After meeting for the first time on the front lines of World War I, two aspiring writers forge an intense twenty-year friendship and write some of America's greatest novels, giving voice to a 'lost generation' shaken by war.
Whether the story of this turbulent literary friendship will matter to casual readers is a debatable question. Posterity, after all, has not been kind to Dos Passos. While not exactly a footnote in American letters, he is no longer widely read beyond the university classroom, while Hemingway is still, well, Hemingway. But Dos Passos’s best work bristles with verbal energy, and it achieves a philosophical scope that Hemingway rarely matched. Here’s hoping that Morris’s book can help to even up the score of their posthumous literary reputations.
James McGrath Morris’ revealing tome about the intertwining lives and friendship of writers John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway is a learned study in 20th century literary bravado. In a dual-narrative format, Morris expounds upon the two writers’ mainly warm, though ultimately unresolved rivalries. At heart is the politically disparate wellsprings of Dos Passos’ leftist wartime pacifism, and Hemingway’s war-hero persona, both of which were acquired during the writers’ times serving as ambulance drivers during WWI. Morris generates sympathy for the lauded (though less universally acclaimed) work of Dos Passos, while showing an aversion for Hemingway’s oftentimes gregarious aloofness. Extremely well-researched, The Ambulance Drivers is the tale of two American writers whose work was affected heavily by the angels and demons of a lost generation that conspired to put them at odds.
While the narrative is a bit slow to start as the early biographies of both authors are outlined, by the middle of the book, the unruly cast of modern characters is fully assembled, and the story hits a perfect stride. Morris is masterful in his weaving of the Hemingway and Dos Passos timelines, with their knitted stories reaching a startling crescendo in the epilogue ... The excerpted quotes from Hemingway and Dos Passos’ letters are an absolute riot ... Morris is adept at making the historical record lifelike, giving a palpable sense of the climate in which these modern writers were forged. Nuanced details support the larger point about these artists: They lived, composed, and managed to thrive in an incredibly difficult world of censorship and editorial challenge.