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  • Writer's pictureJody Ferguson

Ambulance Drivers - Book Review

I grew up reading Hemingway, like so many other Americans. But unlike a lot of other Americans, I was also exposed to the work John Dos Passos in a college literature course. I have enjoyed reading both authors, but the two men’s writing styles are as different as their upbringing and their physical appearances. Had you encountered these two men in the vigor of their youth, you would have been forgiven for typecasting them within the first few minutes. Hemingway, the effusive frat boy/jock; Dos Passos, the geeky bookworm you encountered in the college library stacks. So, I was surprised to hear that they carried on a long friendship, that—perhaps unsurprisingly—went sour over the years. This friendship is documented nicely in the book The Ambulance Drivers by James McGrath Morris. Dos Passos (‘Dos’ was pronounced like most Americans pronounce ‘Los’ in Los Angeles) was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Chicago lawyer of Madeiran Portuguese descent and a socialite mother, who preferred to travel in Europe with her young boy rather than face the social scrutiny in America of an unwed mother. Dos Passos returned to study at Harvard, graduating at the age of twenty. Hemingway, we know, grew up in a typical, solid Midwestern family (his father was a doctor), but he eschewed college to lead the life of a correspondent. The two men met up as Red Cross ambulance drivers working at the front in northern Italy in 1918. They would become reacquainted in Paris several years after the war, where they both pursued careers as writers, like so many other young Americans of the ‘Lost Generation.’ Hemingway and Fitzgerald were the leading names, and they were also good friends, but the friendship between Hemingway and Dos Passos continued much longer and was much more complex (partially due to Fitzgerald’s early demise in 1940). What they both witnessed at the front in Italy in 1918, they saw differently. Dos Passos was horrified by modern warfare (he also served as an ambulance driver for the French in 1917), and he went on the pen several novels about the war and about oppression against the working classes in the United States (his trilogy U.S.A. is among my favorite works of literature, especially The 42nd Parallel). Hemingway saw in the war adventure, romance, and action (even though he was wounded delivering food to Italian soldiers in the trenches). There was little evidence that the experience affected him as deeply as it did his friend. Dos Passos’ anti-war novel Three Soldiers published in 1921 gave him great fame, so he was the more accomplished of the two young writers when they became reacquainted in Paris. This would change within the next few years with the publication of The Sun Also Rises. Morris’ book traces this unlikely friendship over the decades in Spain, Florida, Cuba, and of course Paris. The Spanish Civil War was the next formative experience for the two men. It changed Dos Passos from a socialist-leaning liberal to a virulent anti-communist, after witnessing the excesses associated with the in-fighting among Spanish leftist groups. Of course, for Hemingway the war was another grand adventure and personal stage. It was in Spain that tensions between them began developing, as they worked together to film a documentary in support of the Spanish Republican government. Over the years as Hemingway experienced tremendous commercial success, and Dos Passos retired to a humbler domestic scene, the friendship unraveled. The death of Dos Passos’ wife of 18 years in the late 1940s (Katy Smith was a childhood friend of Hemingway, who had introduced them) effectively signaled the end of their association. Although there is no great lesson or take away from Morris’s book, it is a good read and very well researched.


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