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Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Breaking Point-Hemingway, Dos Passos and the Murder of Jose Robles

This was one of the many books that Pam brings home from her volunteer job at the local library.  The nonfiction I generally thumb through reading at random until I’ve exhausted my interest, but sometimes this interest is sufficient to cause me to read the entire book.  I got so engrossed in Stephen Koch’s story of how a murder during the Spanish Civil War in 1937 effectively ended the friendship between two major American writers that I read the book twice.

Ernest Hemingway had a pattern of renewing his artistic creativity through a drastic change in his personal life, and he accomplished this by changing the woman in his life.  He was in his second marriage and was undergoing a crisis of creativity when he met his new woman in late 1936:  “At twenty-eight Martha Gelhorn was radiant with self-possession and her own excellence, quite tall, walking with a swaying (some thought practiced) stride.” Gelhorn was very much part of the 1930’s generation of political commitment unlike Hemingway who was basically apolitical and up until then had viewed such commitment as the enemy of art.  When Gelhorn strided into his life so did politics, at least for a while.

In contrast, John Dos Passos’ creativity was not cyclical.  His books were popular and widely admired in the 1920’s and early 30’s, and he was intensely political.  Jose Robles, a Spaniard, shared Dos Passos’ left wing views, and the two friends became strong supporters of the Republic against the Fascist insurgents under Franco.  Dos Passos joined his friend Hemingway, who also backed the Republic, in Spain where Robles held an important position.

From the book I learned that the Civil War was actually three way because the Soviets, who supported the Republic with arms and manpower, regarded anyone like Dos Passos and Robles who were not Stalinists as much their enemies as the Fascists.  They manipulated Hemingway, who was clearly never a Stalinist, with the lie that Robles was killed because he was a Fascist spy.  Dos Passos never bought this story, and his emotional disagreement with Hemingway led to the end of what had been a warm friendship accompanied by their mutual admiration of each others’ writing.  The other casualty of the Robles murder apparently was, for Dos Passos, the quality of that writing because the author says that “The bullet that killed Robles also shot down the soul of Dos Passos’ art.”

In America there was also a war but one fought with words rather than bullets as in Spain.  Among the left wing intellectuals the bitterness among the Stalinists and the Trotskyites and others persisted for years after.  The Hemingway/Dos Passos conflict was a battle of that culture war.  I was surprised to read a reference to novelist James T. Farrell's political activities.  I read him avidly when I was young, but he has seemingly been forgotten by the public and critics.  George Orwell appears in a striking scene with Dos Passos.  Orwell fought with the Republic’s forces but hated the Stalinists and was angry with the democracies of the West for their nonintervention in the Civil War.

Hemingway’s artistic creativity was renewed, and the author considers For Whom the Bell Toll which came out of the experiences of the Civil War to be one of his best novels.  Dos Passos never again achieved the heights of his earlier successes, and the author writes that he “never got free of his entanglement with that enemy of art, mere political opinion.”


  1. I'm so happy that there are people who can read, analyze, and write like you, Doug!

  2. That's very nice of you to say, Margo.