Return to Paradise
Even for those born too late to experience the twenties in American history, those days have come to be associated with the “twenties” in our lives, says Mr. Wakefield in this study of the lives and times of the many writers who populate the pages of John Dos Passos ’ newly published memoir, THE BEST TIMES (New American Library).
Now once more the belt is tight and we summon the proper expression of horror as we look back at our wasted youth . . . it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings anymore. — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tales of the Jazz Age
Those lines about the nineteen twenties were written in November of 1931, and illustrate the fact that Scott Fitzgerald not only served as the literary laureate who best observed, described, and helped create the spirit of that decade, but that he was also the first to understand and explain the later emotion and attitude that would become the prevailing manner of looking back on that golden time. In an almost eerie and entirely appropriate way, that decade in the life of our country has come to stand for the “twenties” in each of our lives. Not only for those “who were young then” but also for those of us who were not even born then, the twenties in American history, like the twenties in our personal histories, have come to symbolize the time of first growing up, of escape and freedom, of first love and camaraderie and the sort of pain that is more sweet than bitter because there is so much time left to make up for it, to erase or overwhelm it with the finer and larger sort of experience that still looms ahead, beckoning like the green light on Daisy’s dock. If those hopes turn out to be as elusive as the green light was for Gatsby, symbolizing “the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us,” then the passage is just as ironically appropriate to us as it was to Jay Gatsby and his creator.
Time has supported not only the substance of Fitzgerald’s literary gift — a gift that was temporarily devalued by the swerve of fashion in the grim thirties — but also what might be called his historical instinct. His insights were certainly instinctual rather than intellectual, a fact which he recognized better than anyone else. (In a selfevaluation in The Crack-Up, written in 1936, he noted that he had done little “thinking” except about problems of his craft, and that “for twenty years a certain man had been my intellectual conscience. That was Edmund Wilson.”) But his instinct served him well, and even when he was literally wrong he seems to have also been right in some instinctive, figurative way, as in the famous ending to Gatsby in which Nick Carraway, taking one last look at Daisy’s dock,
became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory, enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
In a literal way we know in the sixties that is not true; there looms now the new and far more enormous frontier of something called “space,” with planets and stellar promises and perils, and yet in spite of all the strained rhetoric about it that is cranked out for each new mechanical “adventure,” the subject remains, at least for nonscientific types such as myself, an enormous bore, or, as C. Wright Mills once referred to it, “that atmospheric bunkum,” Perhaps the subject itself is somehow resistant to “aesthetic contemplation”; perhaps the very enormity of it only serves to dull rather than to stimulate our capacity for wonder.
But even aside from that particular subject, there seems to be in some general and vital sense a loss of the capacity for wonder, accompanied by a desperate yearning to recapture it that is represented in one way by the fad of pot and LSD, keys of any kind that promise, by instant chemical action, an entry into what Baudelaire called “the artificial paradise.” Fitzgerald indeed was describing the loss of something when he set Nick Carraway to musing that night across from Daisy’s dock. Yet it wasn’t the end of new frontiers and challenges large enough to stir man’s capacity for wonder; it was rather the very capacity itself that seems to have been lost back there on Gatsby’s blue lawn. Again with a kind of prophetic instinct, Fitzgerald later described the condition that followed that loss, analyzing in his own personal “crack-up” the postwonder spirit of succeeding generations in a sentence that could serve as the best summation of the mood of the current “free” youth of the LSD generation:
It was strange to have no self—to be like a little boy left alone in a big house, who knew that now he could do anything he wanted to do, but found there was nothing he wanted to do.
The literary giants who came of age in the twenties and survived the political, social, and personal bludgeonings of the succeeding decades — the pulverizing process of life itself—experienced each in his own way the “crack-up” and loss of wonder and innocence that Fitzgerald described. But for most of them the twenties remained a kind of touchstone, a mental magic lamp that could be used to summon up the old spirit and restore, long enough to transcribe it to paper, the sense of wonder that was otherwise lost and locked back within that era. Fitzgerald in the doldrums of 1937 could look back to the twenties and re-create that time “when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment — when life was literally a dream.” Nor was this romantic sort of re-creation limited to Fitzgerald, that major “romantic egoist.”
