Book Review: How the Great War Shaped Two Great Authors

Book Review: How the Great War Shaped Two Great Authors

The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War, by James McGrath Morris. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2017.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I, and the expected deluge of commemorative books, documentaries and events has not disappointed. Among this flood of new scholarship is one book that may be of particular interest to EMS professionals.

The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War, by James McGrath Morris, tells the story of a pair of young volunteer ambulance drivers who went on to become two of America’s most famous authors, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. Tracing the 30-year relationship between these literary icons, the story relates in impressive detail the friendship and falling out between two idealistic men whose lives were changed and careers launched while in the trenches, first aid posts and hospitals of France and Italy during the “Great War.”

‘Diabolic and Unceasing’

Morris starts with John Dos Passos, who, after graduating from Harvard with an eye on a career as a writer, enlisted in what was essentially one of the earliest EMT classes in New York City, where basic first aid and an emergency vehicle operations course were taught. Those skills seem to have gotten much easier to learn in the past century: “The vehicles had levers below the steering wheel. One served as an accelerator, and the other controlled the spark that ignited the combustion gas inside the engine’s cylinders. As the ambulance sped or slowed, the driver had to change the timing of the spark. Too much adjustment either way, and the engine would knock or overheat. All the while the driver had to use his feet, like an organist, to operate three pedals that controlled the transmission’s various speeds or put the car in reverse.”

The ambulance service Dos Passos joined with was known as the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, a volunteer service financed by donations from a French millionaire. “The Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps pursued drivers as if looking for candidates for membership in an elite men’s club rather than for service in a war zone… From a practical point of view, targeting the American elite for recruitment made sense: the prerequisite ability to speak French and the skill to operate a car were talents acquired primarily by members of the upper class… Recruits were [also] expected to pay for their passage and expenses.”

After finishing the training classes, Dos Passos was put on a ship and soon found himself in Paris. When his first assignment came, it was to a little place called Verdun, where, a year earlier, “In fighting for control of a stretch of land less than four square miles in size, France and Germany had sent three hundred thousand men to their death, and another four hundred thousand were wounded or crippled.”

While the fighting had temporarily ceased when Dos Passos arrived, his welcome was not long in coming. Soon came his first introduction to the horrific sights and smells that would become common over the next two years and that he’d carry within him and his writing for the rest of his life. “[His] ambulance joined a caravan of vehicles rushing back and forth from the front to ferry the hundreds of wounded men back for medical attention… Their ambulance was punctured with holes from the shrapnel. The noise of the exploding shells provoked terror among the newcomers, who had been told to keep their mouths open to safeguard their eardrums. The men driving the ambulances quickly learned the rhythm of the cannons, each taking a different amount of time for reloading, and dashed from one location to another during the interludes.”

Due to the horrific conditions in the trenches, the ambulance officers were expected to deal with a range of life-threatening conditions: “filth accumulated from the thousands of soldiers in close quarters, turning the trenches into a petri dish for disease—an incubator for lice and, worst of all, a paradise for vermin of all kind, especially rats. The smell of putrefaction was inescapable… The sound [of detonating shells and mortars] was diabolic and unceasing. And to the fear of all soldiers, the shells also delivered poison gas.” Many of Dos Passos’ writings on those experiences were later included in his first breakthrough novel, Three Soldiers, published in 1921, which was quickly recognized as among the first (and least censored) American novels to be published about the Great War.

‘The War He So Wanted to Witness’

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Hemingway followed Dos Passos’ path in 1918, leaving his job as a reporter with the Toronto Star and sailing to France with the American Expeditionary Forces, where upon his arrival he was sent to Italy. While there Hemingway sat around and did very little. Frustrated by the lack of action, he put himself forward for several missions that disappointed him further. It wasn’t until the 18-year old volunteered to run cigarettes and chocolate by bicycle to the front lines that he finally found the action he was looking for. As Morris wrote, “The war he so wanted to witness had found him.”

On one of his first trips to the front lines, Hemingway unwittingly walked right into the path of an exploding mortar shell lobbed by Austrian troops from trenches just a few yards away. What happened after has become the topic of great debate, fueled in part by Hemingway’s lifelong affinity for fishing stories and modesty in correcting the exaggerations of others, but this much is true: One Italian soldier standing between Hemingway and the mortar was killed; a second lost both his legs, and Hemingway lost consciousness at several points before, during and after his transport by stretcher to the nearest first aid post several miles away.

