Sunday, January 14, 2018

John Dos Passos at 122

The twentieth-century writer John Dos Passos was born 122 years ago today.  He was perhaps most noted for the novels Manhattan Transfer, published in 1925, and the USA trilogy of The Forty-Second Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, all published in the 1930s.

Dos also had been a great friend of Ernest Hemingway, knowing him in France and during the Spanish Civil War.  But as with many relationships for Hem, the relationship turned sour.  Dos Passos and Hemingway, however, did appear at the 1962 Nobel Prize dinner, one in person and the other by proxy. 

Dos Passos was among the 175 guests invited to dinner by his fellow Choate and Harvard graduate, John Kennedy. Hemingway—who was a Nobel laureate--had died the previous year, but he was represented that night by his widow and fourth wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway.  The main feature of the post-dinner literary entertainment was a reading of an unpublished excerpt from what later became Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream.  

Dos Passos also knew Mary Hemingway, whom he met during World War II.  Both had disagreed with Kennedy’s handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Mary’s position was stated directly to the president  when she sat next to him in the State Dining Room that night. I discuss all of this in my forthcoming book, Dinner in Camelot: The Night America's Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House.

John Dos Passos was especially celebrated in the twenties and thirties.  John-Paul Sartre once called him “the greatest writer of our time.” But the rise and fall of his relationship with Hemingway has also been a subject of interest in literary circles.  James McGrath Morris does a magnificent job of discussing this in his book The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War (2017).

This photo of the two writers from happier times is also included in Morris’s book.  It comes from the Ernest Hemingway Collection.  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.   There is no known copyright for it. 

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