"The Ambulance Drivers" By: James McGrath Morris

Jan 3, 2018

“The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War”

Author: James McGrath Morris 

Publisher: Da Capo Press

Pages: 312

Price: $27.00 (Hardcover)

When WWI began in Europe in 1914 the French army was woefully short of ambulances and drivers. The United States was not yet in the war, but some Americans living in Paris volunteered in an informal, unorganized way.

One American expat living in Paris, Richard Norton, the son of Harvard art history professor Charles Eliot Norton, convinced French millionaire H. Herman Harjes to put up the money for the ambulances and they organized the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps.

These gentlemen wanted gentlemen as their drivers, preferably gentlemen who spoke French. The volunteers would pay their own passage, buy their own uniforms and support themselves.

The drivers, some 800 in all, were recruited from the Ivy League, 348 just from Harvard.

Not too surprisingly, many of these men were to be America’s next generation of writers and critics. E. E. Cummings, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley and the subject of this study, John Dos Passos, who was 21 and had just graduated from Harvard the year before, all risked their lives in France.

Meanwhile, in Italy, the situation was just as dire. The ambulance service there was run by the International Red Cross.

Young Ernest Hemingway, one year out of Oak Park High School, was no Ivy Leaguer, but he was eager to get to the war and volunteered for the Italian front.

Both men had to be taught to drive. In 1917 this was not yet a skill mastered by every boy.

Dos Passos saw action at Verdun, for weeks dodging shells and mustard gas. There was probably no greater butchery in all the Western front than Verdun, and Dos Passos was forever changed by the thousands of corpses, new and decaying, and the hideously wounded he dealt with day after day.

Hemingway meanwhile was in northern Italy carrying cigarettes and chocolate to the front and, before he even celebrated his nineteenth birthday, was blown up by an Austrian mortar shell, pierced by dozens of pieces of shrapnel. He recovered, a decorated hero whether he deserved it or not, in a hospital in Milan.

There he famously fell in love with his nurse, Agnes Von Kurowsky, a love affair immortalized in “A Farewell to Arms.”

After the U. S. entered the war, the army medical corps took over and Dos Passos transferred briefly to Italy where in June of 1918 he and Hemingway actually met, briefly, at lunch one day.

These two men would later, in Paris, form a strong friendship, based on their experiences as ambulance drivers and their determination to become fiction writers, using their experiences as material.

But the war had affected them differently. Dos Passos, already a man of the left, found the war grotesque, useless, absurd, a failure of government and common sense.

He would become a relentless critic of American capitalism, applauded by critics for taking on the big societal questions of wealth distribution, immigration, prejudice.

Hemingway’s experience led him to make an emotional connection between war, heroism and romantic love. His novels would explore the individual in a meaningless world, struggling to maintain his integrity, do his duty.

Both men had long, productive, successful careers, Dos Passos with “Three Soldiers” and then the trilogy “USA.” Dos Passos was often listed among the top five “most important” writers of the twentieth century.

Hemingway of course would be even more famous and much richer with “The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” all of which would combine themes of love and war.

But Hemingway, as gregarious, generous, exuberant as he could be, could not maintain friendships with other writers.

He had legions of friends who shared his enthusiasms for fishing or big game hunting in Africa. He was friends with bartenders, soldiers, matadors and their entourages, even generous with young writers, but not with any writer he saw as a competitor.

Sherwood Anderson and Scott Fitzgerald had both given Hemingway a hand when he was unknown. Hemingway could not bear to be indebted or to have anyone feel he was the protégé of another writer. Ernest would ridicule Anderson in “The Torrents of Spring” and disparage Fitzgerald and his work in letters to mutual friends and then cruelly in “A Moveable Feast.” The story of that friendship, its rise and fall, has been beautifully treated in “Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald” by Scott Donaldson.

As he had with the others, Hemingway eventually found cause, partly political, partly romantic, to end his friendship with Dos Passos.

Both were in Spain supporting the Republic against Franco when Dos Passos, a long-time leftist, became disillusioned at the cynicism of the Soviet communists in Spain. The communists meant to take over the country themselves if Franco were defeated, not restore the democracy of the Republic.

Hemingway, who had been rather conservative, had all the blind enthusiasm of the convert and declared Dos Passos a coward for leaving Spain.

It also did not help matters that Dos Passos had married a woman, Katy Smith, whom Hemingway had adored as a teenager back in Michigan.

Although Ernest’s behavior in ruining what might have been long-term, satisfying friendships is a real shame, the obsessively competitive writer seems to have followed the dictum often attributed to Oscar Wilde: “It is not enough to succeed; others must fail.”

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.