Even so hard-headed and intellectually rigorous a writer as Edmund Wilson has expressed the same sort of sentiment about the twenties. He put it most movingly in a poem that was written as a dedication to the posthumous book of Fitzgerald’s essays, letters, and notebooks that Wilson edited (published in 1945 as The Crack-[Up). Wilson wrote the “Dedication” poem in 1942 at his home on Cape Cod:
Where now I seek to breathe again the fumes Of iridescent drinking dens, retrace The bright hotels, regain the eager pace You tell of . . . Scott, the bright hotels turn bleak; The pace limps or stamps; the wines are weak.
Another literary light of that generation, the immaculate stylist Glenway Wescott, remarked in writing on the occasion of Fitzgerald’s death in 1940 that “the twenties were heaven, so to speak, often enough; might not heaven be like the twenties?”
Hemingway, in his posthumously published memoir of the Paris of the twenties, A Moveable Feast, explains that the book is about “how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” He explains that in those days — the twenties — “when spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest.”
THE most recent example of this power of the twenties to evoke, through memory, the old sense of wonder and youthful enchantment is a fragmentary but fascinating memoir by John Dos Passos entitled The Best Times. Rather than a full-scale autobiography, which is unlikely ever to be written by a man as shy and protective of his private life as Dos Passos, this is a series of loosely connected autobiographical narratives concerning “The Best Times” that the author has experienced. Not surprisingly, the book is mainly about the twenties.
In the literary pantheon of that decade, the names that most commonly come to mind are Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and behind them, like the bright but lesser stars of a brilliant constellation, are writers such as Wilson, Wescott, John Peale Bishop, Ring Lardner, Kay Boyle, Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, E. E. Cummings, Hart Crane. The list is not meant to be inclusive but associative, and the point is that in my own associations of the era — and I think this is true for most of us who came after it — the name Dos Passos doesn’t seem to belong to the twenties. Partly by the tricks and ironies of fate, he has, for better or worse — and undoubtedly for worse — been assigned by the IBM machine of history to represent and to be associated with the sour decade that followed, the deadly decade of personal as well as economic depression, the “political” thirties.
In the later fuss over his political pilgrimage — a fairly standard one for American writers that leads from left to right, and in this case from the New Masses of the twenties to the National Review of the fifties and sixties — Dos Passos has come to be caricatured as a kind of stock thirties radical turned stock Goldwater conservative. In the caricaturization much perspective and rational judgment about his real work as a writer have been buried in controversies over his politics, and that is a fatal kind of burial for a man who is after all a writer and not a politician.
In the now accepted and comfortable caricature of his career, Dos Passos seems to have emerged on the literary scene in the thirties waving a red Hag and bearing a massive trilogy called USA, which supposedly was all about “labor” and “the working man” and the “proletariat,” and he was, of course, what they called a “proletarian writer.” Among other distortions perpetrated by this caricature is the misrepresentation of USA, which in fact dealt with many strata of society, and in the year its last volume appeared (The Big Money in 1936), it annoyed many people who had hoped for a radical call to arms and were disturbed by what was described as the “plague on both your houses” attitude of the book. For Dos Passos had shown in this work, according to no less qualified an interpreter than Lionel Trilling, that “the creeds and idealisms of the left may bring corruption quite as well as the creeds and cynicisms of the established order.”
In making Dos Passos a stereotype figure of the thirties, the commonplace caricature of his career also neglects the fact that he was one of the important literary pioneers of the twenties, and his work was regarded as among the most exciting and original productions of that decade. When his novel Three Soldiers appeared in 1921, John Peale Bishop extolled him as a “genius,” and when his experimental Manhattan Transfer came out in 1925, Sinclair Lewis hailed it as
the vast and blazing dawn we have awaited. It may be the foundation of a whole new school of novel writing. Dos Passos may be, more than Dreiser, Cather, Hergesheimer, Cabell or Anderson, the father of humanized and living fiction . . . not merely for America but for the world !
