pulp (2006-11)

A Literary Friendship

Breaking Point tackles Hemingway and Dos Passos

by Jeanne McDonald

Murder, assassins, infidelity, war, lies, spies, idealism, machismo, politics. All fascinating subjects, but a little confusing when tossed together in one literary salad bowl, which is exactly what Stephen Koch has done in The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles (Counterpoint/Perseus, $24.95).

In this nonfiction book based on true events, Koch recounts several events in the Spanish Civil War, including the political assassination that obliquely shattered the once-close relationship of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. This is a complicated book about a complicated period and a complicated character—Hemingway—and Koch has created too many story lines. As he jumps back and forth between the personal lives of the protagonists and international political events, the reader often gets lost.

Copious footnotes help explain some of the confusion, but the book might have been better focused on the relationship of the two men rather than the war and political intrigue. Although Koch’s research is impeccable and his academic style highly readable, in instances when he presumes to guess the inner emotions of his real-life characters, he goes overboard. In employing the literary device of “faction,” he stretches scenes to the point of over-writing. For instance, as artillery shells smash into the hotel Florida in Madrid, journalist Josie Herbst is portrayed as clutching “her blankets, rigid with panic. The thing tearing loose inside her…was like some alien animal assaulting her from within, palpable and violent, ripping up her very being with a strength she had not imagined possible.”

Such examples of historical invention are highly distracting, and often could pass as bodice rippers. Or notice the authorial assumption in this paragraph: “The shell was sundering the fabric of the night...”or “[The] giant was tearing the silky sky to tatters…and fear finally got to Dos, clutching his throat and yanking him out of bed.” 

Dos Passos is in Spain for two reasons—first, to try to find Jose Robles, an old friend who has suddenly disappeared in the horrendous purge of former radicals who no longer serve their purposes for the Soviets or the Fifth Column (covert Franco sympathizers in Madrid), and secondly, to work on a film, The Spanish Earth , supposedly a collaboration with Hemingway, but in reality a ploy to mislead the two celebrities into legitimizing a Communist propaganda project. Dos Passos, who has always thought of himself as a radical, sees the film as a way to change the world. Hemingway is in Spain in order to be with his new girlfriend, Martha Gellhorn, and to get publicity for work on The Spanish Earth . Hemingway and Dos Passos had first met in Italy as ambulance drivers during WWI and renewed their friendship in postwar Paris in 1922. The city was crowded with expatriates like Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, all caught up in the “moveable feast.” Dos’s highly acclaimed novel, Three Soldiers , published a couple of years before, had made him an important figure on the American literary scene, while Hemingway, a journalist, was still struggling to write what he terms “one true sentence.”

Koch portrays Hemingway as a braggart, misogynist, and poseur, all of which is validated by history; yet, Koch’s heavy leaning on these points makes Hemingway seem like the villain in this story, rather than Stalin or the Comintern, or the war itself. And under Koch’s hand, Dos Passos comes off as one-dimensional and naive.

Although all the authorities Dos Passos consults assure him—falsely—that his friend Robles is alive, he at last discovers that Robles has been murdered by secret police. But when Dos Passos meets him in his hotel room, Hemingway explodes: “Don’t put your damn mouth into this Robles business…. The fifth column is everywhere. Just suppose your professor took a powder and joined the other side.” The depression, anger and jealousy from which Hemingway suffers reaches fever pitch in Spain and worsens when he returns to his wife, Pauline, in Key West. But before they leave Madrid, with Hemingway raging and Dos Passos grieving, the two follow through on the charade of The Spanish Earth , although the Russians have already finished the picture without their input. 

A few years before his death, in a moment of lucidity, Hemingway expressed regret at “my self-righteous period in Spain” and the alienation of old friends. By 1938, Stalin lost interest in Spain, and Hemingway lost interest in Martha Gellhorn and became increasingly psychotic, paranoid and suicidal. His brilliant career and complicated life ended in Ketchum, Idaho, in June 1961, when he killed himself with a double-barreled shotgun. But his short stories and novels have continued to inspire readers and writers alike.

Dos Passos, always the gentleman, kept silent about the breakup until long after Hemingway’s death and continued to write until his death at the age of 70.