April 27, 2017
(+++) LITERARY TYPES
The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War. By James McGrath Morris. Da Capo. $27.
Ernest Hemingway has been gone since 1961, John Dos Passos since 1970. They are survived by their writings and their differing influence – and, it seems, by unending examples of literary criticism, biographical information, historical tidbits and the like. Hence, for those who are enamored of literary biographies, James McGrath Morris’ The Ambulance Drivers. Friends for 20 years before Hemingway precipitated one of his many infamous breakups with supporters – readers unfamiliar with those are decidedly not the audience for this book – Hemingway and Dos Passos were both ambulance drivers late in World War I. Hence the book’s title. Their reactions to the war, and their strongly contrasting personalities and outlooks, encapsulate their differences so starkly that the fact of their having any friendship at all is surprising: Hemingway is well-known for his love of danger and heroism and old-fashioned manliness and bloodshed, while Dos Passos was sickened by the destructiveness of war and became an ardent left-winger determined to change the world for the better through his writing. Meeting briefly in World War I and parting acrimoniously during the Spanish Civil War, whose opposing sides they viewed very differently, the two writers were between those two wars united mostly as voices of the so-called “lost generation” that found Paris in the 1920s far more congenial and meaningful than anywhere in the United States.
Hemingway is today far better known than Dos Passos, and remains a far more interesting character in this book even though Morris sheds no new light on his personality. His Paris years, his fame because of The Sun Also Rises, his belligerence and downright meanness, his many betrayals, his life in Key West (to which he moved on the recommendation of Dos Passos), his time in Havana, and his suicide are all here. But anyone sufficiently interested in Hemingway to want to read yet another book about his comings and goings will know all this already.
Even the ambulance driving was scarcely a big connection for Hemingway and Dos Passos: many literary and artistic figures of the post-World-War-I era had volunteered to drive ambulances during the war, including e.e. cummings, Walt Disney, and Ray Kroc of later McDonald’s fame; and W. Somerset Maugham, trained as a doctor, was even more intimately involved with the horrors of the war. Interestingly, the reason neither Hemingway nor Dos Passos served directly in combat was that both failed vision tests. Also interestingly, Hemingway’s revenge on Dos Passos for slights real or imagined did not emerge until three years after Hemingway killed himself: in the posthumous A Moveable Feast, he depicts Dos Passos as a parasite, sponging off rich friends.
And what of Dos Passos? The most revelatory information here comes from the selections from his writing: Morris presents works that both writers produced at significant points in their lives and strives to show why they chose specific subject matter and handled it in specific ways. The result is a book of both literary criticism and biography – and a definite slog for anyone who is not devoted to one or the other of these writers and is not a specialized literary scholar focused on 20th-century material. The elements of the book that may reach a wider audience are, interestingly, ones that appear almost nowhere in the works of either Hemingway or Dos Passos. They are bits of humor, often crude humor: Hemingway accidentally shooting himself in both legs while trying to haul a shark onto a fishing boat, and Dos Passos leaping onto the wall of a bullring in fear of the enraged and doomed animal (Dos Passos actually went to a bullfight four years before Hemingway ever did). But there is little enough humor in anything either man wrote for public consumption – one reason neither writer is to everyone’s taste today, if either of them ever was in the past.
This is a well-written book for specialists and enthusiasts, a cleverly structured attempt to pull biography and literary criticism together, an attempt to re-create the passion and verve of 1920s Paris as seen through the eyes of American expatriates of nearly a century ago. It is scarcely a book for a mass audience – not even Hemingway’s works qualify as mass reading anymore (except under compulsion in teaching environments), and Dos Passos’ once-admired U.S.A. trilogy (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money) scarcely generates a flicker of interest or familiarity in most quarters nowadays. The people who bemoan that reality, especially those who bemoan it loudly and proclaim the deterioration of taste regarding all that is good and important and meaningful in American literature, are the audience for The Ambulance Drivers. The vast majority of Americans today would be more interested if the book’s title had referred to Walt Disney and Ray Kroc.