CERTAINLY part of the reason, in addition to politics, that Dos Passos has been assigned to the thirties instead of the twenties is that his personality is more attuned to the image of that later era of “seriousness” than to the frivolous flapper age. Fitzgerald and Hemingway fit the spirit of the twenties in their glamorous and much publicized lives as well as in the subject matter of their work; while Dos Passos, behind his thick glasses and his serious reserve, is simply not the kind of man who would ever be caught diving into the fountain of the Plaza or chasing the bulls in Pamplona.
In this new memoir, Dos Passos explains that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald “were celebrities in the Sunday supplement sense of the word. . . . It wasn’t that I was not as ambitious as the next man, but the idea of being that kind of celebrity set my teeth on edge.” Nor was he the sort of man who felt that he had to prove his manliness by exposing himself to physical danger in the Hemingway style. At the Fiesta of Pamplona he had the nerve to express his disdain for the literary aficionados who were about to join in chasing the bulls through the streets, and frankly confesses, “The joke on me was that when I walked off after loudly repudiating the whole business, I found myself face to face with the bull. He looked me in the eyes and I looked him in the eyes. We called it quits.” Dos Passos climbed a wall, and casually explained to those who found him that he simply wanted a better vantage point for making some sketches.
His last memory of “Paris literary life” is also typical of his reticence about the more flamboyant aspects of the twenties spirit. He and the American writer Donald Ogden Stewart were dining with some French poets and artists and were swept along in an impromptu “happening” (or manifestation artistique, as it was called in that time and place) led by the Dada hero Tristan Tzara, a kind of Andy Warhol of the era, whom Dos Passos describes as “a sallow Rumanian who looked like a chartered accountant.” Tzara led his fellow artists out of a café (naturally Dos Passos got stuck with the check) and into the streets, where they marched along chanting “Dada, Dada,” and then solemnly proceeded through a Turkish bath, explaining to the astonished customers, “C’est le Dada.” Dos Passos recalls, “When we got back into the air again, Don and I slipped into a cab and made for our respective hotels. Dada left us feeling just a wee mite squeamish.”
But if some of these typically twentyish attitudes and pranks set his teeth on edge or left him feeling squeamish, still Dos Passos enjoyed the era, and looks back on it with as much — if not more — affection as any of the time’s more “typical” heroes. Outside of Fitzgerald’s recollective essays, it would be hard to find a more romantic or alluring hymn to that time than a passage in this memoir in which Dos Passos recalls “the speakeasy days”:
From the moment the door clicked to behind you, you had the feeling of being in the Fortunate Islands, where there were no rules and regulations, no yesterday or tomorrow, no husbands to complain, no private entanglements with other women, only this moment. The memory lingers of certain female perfumes, of certain daiquiris, the meal slowly eaten, the ambrosial wine. The eyes kindling, the knees furtively touching. The hands creeping toward each other across the table. At length you would drift out into the street enclosed like Homeric gods in a private cloud. The French farce aspects of Mr. and Mrs. Smith registering in a hotel, or the tiptoe climbing of celestial stairs, the latchkey quietly turning in the lock. The lips meeting, arms twining, the delights and terrors that neither the greatest poets or the most meticulous pornographers have ever been able to describe . . . asterisks still do it better.
The romantic spirit of that nostalgic memory of the twenties becomes even more dramatic when contrasted with the closing passage of Dos Passos’ last major novel, Midcentury (published in 1961), a fictional chronicle of the fifties that ends with the following bitter reflection on the current era;
Musing midnight and the / century’s decline / man walks with dog. . . . / The hate remains / to choke out good, to strangle the / still small private voice that is God’s spark in man. Man drowns / in his own scum. / These nights are dark. . . .”
Yet out of such depths of what seems to be a personal as well as a historic sense of darkness, the twenties still have the power of evoking in the same writer a recollected brightness that is as intense and light as “these nights” are dark.
“Looking back on it,” Dos Passos recalls, “lunching at the Plaza with Scott and Zelda in the fall of 1922 marks the beginning of an epoch.” It was a day in October, and “the sky is very blue. The clouds are very white. Windows of tall buildings sparkle in the sun. Everything has the million dollar look.”
There is, throughout this moving memoir, a lament for how it was then and is no more; for Dos Passos, like Wilson, the hotels have turned bleak and the wines gone weak since that time, and nothing is quite so good. This is a recurrent theme, woven through the narrative, the same feeling of loss expressed in so many different ways, both large and small: “In the twenties you could still sit out in the air on top of the Fifth Avenue buses . . . everything you ate at the Plaza was good in those days . . . friends were friends in those days. . . .”
