Gary Krist in the Washington Post:
Being one of the premier literary figures of your generation can be a lonely business. Just ask Ernest Hemingway. According to Hadley Richardson, the author’s first wife, Hemingway always had trouble finding friends he could connect with “on his level, and with the same interests.” But there was one notable exception: “John Dos Passos,” she once told an interviewer, “was one of the few people . . . whom Ernest could really talk to.”
Certainly the two writers had a few significant things in common. Both born in Chicago, they each served a formative stint as an ambulance driver in Europe during World War I, distilling the experience into war novels that helped shape the postwar American consciousness. And for several decades around the mid-1900s, both would have appeared on virtually any critic’s list of the greatest American novelists of the century.
But there the similarities ended. Dos Passos, who was born out of wedlock, grew up in a series of European hotel rooms and was educated at Choate and Harvard. Sickly and physically awkward, he wore thick eyeglasses, spoke with a stutter and was never much of a ladies’ man. Hemingway, the product of a much more stable and conventional Midwestern family, never went to college but always exuded an intellectual confidence and insouciant athleticism that made him a great favorite with the opposite sex. Dos Passos was a lifelong political activist, while Hemingway (with one or two exceptions) typically steered clear of movements and causes. Books by Dos Passos seldom sold well; books by Hemingway seldom didn’t. And yet, as James McGrath Morris illustrates in his trim and absorbing new book, somehow the two writers managed to maintain an intense, often competitive friendship over many years — until one major disagreement in the 1930s tore them apart, leaving behind a bitterness that lasted until Hemingway’s suicide in 1961.