John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey
by Townsend Ludington
Dutton, 568 pp., $20.00
In the summer of 1968, we learn from Townsend Ludington’s diligent new biography, John Dos Passos and his wife visited old friends in Coon Rapids, Iowa, and at Walloon Lake in upper Michigan. During the latter visit the Dos Passoses and their hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Rumsey Marvin, “attended a church service during which a memorial for Ernest Hemingway was read. Quietly but firmly Dos Passos stood up and left the church in a gesture of distaste more severe than anything he had written about Ernest in The Best Times. Ernest’s remarks in A Moveable Feast no doubt were still galling.”
Though Ludington has amply chronicled the break-up of that notable literary friendship, and the portrait of Dos Passos in A Moveable Feast is indeed brutal, the moment remains rather mysterious. No source for the story is given, but Ludington must have heard it from either Elizabeth Dos Passos or his friend Rumsey Marvin, and a few questions might have been asked by the biographer. Did Dos Passos know before he came that Walloon Lake was (as Ludington doesn’t mention) the site of the Hemingway family’s summer home, the place where the young Ernest learned so much of the material of his fiction? (What extraordinary fate led the Marvins to spend the summer there, one wonders?)
Why was the memorial read on that particular Sunday, seven years after Hemingway’s suicide and, since Ludington implies that Dos Passos went first to Iowa during that “July and August,” evidently not on the anniversary of Hemingway’s death, July 2? Did the preacher know that a famous writer who had been close to Hemingway was to be in the congregation? If so, how did he know? Did Marvin tip him off? Did Marvin, a close friend for some fifty years, not know that Dos Passos now despised Hemingway, four years after the Moveable Feast passage had been published? Was Dos Passos’s anger at that posthumous slur deepened by remembering that he had sent Hemingway a brief but kindly note—”Hem, hope this isn’t getting to be a habit. Take it easy there. Best of luck. Dos”—during the latter’s final breakdown?
A biographer with a full and busy life to cover naturally can’t linger over every small detail, however intriguing. The new style of literary biography emphasizes collecting and ordering the facts while modestly abstaining from extensive criticism of the works or speculation about the psyche. The justification is a pleasantly democratic one, I suppose—given the assembled data, each reader can then feel free to construct his own interpretation of the personality and its products. But a biographer’s well-meant refusal of any but a factual authority is, in effect, a kind of irresponsibility. No mere reader knows the life, few readers know the work, as closely and comprehensively as the biographer must do, and an intelligent biographer is the necessary source, not of, final judgment but of the sort of informed …