If the buses lost their open tops and the food lost its savor in later years, so also, more distressingly, did the friendship of many of the old literary comrades lose the trust and warmth and understanding that so remarkably prevailed among the writers and artists during that time. It is hard to think of another era in which so many monstrous (or writer-sized) egos managed even for as long as they did to co-exist in what seemed for the most part a pleasurable and mutually respectful society. Like so many other things, many of those friendships began to go stale in the thirties, with rancor sometimes replacing respect and antagonism overcoming affection. Like everyone else, Dos Passos became embittered by these breaks; but unlike many others, he is able to look back in this memoir with a basic fondness and respect even for former friends who drifted off or broke away in arguments and bitterness.
In this book there is none of the retrospective backbiting that mars, for instance, A Moveable Feast, in which Hemingway seems to write about many old friends, especially Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, simply to show his superiority to them, beating his own chest at the expense of others in the most disgusting display of the Hemingway bullyboy bravado. Dos Passos’ memoir is free of any such vindictiveness or self-justification. In portraying his old friends with both their flaws and their virtues, regarding them not as heroes or villains or competitors but talented colleagues, he gives us the best “album” I know of the literary figures of the twenties. He does not attempt to do full-scale portraits of them, any more than he does of himself, but sharp, deft sketches that convey a real sense of the person.
THERE is an especially engaging sketch of Edmund Wilson, who was probably the keenest intellect of that literary generation. In Exile’s Return, Malcolm Cowley lists the leading writers of the twenties, along with their date of birth and a description of their literary “category,” such as “novelist,” “poet,” “critic,” and so on. But Wilson is given a special category all his own: he is identified — and rightly so — as “man of letters.” The awesome accomplishments of Wilson in an intellectual as well as a literary way have made him come to seem like the studious, inscrutable “Owl” of the generation, and so it is especially interesting to see “the elvish side of him” that Dos Passos presents. Recounting his first meeting with Wilson, in the office hallway of Vanity Fair, Dos Passos recalls:
There, appeared a slight sandyhaired young man with a handsome clear profile. He wore a formal dark business suit. The moment we had been introduced, while we were waiting for the elevator, Bunny gave an accent to the occasion by turning, with a perfectly straight face, a neat somersault.
A complete “individual” in the old-fashioned, almost obsolete sense of the word, Wilson seems full of surprises both in his life and in his work. The rich and varied body of his work is perhaps more full of delightful surprises than that of any other American writer, and it seems that its real merit and interest has been distorted by another easy caricature, for just as Dos Passos has been typed as a “political novelist,” so Wilson has been typed as simply a “critic,” Indeed, he is one of the finest literary critics we have ever had, but that is too narrow a term to describe a career that has also produced some of our most distinguished journalism, scholarship, and even fiction (his Memoirs of Hecate County is one of the finest fictional portrayals of the social, political, and sexual life of his own generation). Following his own instincts and interests, Wilson’s preoccupations have ranged from the Iroquois to the Finland Station; from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Civil War, the cold war, the income tax, the coal miners, the automobile industry, “the higher jazz,” the modern state of Israel, the Marquis de Sade, to name only a few. It should not be surprising then that his life should be as full of seemingly contradictory interests and accomplishments. Dos Passos reports that Wilson could never learn to drive a car, but used to travel from New York City to his mother’s house in Red Bank, New Jersey, riding a motorcycle “through the screaming traffic.” Wilson was also an unusually strong swimmer, a fact convincingly documented by Dos Passos when he recalls going out with him into a heavy surf off Red Bank:
We had been talking about Henry James’ novels as we trotted down the beach. The waves pounded us. Though I was coughing and sputtering and hard put to it to keep from drowning, Bunny kept unreeling one of his long involved sentences in a quiet conversational tone. Except when he was interrupted by a wave’s breaking over his head, he didn’t miss a single dependent clause. He completed the paragraph, without ever getting out of breath, when we landed back on the beach. He showed no sign of noticing that I was blowing like a grampus.
