Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Hemingway and Dos Passos: Frenemies to the End

Almost 50 years after his death in 1961, Ernest Hemingway remains an American icon. Schoolchildren continue to know (or at least I hope they do) such masterworks as In Our Time and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Cineastes revere films based on Hemingway novels, like To Have and Have Not, which gained fame as the first and sexiest on-screen pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In various picturesque parts of the globe there are Hemingway statues as well as watering holes named after his favorite drinking spot, Harry’s Bar in Venice. I once made a pilgrimage to a Madrid restaurant called Botín because Hemingway’s Jake Barnes had feasted on suckling pig there, washed down with a nice rioja, in The Sun Also Rises.   

Not only have many of Hemingway’s works been filmed (as far back as 1932, Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes starred in a screen version of A Farewell to Arms) but he himself has appeared as a character in numerous Hollywood movies and TV series. Some were intended as seriously biographical, but he has also shown up in several fanciful projects. A Hemingway character was featured in TV’s Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. does not actually materialize in an offbeat 1993 indie called Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, but I still treasure Corey Stoll’s robust portrayal of the author in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. 

When Hemingway was just starting out, the talk of the literary world was John Dos Passos, a Harvard graduate with an exotic upbringing, a talent for art, and strong leftwing leanings. The two met in Paris in the 1920s, and quickly bonded. One thing that drew them together, aside from their literary interests, was that both had experienced the bloodshed of World War I while serving as volunteer ambulance drivers on the battlefields of Europe. The twists and turns of their relationship are chronicled by my friend and colleague, James McGrath Morris, in a short but fascinating  book called The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War. The sad truth of the matter: Hemingway was not easy on his friends. At the beginning, the chum and drinking companion he called “Dos” performed an invaluable service by bringing Hemingway’s work to the attention of New York publishers. But later, as the esoteric works of Dos Passos (who experimented with using cinematic techniques like montage on the printed page) earned more respect than money, Hemingway resented needing to make loans to keep Dos and his wife afloat.  Eventually, as he came to do with all his (former) friends, he was cruelly lampooning Dos Passos in print

Jamie Morris is at his most captivating when he compares Hemingway and Dos Passos in terms of their feelings about war. Dos Passos, says Jamie, “had come away from the experience with the belief that war was a macabre and purposeless dance of death.” By contrast, Hemingway looked to war as a place for a man to prove himself, as well as a prime opportunity for romance. Hemingway’s own wartime experience of near-death followed by a passionate love affair is the stuff that movies are made of.  Hollywood heroes, like Hemingway himself, tend to find that the closeness to death make them feel more alive, and the vicarious excitement makes moviegoers feel alive too. 

There are also a lot of famous Hollywood movies that chronicle wartime friendships: see, for instance, the Vietnam era films The Deer Hunter and Platoon. From the example of these movies and others, friendship in time of war doesn’t fare so well in the long term. 

No comments:

Post a Comment