At the first aid post, doctors pulled out more than 250 pieces of shrapnel from Hemingway’s legs, eventually landing him in a military hospital, where he was awarded a medal of valor by the Italian army and fell in love with a Red Cross nurse. Years later these events would be refashioned and published in one of Hemingway’s most famous novels, A Farewell to Arms, the story of an American ambulance volunteer on the Italian front lines who was injured in a mortar attack and fell in love with his nurse. Though Hemingway became engaged to the real-life nurse who treated him, unlike the novel, she called it off, sending Hemingway into one of the many emotional crises that would become a trademark of his storied and tragic life.

After the War

While only the first 75 pages of The Ambulance Drivers are dedicated to these future novelists’ ambulance exploits, the rest of the book is impressive in its own regard, following the war’s evolving impact on their friendship and literary careers. Dos Passos left the war and became a staunchly antiwar, antiestablishment radical, devoting his time as a political activist often affiliated with communist and even anarchist movements through the Great Depression. Though the two were the best friends for many years after the war, Hemingway traveled a different road, taking away from the war distinctly personal experiences that found their way into his novels through his devotion to the singular experience of the individual in trying circumstances. Love, war, courage and cowardice were themes he was able to take on fully because of the war: “For Hemingway, love and war were inseparable. To his mind combat was a test of manliness, and who better to serve as a foil than a woman. That was how it had been for him when he recalled the front in the hills of northern Italy.”

Hemingway’s aversion to politics was no secret for several decades after the war. During that same time Dos Passos was busy writing on a range of radical causes, including the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, but Hemingway refused to take political sides, focusing his writings on man’s struggle with and yearning for more idealistic notions of courage, love and fear, among others. As Hemingway infamously told a friend in the Paris literary scene, “There is no left and no right in writing. There is only good and bad writing.”

By the time Hemingway arrived in Spain in 1937, however, both he and Dos Passos had changed—this time it seemed for good. The initial plan the authors had shared was to work together on a documentary about the Spanish Civil War. Over the past few years, Dos Passos’ radical idealism—and his affiliation with the Communist party—had increasingly disappointed, leading to his eventual departure from leftist politics and activism at large. Hemingway, on the other hand, had adopted a decidedly procommunist stance, perhaps the first political stance he had ever taken, though likely to help him gain favor with, and access to, the national Spanish government, busily fighting against fascist revolutionaries supported by Italy’s Benito Mussolini. The two men had apparently changed much since their friendship began 20 years earlier—perhaps due to success, jealousy, pride, principles or even longstanding jealousy over a woman—and now it was clear they had come to Spain with different agendas.

Hemingway didn’t like it. “Hemingway wanted to emphasize the fighting, not the troubles of ordinary Spaniards [as Dos Passos did]. He was unconcerned about reports of atrocities committed by the Communists and others supporting the embattled [Spanish] government. More than their differing vision for the film provoked Hemingway’s quarrelsomeness; Dos Passos had just been elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an honor not yet bestowed on Hemingway.” Further compounding this perceived insult was the fact that Dos Passos owed Hemingway money (not that Hemingway needed it). In what turned out to be the final break in their decades-long relationship, Dos Passos abandoned the documentary project after several bitter arguments between the two. It didn’t seem too much of a loss to Hemingway; upon Dos Passos’ departure he dove headfirst into the project, which eventually led in 1940 to the publication of another classic work, For Whom The Bell Tolls.

The authors’ last meeting was at a Paris train station a few months later. Hemingway showed up unexpectedly, wanting to know what Dos Passos was going to say to the press about a murdered friend in Spain—the same argument that had led to their acrimonious split in Madrid. Hemingway, not pleased with Dos Passos’ answer that he was going to tell the truth, “balled up his fist and glared at him.” If Dos Passos didn’t fully take the side of the Spanish Communists, Hemingway threatened to have the New York literary critics turn on him—a curious confession from a man so unequivocally dedicated to truth, courage and honor.

Much as Hemingway and Dos Passos may have been unaware of their roles as pioneers in the early days of combat medicine, Morris probably doesn’t realize how relevant his book is to the EMS profession today. As the U.S. finds itself at the end of two very long and violent wars, our combat medics and veterans joining civilian EMS agencies and fire departments every day, it’s not at all unlikely that a few of these vets are in a position similar to Dos Passos’ and Hemingway’s 100 years ago: trying to make sense of what they’ve been through and what it means for the future. If these authors’ tale is any indicator of the road they’ll be traveling, things can change.

Jason Friesen is a paramedic and has been working in international development since 2003. He earned his BA in English from Westmont College, completed his paramedic training at Southwestern College and received an MPH from Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. He has worked as a flight medic and paramedic instructor, a contributing author for EMS publications, and provides consulting for a range of global health initiatives in both systems development and disaster response. 

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