There are particularly affectionate portrayals of E. E. Cummings, who seems to have been Dos Passos’ close friend longer than anyone else (from Harvard days till Cummings’ death in the early nineteen sixties), and of Gerald and Sara Murphy, the gracious and attractive couple who “discovered” the Riviera and served as the favorite hosts of the leading artists and writers of the time. We also get brief but telling glimpses of Hart Crane, Ring Lardner, Donald Ogden Stewart, as well as some of the outstanding European artists of the time. He brings us Picasso in a single, revealing paragraph that ends with the judgment that
you couldn’t approach him or his work — the man and the work were inseparable — without profound admiration for the sly elbow, the cunning fingers, the accurate eye; if he had had the gift of compassion he would have been as great as Michelangelo.
The most space is given to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, whose friendships with Dos Passos (as with everyone else) were especially complex and sometimes disturbing, yet he handles both of those delicate relationships with a dignity, a sense of respect and fairness, that does honor to himself as well as to them. Though often unsympathetic to some of Fitzgerald’s social — or antisocial — antics, he never lost respect for his gift:
When he talked about writing, his mind, which seemed to me full of preposterous notions about most things, became hard as a diamond. He didn’t look at landscape, he had no taste for food or wine or painting, little ear for music except for the most rudimentary popular songs, but about writing he was a born professional. Everything he said was worth listening to.
Dos Passos remembers advising Fitzgerald not to publish the essays that composed The Crack-Up, and with a self-critical candor that is all too rare among literary memoirists, he remarks: “How easy it is to give your friends bad advice; it turned out to be one of his best books.” It is difficult not to make comparison with the wholly different attitude of the Hemingway memoirs, in which the heronarrator was always giving good advice to his friends and the only problem was that sometimes, like willful children, they failed to take it and therefore inevitably went astray. Dos Passos, on the other hand, admits to a human fallibility that evokes both trust and relief.
The last description of Fitzgerald is in 1932, when he used to come to visit Dos Passos, who was conlined at the time to a hospital bed with a temporary illness. Dos Passos describes the troubled Fitzgerald of the thirties with a generosity and warmth that are typical of the whole book:
Actually, Scott was meeting adversity with a consistency of purpose that I found admirable. He was trying to raise Scottie, to do the best thing possible for Zelda, to handle his drinking and to keep a flow of stories into the magazines to raise the enormous sums that Zelda’s illness cost. At the same time he was determined to continue writing firstrate novels. With age and experience his literary standards were rising. I never admired a man more. He was so much worse off than I was that I felt I ought to be sitting at His bedside instead of his sitting at mine.
IN RETROSPECT, DOS Passos’ temporary hospiialization, or at least the timing of it, seems painfully symbolic. He explains that “soon after Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated I came down with a fresh bout of rheumatic fever.” Although he has elsewhere written that he voted for the Communist candidates for President in 1932 — not because he wanted them to win but as a means of protest — and though he voted for FDR in 1936, and (with quick regrets) in 1940, it is almost as if the rheumatic fever following the first inauguration foreshadowed his later disillusionment with Roosevelt and with liberalism altogether. His antipathy to FDR and all he stood for reached an angry climax with the novel The Grand Design, published in 1949 as the final book of Dos Passos’ second trilogy, District of Columbia.
The retrospective association of his illness with FDR’s inauguration is typical of the attitude toward politics that is so clearly and bitterly expressed in this memoir. He writes, for instance, that “in the spring of 1917 some people caught socialism the way others caught the flu.” Politics is thought of as a kind of disease, and in fact, after one reads this book, there is the sense that politics has been for Dos Passos what booze was for Fitzgerald; something that he couldn’t give up even though it often got him into trouble and left him feeling worse afterward and often caused the ruin of old friendships.
