inside pulp was pinkish and blue, with the look of quivering flesh.”

And more, she is acutely conscious of the women.

More than once  I wondered at what we had assumed to be the vaunted independence of the American woman: when I saw the proud authority of the Spanish woman … trudging down the steep mountain to work in the fields even under fire–when I saw women of sixty come proudly home, erect, magnificently wrathful as they shook their fists at far distant towers of enemy smoke piercing the sky, or the burst of gorgeous obscenities oddly mixed with symbolic religiosity, which reduced my memory of fashionable ladies back home, with their little stereotyped curls and their mincing high heels, to a parody of the potential they had forfeited.

She shares the impoverishment of women in war-time, walking with the wife of a town mayor to collect clippings of grapevines to make a fire, asking neighbors for extra eggs.  She reminds us that the suffering is greater in the war, but is an extension of that under the pre-war great land owners.

She also took in the beauty of the country, even as it was being laid to waste.

What I remember most as we drove along the road through the countryside, was the beauty of the Guadarrama Mountains, blue with the whitest snow at the crown, and beyond a sky even more intense in its blueness.  A bird, an actual bird, was flying above us…

… you couldn’t believe that this terrain, sprinkled with tiny delicate flowers, was a deadly place, which would be paid for, inch by inch, with human lives.

When in Madrid she was at the Hotel Florida along with all the Foreign reporters, often under shell fire. She writes of being wakened by thunderous roars,  of the initial terror and subsequent composure as the foreign correspondents shared coffee and stale bread, waiting for it to be over.

She was a friend of Hemingway’s, and recognized his friendship to Spain without failing to notice his failures — “a crackling generosity whose underside was a kind of miserliness.” He did not have her uncertainty: “He wanted to be the war writer of his age, and he knew it and went towards it.  Wa gave answers that could not be found in that paradise valley of Wyoming…”  She was present as Hemingway and Dos Passos long friendship fell out over diverging loyalties: Dos loyal to a friend, Hemingway to the command.

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In the end, The Starched Blue Skies of Spain, as Herbst says in the beginning, is diffuse, though not ‘appallingly’ as she modifies it. Her entries are “Like the twigs I used to see the old women of Germany pick up in the forests to tie into little bundles to lug home on their backs.  Each twig was precious; it had come from a living tree and would make a living fire.”  Because of what she brings to her work, not least of which is a woman’s eye, the twigs add important detail to our knowledge of Spain and of war.

As to her initial uncertainty, working it out continued.  Her last lines are:

“But she understands everything! … Muy inteligente. Valiente,” breathed the small townsman. “Muy valiente. ” But I was far from understanding everything. About the most important questions, at that moment, I felt sickeningly at sea. As for being valiente, who wasn’t? If I wrote it down in my journal, it was to put heart in myself, if only to say, Come now, be muy inteligente, be valiente. Just try.

 

One oddity is that the very striking title – the starched blue skies— nowhere appears in the text.