Hemingway, Dos Passos & A Fractured Friendship Recounted in 'Ambulance Drivers'

Jun 6, 2018

Why is Ernest Hemingway still so well-known decades after his death, but not his friend/contemporary John Dos Passos?

In this interview, James McGrath Morris, author of the biography The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War, joins us to talk about it.

Dos Passos was “trying to change the world of writing” like Hemingway, according to Morris. “They were both the same. They're both revolutionaries who felt that World War I so changed the world that old styles of writing wouldn't work.”

But here’s one possible reason Dos Passos is less popular than Hemingway:

“The difference is that Hemingway is really a master storyteller. I mean, ultimately his work, even if you don't understand the radicalness of his language or anything, was sustained by a story. Dos Passos was creative in a different way. He was trying to bring in the literature things that no one had done before; the jump cut from film.

"And now you and I go to the movies today, and we see that, and we don't think anything of it. But it was so upsetting to people in the early days of movies that they felt a little seasick.

“Well, he was doing that with literature. He was bringing in actualities, as we might call them in the news business, little bits of film, reel, all into print. He was trying to recreate the reading experience in a different way.”

Dos Passos wrote critically-acclaimed novels such as his U.S.A trilogy. But he never achieved as much financial success as Hemingway. Dos Passos did earn something Hemingway coveted: the love of a woman named Katherine Smith. Hemingway had dated her first, and never got over her, even after she married Dos Passos. It was one of several strains that ultimately broke their friendship.