Tomorrow Perhaps the Future: Writers, Outsiders, and the Spanish Civil War

  • By Sarah Watling
  • Knopf
  • 384 pp.

An outstanding exploration of artists as witnesses.

Tomorrow Perhaps the Future: Writers, Outsiders, and the Spanish Civil War

When she was a child, writer Josephine Herbst read with horror the news reports of the 1903 Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago. What stuck with her, she later wrote, was the stampede, the grown men trampling to death women and children in their mad dash to survive.

Josephine’s mother had no doubts about the reprehensible nature of such behavior: “Better to sit quietly in your seat and perish than to live the rest of your life with such a memory,” she told her daughter. But even though Josephine treated each subsequent theater visit as an opportunity to imagine how she might behave in a crisis, she realized she could never know until the test itself arrived.

For Josephine and thousands of others, that test was the outbreak of civil war in Spain in July 1936. When fascist-inspired military leaders rose up to overthrow the left-wing, elected government, the world looked on with shock, wariness, or approval, depending on one’s political leanings. What was once an academic question for Josephine became immediately urgent. How could foreigners support Spain’s democratic government in the face of what seemed an obvious wrong?

Josephine could come up with only one answer, though she could barely explain it. One must, she felt, go and bear witness.

In Tomorrow Perhaps the Future, author Sarah Watling follows a select handful of non-Spanish writers and activists who both rejected the military uprising and were rejected, in one way or another, by their own societies. From queer novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner to poet Langston Hughes to journalist (and, yes, Hemingway wife) Martha Gellhorn, Watling considers the artists’ and activists’ impulse to do something in the face of evil. At the same time, she grapples with the privilege these outsiders enjoyed in Spain — the choice that they exercised to be there, on foreign soil, when so many Spaniards had no such luxury.

Before the war broke out, Virginia Woolf assured her nephew that she was indeed aware of the news of emerging fascism across Europe, and that she signed the protests people asked her to endorse, though “what good they do I don’t know.” But when her beloved nephew wanted to volunteer in Spain, joining thousands of other foreign fighters in pushing back against the coup, Woolf blanched. He shouldn’t go.

As for herself, she seemed unable to decide on the right level of engagement. Since artists are “in such close touch with human life,” as she wrote, did that oblige them to have a place at the heart of any conflict, or should they remain above the fray?

The foreigners had that choice. Most of them could sneak into Spain and then, when they wanted to leave, flash their passports, hand out fistfuls of money, and depart. Some, of course, did not leave; the Spanish Civil War claimed many non-Spanish lives. Still, the vast majority of its 500,000-some victims were Spaniards, and their lives are mostly invisible in this book — an elision that Watling is uncomfortably aware of. But she wants to ask questions that only the outsiders can answer.

For instance, how far apart can artists stand from the world? How can allies, people whose participation in a fight is voluntary, truly support a side? Does fighting for justice abroad deplete the struggle at home? And if a cause can give our small lives purpose, if it can “paradoxically, restore us to ourselves,” what do the activists owe at the end?

Tomorrow Perhaps the Future is as much, or more, intellectual exploration as history text. Though Watling does a beautiful job of briefly summarizing complex histories, she shines when she brings her subjects to life and grapples with those hard questions. Like her writers, she knows that the real stories are in the questing hearts and dreaming minds of her outsiders, not in dry recitations of battlefield positions.

Lives, though, are difficult to pin down. Part of this book’s great charm is Watling’s honesty about her difficulties in uncovering the truth. When records and memories conflict, how is an historian to make sense? Perhaps, she suggests, the mess is the answer. Perhaps our certainty in knowing is part of the problem.

To that end, Watling relies heavily on not just the reporting and diaries her outsiders leave behind, but also their art. Warner, Gellhorn, Herbst, and others translated their observations into fiction, and we have Gerda Taro’s stunning photographs (one of which, a perfect composition, fills the book’s cover). One of my only complaints about this moving and provocative book is that Watling so often describes photographs that I wished were provided, but her recourse to our imagination suits the theme.

One of the surprise standouts of the book is Nancy Cunard, a complicated poet, editor, and activist whose stridency sometimes alienated the exact people she purported to help, but who nonetheless never stopped believing in a better world. She spent her life bending her art to social improvement, and yet even she craved some distance from people, a “tight defensive shell,” as Watling puts it.

The tension between joining the world’s fights and needing to stand apart to record them might be irreconcilable. But by using the tragic, intense moment of the Spanish Civil War to explore the contours of that contradiction, Watling has written a marvelous book.

Carrie Callaghan is the author of the historical novels A Light of Her Own and Salt the Snow (CRP/Amberjack). She is mildly obsessed with the Spanish Civil War and lives with three family members plus four cats who are much less interested, sadly.

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