Dozens of books about Ernest Hemingway exist, and several more are planned. He, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marilyn Monroe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marlon Brando are among the most iconic--and most fascinating--of American artistic geniuses. Although this new “double biography” also details the life of John Dos Passos, Hemingway, as usual, steals the scene.
This book--about Hemingway’s (1899-1961) time as an ambulance driver in World War I in Europe and his friendship with John Dos Passos (1896-1970), the older, highly-regarded novelist
who was also an ambulance driver--adds quite a bit to the available information about Hemingway, much of it not so appealing. The author, James McGrath Morris, had ample access to unpublished letters. The double biography covers the years
from 1916 into the 1950s.
The book obstensibly focuses on their work as ambulance drivers, picking up and transporting badly wounded and dead soldiers, but it also presents the following years of their lives: their inspirations, their relationships, their successes, their failures.
A man who never truly grew up in some ways, who was jealous and competitive
and had trouble maintaining relationships, Ernest Hemingway was obsessed with death and killing. He glorified and wrote about war, adored bullfights, relished boxing, and killed large fish and exotic mammals. “One of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death,” he once said in Pamploma, Spain. “The only place where you could see life and death, i.e. violent death now that the wars were over, was in the bull ring.”
An example of his love of death and its violence is this: a few years after his father committed suicide in 1928, Ernest and Pauline (his second wife) were living in their first non-rental property in Key West, Florida. A box arrived by post from his mother, and as he heartily disliked this woman (he once didn’t see her for
10 years), he didn’t open it for days. When he did, he found inside a few rolled up original paintings done by the woman, a homemade chocolate cake which had gone rotten and spoiled the artwork, and the .32 caliber pistol with which his dad had killed himself--which Ernest had requested.
When Hemingway and Dos Passos meet, they are both working or have worked as ambulance drivers in Western Europe. They are single, barely out of adolescence, both wanting to write as their life’s work. Hemingway is enamored of war and women and ends up writing two of his best novels
(The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926, and A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929) about this time period, based on the lifestyles of his friends and nurses in the American expat community.
Dos Passos is the shyer, more introspective one (also the bilingual one, at least in French). His literary hopes are larger than Hemingway’s. He wants to write about the entire world , focusing on the U.S., and the overall wrongness of war. He hopes to write The Great American Novel, and eventually his
USA Trilogy--composed of The 42nd Parallel, Nineteen Nineteen and
The Big Money--is considered close to that. Dos Passos, less successfully, also writes plays and paints.
The older author becomes communist, writes in favor of Sacco and Vanzetti and tries to get their death penalty overturned, and takes part in many protests. Always broke, he often borrows money from his literary friends; he also often neglects to pay them back. Later in life, Dos Passos becomes more conservative politically after at least one disillusioning extended visit to Russia.
When Dos Passos marries, much later than Hemingway, it is to Katy, a childhood friend and former casual girlfriend of Hemingway’s who introduced Papa to his first two wives, Hadley and Pauline. Hemingway sees all life as a war of sorts, as a competition. Even while married, he sometimes regrets losing Katy to Dos.
Throughout most of the book, Hemingway and Dos Passos are close friends discussing writing in many places--Paris, Spain, Key West,
and Cuba. Here’s an interesting factoid: while sitting in Paris cafes, Hemingway read the
Bible for its literary style. The two men hunt in Montana, drink, carouse, fish. But in the end, Hemingway, as he did with all friendships and his three first marriages (he’s with Mary, wife number four, at the end of the book), ruins the friendship--in part out of jealousy as Dos Passos is early on considered the better, more literary writer. Writes F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1922 to George Jean Nathan, “…[Edmund B.] Wilson is doing an article on me for the March
Bookman in which he dissects me cruelly and completely. I can’t tell you how I enjoyed it. He has a fine mind, George, and except for Aldous Huxley and Dos Passos he’s worth all the rest of the ‘younger generation’ put together” (from
The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Critic John Chamberlain noted, “One may safely call him [Dos Passos] the most adventurous, the most widely experienced, the man with the broadest sympathies (we do not say deepest), among our novelists since Sinclair Lewis bade goodbye to Martin Arrowsmith.”
Hemingway also becomes disillusioned that, although he did not agree with Dos Passos’s communist affinities, his friend changes his political ideology almost completely. Hemingway had been proud of his friend’s commitment and had defended his viewpoint.
Hemingway’s short stories and novels are still in the literary canon; almost no student in the US graduates high school without knowing his name, highlights of his colorful personal story, and a few of his writings. Foreign students come here knowing his work. Dos Passos, once considered the better writer, has been lost to the canon--and few people (even like me, an English major in college) can recall his work.
The Ambulance Drivers is probably most likely to be appreciated by Hemingway or Dos Passos students and scholars. The tone and style of this double biography is a bit more academic (with lots of notes and quotes from the two men’s writings) than many readers might enjoy. Sometimes the structure of the chapters is a somewhat choppy. That said, the book has prompted me to re-read some of Dos Passos’s work .
I realize I’ve given quite a bit away, a bit of a “no-no” for reviewers. However, many tidbits of new information lie in these pages for avid readers of this artistic era. And, despite, some new, ugly details of Hemingway’s treatment of women and friends, The Ambulance Drivers
makes me even more curious about this charismatic, wounded artist. This book
shows him as more human than others I have read.