The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War.
In his postscript to The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War, James McGrath Morris notes that "we might never have heard of Ernest Hemingway had it not been for an Italian soldier who was killed taking the brunt of the exploding mortar on the July night in 1918. But it seems little or no effort has been made to identify the soldier ..." (253). To correct this oversight, Morris publishes here a list of eighteen potential candidates along with a note to contact him if "interested in trying to identify the actual soldier's name" (254). Future readers of this book no longer need to do so, however. As Morris informs in a 18 January 2019 Washington Post article, upon reading The Ambulance Drivers, Italian historian Marino Perissinotto reached out to Morris, and together they concluded that the name previously lost to history must be that of Fedele Temperini, whose regiment was stationed in the same vicinity as Hemingway and whose death was recorded on the same date as Hemingway's wounding. If correct, the discovery of Temperini is remarkable, even if, as Morris goes on to point out in the article, "strict Italian privacy laws prevent us from learning more about him."
Morris's interest in recovering figures from anonymity, especially those obscured due to the overshadowing presence of Hemingway, suggests a parallel of sorts for understanding his account of the friendship between John Dos Passos and Hemingway in The Ambulance Drivers. Morris reminds readers of Dos Passos's importance by quoting George Packer's 2005 comment in The New Yorker: "It's hard now to remember that, several generations ago, the trio of great novelists born around the turn of the century--Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner--was a quartet, with the fourth chair occupied by Dos Passos" (249-50). The granters of the The John Dos Passos Award might agree, for they created the prize "to honor one of the greatest--and most often ignored--American writers of the twentieth century." Likewise, Morris's book helps readers remember that Dos Passos not only once occupied that fourth chair but even at times garnered more attention for his writing than the trio that sat beside him.
That said, Morris does not explicitly set out to champion Dos Passos. As the subtitle suggests, The Ambulance Drivers is the biography of a literary friendship, focusing on these writers' careers that developed as a response to The Great War, which inspired them to plot, as Morris puts it, "a literary revolution" (3). Their common experiences as volunteer ambulance drivers in the war significantly informed their plans, even if each writer varied in his view of the catastrophe and how to deal with it in writing. Whereas, according to Morris, "Hemingway had no interest in pondering its causes, worrying about its conduct, or even being bothered by the banality of military life," Dos Passos "wanted to write about war to end it. In Hemingway's mind, war was inevitable and a man was measured by it, as he had been. Literature could capture the experience, not change it" (76). Thus, a portrait emerges of Dos Passos turning to fiction as a medium for social activism and satire while Hemingway appears more consumed with personal concerns. Morris quotes from each writer's work to showcase their distinct versions of Modernism as well: Dos Passos experimented with combining words ("rainseething," "whiskeyglasses," etc.) and splicing fiction with newsreel accounts; Hemingway relied on repetition and minimalism. Morris even shows instances when Hemingway apparently recast ideas originated by Dos Passos. "As in the moment in Dos Passos's Three Soldiers when Chrisfield murders his sergeant," Morris explains (172), Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms includes a scene when Frederic Henry and Bonello execute a sergeant who deserts. Besides chronicling the successes, Morris also presents Dos Passos's struggles as a playwright along with Hemingway's pitfalls from experiments in nonfiction. Each writer had his own way of dealing with anxieties over the critics too. Dos Passos tended to disappear on long excursions to the other side of the world whenever he published a book while Hemingway retreated into sarcasm in his letters as well as hunting expeditions in his "pursuit of killing things" (192).
By the 1930s, as Morris discusses, what began as friendship eventually soured into bitter rivalry. Dos Passos increased his involvement with social activism, but Hemingway, despite the urging of Dos Passos, "remained uncommitted to political causes" (200). That is, however, until the Spanish Civil War. But even as Hemingway showed an inclination to leftist politics in favor of the Republic in Spain, Dos Passos began veering to the right. The issue that finally separated them: the execution of Jose Robles, Dos Passos's friend and translator. Morris emphasizes Robles's death as the point of no return for the former ambulance drivers, as Dos Passos insists on discovering the fate of his lost friend while Hemingway, already in the know but adhering to a callous philosophy that accepts casualties of war as a means to an end, attempts to persuade Dos Passos to desist from further investigations. Although the friendship had brief moments of revival in the 1940s, it did not help the relationship when Dos Passos's marriage to Katy Smith, an adolescent crush of Hemingway's, ended in tragedy after she was killed in a car accident while riding as a passenger with Dos Passos at the wheel. For all their common interests, the friendship eventually broke under the strain of too many overwhelming resentments. In the closing lines, Morris draws a harsh conclusion: "Whether it was fame, money, his mother, or shell shock that are to be blamed, Hemingway destroyed every friendship, every love affair, and, ultimately, himself" (251).
Besides emphasizing Hemingway's destructiveness over his creativity, Morris's narrative approach, while often compelling and projecting a sense of verisimilitude, favors storytelling to advance a plot that does not always jibe with historical evidence. For example, Morris depicts a meeting between Dos Passos and Hemingway in Schio in 1918 that, as Morris acknowledges in a note, some scholars have determined to be unlikely. He mentions "the diaries kept by Captain Robert Bates" and "Dos Passos's own letters and diaries" as sources for corroborating the meeting, but a more specific explanation is required here to convincingly establish a basis for depicting the details of the episode as he does in his narrative (269 n. 41). Regrettably, especially considering Morris's admirable work to recover the name of Italian soldier Fedele Temperini, it is also worth pointing out that Morris mistakenly refers to Edward Michael McKey, the man who was killed in the vicinity where Hemingway was subsequently stationed and wounded, as "volunteer Richard McKey" (52).
As a companion to the narrative, Morris presents photos of his subjects that accentuate the dual nature of this biography, providing readers with images of Dos Passos and Hemingway at similar stages in life. The pictures of Dos Passos and Hemingway in the Red Cross present a particularly noteworthy contrast that highlights a key distinction between the writers' backgrounds as ambulance drivers: Dos Passos appears unkempt and looks every bit the veteran, as he is apparently tinkering on his machine, while Hemingway looks very much the novice, wearing a fresh uniform and posing behind the wheel of an ambulance. Surprisingly, however, the volume also includes a photo of an utterly exposed Hemingway, wearing only a fishing rod butt rest tied around his hips and what appears to be a random article of clothing on his head, that, besides its shock value, contributes little else to the narrative.
The Ambulance Drivers does much to remind readers of the importance of Dos Passos and his outstanding and extremely influential career as a man of letters and social activist. In dealing with the issues of the Spanish Civil War and the 1930s, especially Dos Passos's struggle to reconcile not only the loss of his friend Robles but also his friendship with Hemingway, the volume significantly underscores what continues to be an all-too-familiar theme on the damaging consequences of political polarization and enmity. As for Hemingway, he might have wished for the kind of "strict Italian privacy laws" that "prevent us from learning more," for the depiction of him in this book makes one wonder if anonymity is not so bad after all.
Longwood University. The John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, 2019, www.longwood.edu/english/dos-passos-prize/
Morris, James McGrath. "Hemingway's World War 1 Savior Is Anonymous No More." The Washington Post, 08 Jan. 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/hemingways-world-war-i-savior-is-anonymous-no-more/2019/01/18/d3dbbb32-0ea0-lle9-831f-3aa2c2be4cbd_story.html.
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|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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