- - Monday, May 8, 2017


By James McGrath Morris

Da Capo Press, $27, 288 pages

Although the late, great writer Ernest Hemingway has many detractors, he remains popular and is still read, written about and discussed today. Not so for Mr. Hemingway’s contemporary, the late novelist John Dos Passos.

But Dos Passos gets his due in James McGrath Morris’ “The Ambulance Drivers,” a book about both writers who came of age during World War I, and became popular and critically acclaimed novelists in the post-World War I era.

I’ve been a Hemingway aficionado since my teenage years in the 1960s and I learned of Dos Passos when I read biographies of Hemingway. I went on to read Dos Passos’ “USA” trilogy, which I found interesting, but a tough read. As an anti-communist, then and now, I was interested in reading Dos Passos due to his anti-communism, which is covered in the book.

Mr. Morris opens his book with the two expatriate young writers sitting in a Paris cafe in 1924.

“Of the two men at the table that day, John Dos Passos was the more famous and more accomplished. His last novel had been widely read and much talked about. At this moment he had a multi-book contract with a New York publishing house. His straight black hair was already receding at age 28, giving him a kind of professorial look, which was accented by thick-lensed glasses and the gray suits he favored. When he spoke he did so in a halting tentative fashion with a mild stammer,” Mr. Morris writes in the book’s prologue. “In contrast, the man sitting across the table from Dos Passos exuded confidence. With a full head of brown lustrous hair, chiseled features, and a broad shouldered body made taut by vigorous exercise, Ernest Hemingway possessed looks that invariably drew attention, especially from women. But when it came to writing, he was struggling to make ends meet. So far, twenty-five year old Hemingway had paid the bills by working as a stringer for a Canadian newspaper and with monthly remittances from his wife’s trust fund.”

Dos Passos, born out of wedlock and sickly as a child, was raised in hotel rooms across Europe, while Hemingway, son of a doctor, grew up near Chicago and hunted and fished in Michigan throughout his childhood. Dos Passos went to Harvard while Mr. Hemingway skipped college and worked as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star.

Yet despite physical and other differences, the two writers spent a good deal of time with each other in Europe, on vacations, and at Hemingway’s Key West home.

John Dos Passos had been eager to go to war in 1916. “I wanted to see the war, to paddle up undiscovered rivers, to climb unmapped mountains. I was frantic to be gone.” But upon seeing the war, Dos Passos was horrified. “The world had become a different place and we had to register the change in the only way that was possible to us, by putting words on paper.”

In 1917 Hemingway headed to Europe as an ambulance driver, but his reaction to seeing war was different from Dos Passos. He wrote his friends back at the Kansas City Star that he was glad he was in it. Later, the two writers would meet for the first time at a mess hall in Italy. They went their separate ways after this initial meeting and Hemingway went on to be seriously wounded when a mortar, which killed an Italian soldier standing before the future writer, riddled his legs with shrapnel.

Their long friendship dissolved over political differences. Ironically, Dos Passos had been the leftist idealist, while Hemingway was apolitical. Both of their views, and their friendship, would change during the Spanish Civil War.

With Nazi Germany backing one side and the Soviet Union backing the other side, the Spanish Civil War was brutal and the combatants ruthless. Dos Passos became incensed over the execution of a Spanish friend of both his and Hemingway’s. Hemingway questioned whether the friend was loyal and stated that Dos Passos’ public inquiries into the execution would antagonize the government they were trying to defend.

“The death of his longtime friend and translator was an example of the untrustworthiness of Communists for whom there was no distinction between means and ends,” Mr. Morris writes. “Hemingway’s callous response to Robles’s death convinced Dos Passos that his friend was taking the Communist line. Desperate to be loved by the left and wanting to be on a battlefield, Hemingway was blind to the dangers the Communists posed.”

“The Ambulance Drivers” is a well-written and interesting book about an interesting time and two very interesting writers.

• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

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