The Story of Hemingway and Dos Passos Is as Exciting as Any of Their Novels
The Ambulance Drivers tells of how Hemingway would use literature to seize the world and Dos Passos would use literature to change it.
The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in WarPublisher: Da Capo
Length: 336 pages
Author: James McGrath Morris
Publication date: 2017-03
Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos seemed destined to meet. They had too much in common not to. Young rebels both -- Dos Passos the intellectual heretic, Hemingway the brawny adventurer -- they both pursued independence and life experience in the battlefields of First World War Europe. Their desire to enter the war predated that of America’s; Dos Passos pre-empted the draft, while Hemingway’s young age precluded him from it. They went as volunteers, and both wound up working as ambulance drivers.
They only met briefly during the war, but fate shepherded them inexorably toward each other. Determined to forge lives as writers, and to re-forge American literature in the process, their common ex-pat haunts and common friend circles eventually coalesced and so they did, in the end, meet in France and become close friends. Hemingway was a difficult man to befriend though; the erratic and depressively egotistical writer let his passions, arrogance and jealousies destroy the very friendships that facilitated his early success (his later ones, too). It was only a matter of time until he parted ways with Dos Passos; that was to eventually happen during the Spanish Civil War.
Tensions already beginning to fray between the two (despite Hemingway’s greater material success, he envied the indebted Dos Passos’ literary prestige and recognition, and resented his leftist politics), the two traveled to Spain together to film a documentary on the Spanish Civil War. Differing artistic visions strained their relationship from the start, but it was further complicated by political realities. When a close Spanish friend of Dos Passos’ went missing and was found to have been shot by the Communists, it only hastened the unraveling of the former leftist’s political convictions. Hemingway, on the other hand -- the former political atheist -- became slavishly pro-Communist (both because it was de rigueur for writers to be leftist in those days, and also because they were the hand that was feeding him) and lashed out at his friend. The two parted ways.
James McGrath Morris chronicles the complicated span of the two men’s friendship in The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War. The book takes its place among a robust sub-genre of biography that focuses not on lives, but on friendships.
Increasingly though, such books are not actually about friendships. The Ambulance Drivers is a case in point. It doesn’t explore in any particular psychological depth what the key subjects meant to each other; how their friendship affected their writing (this is explored only briefly), and what their story can tell us about the nature of friendship. ‘Friendship’ appears to serve instead as an excuse to write yet another biography of characters on whom the field is already over-saturated with biographies (there's even been a book written on the incident which finally ruptured their friendship, Stephen Koch's The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles). What The Ambulance Drivers offers instead is a quick-paced narrative that weaves back and forth between the two men's lives.
Well, those are the harshest words The Ambulance Drivers will get. It may not be about friendship, but it’s a riveting and rollicking good read. Morris has a sense of the narrative touch which allows biographies to read like novels. Sanitizing any dry academic influences, he pares his subjects down to an essence that makes them seem real. Picking two subjects is more of a narrative technique than an exploration of friendship: hopping back and forth allows the biographer to keep their readers’ attention in much the same way that a tightly filmed television program, alternating between plot threads, hooks the viewer. This is a biography for an attention deficit age, but it works, and superbly. The book is hard to put down, and leaves us feeling closer to these two remarkable men.
What binds Hemingway and Dos Passos, if anything, was not their shared World War I experience; not their camaraderie before it was brutally shattered in the Spanish Civil War. It was, rather, the way in which they took writing seriously, in which they struggled and agonized with all the determination of an apprentice struggling under the gruelling whip of their master.
Of course, as writers they had no masters, besides their egos and conscience. Hemingway had the former in spades; his ambition drove him on. Dos Passos cultivated more of the latter; his determination to push the boundaries of literature quickly wedded itself to a social conscience. Hemingway would use literature to seize the world; Dos Passos would use literature to change it. It’s the story of that struggle -- to find their respective Muse and follow it -- which renders them so compelling.
Along with the adventures they had along the way of course. The ‘Lost Generation’ lived enviable lives: carefree wanderings through Europe, the Orient, the Americas; wine, love, and endless journeys through sun-soaked woods and across sun-dappled seas. Whether one reads them from envy or appreciation, there’s no doubting that the lives of this generation of writers forms every bit as important a part of their story as the books they produced. The Ambulance Drivers offers a delightful and entertaining entry into that world.