Friday, March 9, 2018

Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and Katherine Anne Porter

Ernest Hemingway, certainly a great writer, also was a prickly character.  He was notorious for his sour relationships.  At the Nobel Prize dinner at the White House in April 1962, where he was posthumously honored, there were at least two prominent writers who would recall their past with him.

One was Katherine Anne Porter, who was at the pinnacle of her career; her only novel, A Ship of Fools, reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list that day.  She would remember the unpleasant meeting with Hemingway in Paris in the 1930s, her only encounter with him. 

Sylvia Beach, the proprietor of the legendary Shakespeare and Co. bookshop, introduced them.  “I want the two best modern American writers to know each other,” the expatriate bookseller said.  Hemingway refused to acknowledge Porter and stomped out of the shop.  She said that “it must have been galling to this most famous young man to have his name pronounced in the same breath as a writer with someone he had never heard of, and a woman at that.  I nearly felt sorry for him.”

John Dos Passos and Hemingway had met in Europe during World War I and were once great friends.  But Hemingway was always envious of other writers’ success, and the rupture came over political disagreements affecting the Spanish Civil War.  It also was affected by Hemingway’s belief that Dos Passos was responsible for his crumbling marriage to his first wife, Hadley. 

In a final break, Hemingway, upset over an article that Dos had written for Redbook, sent him a letter in 1938 in which he said, “So long, Dos” and added, “Honest Jack Passos’ll knife you three times in the back for fifteen cents.”

So these two writers had to sit through the primary after-dinner literary entertainment at the Nobel dinner which highlighted an unpublished section of Hemingway’s work; it was eventually released as Islands in the Stream.  From several accounts, the recitation by Fredric March was poorly received, not because of the superb actor’s performance, but by the writing of the late Nobel laureate.  We can only wonder what Porter and Dos Passos thought that night about the man who had disrespected them.

In researching and writing Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House (ForeEdge, April 3), I was constantly amazed by the steady stream of relationships—some good, some bad, and some just forming—between the people there or represented that warm spring night at the White House.  Indeed, there seems to be an unending number of compelling stories.

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