Again, like Fitzgerald with his alcohol, Dos Passos kept trying to give up politics, and assuring others that after just one more cause (like one more drink), he’d be done with the stuff for good. He says that in the early thirties “I kept writing to Hem and other skeptical friends that I was just about to renounce radical entanglements, but the temptation would arise to join in one more piece of do-goodery.” And after ridding himself of the radical entanglements mentioned in this book, he was later to get involved in conservative entanglements. There is a feeling that despite Lhe seemingly dramatic change of Dos Passos from left to right, basically it was not so different from an alcoholic switching from gin to bourbon; he could change drinks, but he couldn’t give up “drinking.” His condemnation of “politics” is not limited to any brand, but refers to the entire “disease.” an attitude made clear when he writes that “politics, in our day, has become as destructive as religion was in the fifteenth century.” Not left-wing politics or right-wing politics—just politics, denounced as sweepingly as the alcoholic would denounce not gin or bourbon but booze, whatever the label.
The irony of Dos Passos’ being typed as a “political” writer is made especially clear when he recalls being asked in the thirties to address a conference composed of “writers of what was then called proletarian literature. Some of the professors had been putting that label on my stuff and I had been thinking how to take evasive action.” With his usual reluctance about public appearances, he simply mailed in his “speech,” and sums up its message by recalling that “Malcolm Cowley brought out what I meant when he quoted me as having exclaimed: ‘Writers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your brains.’ I hope I really said it.”
Dos Passos has good reason for being bitter. The literary evaluation of his work has undoubtedly suffered because of political rather than artistic considerations. This unfortunate phenomenon can be no better illustrated than by quoting from Maxwell Geismar’s self-righteous little sermon posing as an introduction to a paperback edition of The Big Money. Mr. Geismar, a critic who often judges literature in terms of his own outworn “proletarian” outlook, has attacked writers as various and as distinguished as Salinger and Henry James (in a book-length diatribe of hysteria and invective entitled Henry James and the Jacobins) for what seems to boil down to their failure to populate their novels with characters who belong to the United Automobile Workers or the I.L.G.W.U. He is particularly snide about Dos Passos, whom, of course, he considers to be a turncoat. In his introduction to Dos Passos’ own novel, he graciously says that if its author would only return to his former political beliefs, he “would be welcome back to the roster” of leading American writers. “Meanwhile,” Geismar advises the reader, “I think we should close our eyes to what Dos Passos has written since USA.” That is certainly a more “liberal” suggestion than advocating that we burn all those later books by Dos Passos, but even closing our eyes to them involves a kind of blindness that is harmful to the reader as well as the writer.
What hurt as much as, or more than, this sort of nonliterary criticism born of political judgments was the breaking up of personal friendships because of political beliefs. “I could never quite get used to people I thought were friends getting sore at me personally instead of my reprehensible opinions,” Dos Passos reflects. But it happened, as a result of radical as well as conservative opinions, in the thirties as well as the fifties. He writes, almost pleadingly in his own defense, and with a sense of guilt that is typical of his attitude toward politics, that in these personal conflicts over ideology “I kept remembering a motto letterhead over the entrance of the Carcel Modelo in Madrid: ‘Abhor the crime but pity the criminal.’”
Although he doesn’t speak of it in this book — it deals with only “The Best Times” — it was this sort of political controversy that caused a decisive break in his long friendship with Hemingway. José Robles, a Spaniard who was a longtime friend of Dos Passos’, was shot by the Communists for political reasons, and this personal tragedy led Dos Passos to question the whole Communist role in the Spanish Civil War. He argued bitterly about it with Hemingway, who had become a staunch supporter of the Spanish Republican tight against Franco, and finally Dos Passos left Spain having broken with Hemingway as well as some of his old political persuasions. The diverse direction the two writers took during the rending conflict in Spain was summed up by a headline in the Partisan Review in 1938 that read: “Substitute at Left Tackle: Hemingway for Dos Passos.”
True to the title of the memoir, it stops just short of all this. The disillusionments of the Spanish Civil War, and its effect on the old friendship with Hemingway, are simply foreshadowed by referring to pleasant lunches in Madrid that took place evidently on the eve of the conflict: “These lunches were the last time Hem and I were able to speak of things Spanish without losing our tempers.”
The friendship with Hemingway had become increasingly difficult even before politics put the last crack in it. Dos Passos had met his first wife, Katy (she was killed in a tragic auto accident in 1947 in which Dos Passos lost an eye), at Hemingway’s house in Key West, and Katy had been a childhood friend of the Hemingway family’s. Despite the later crack-up of the friendship, Dos Passos can still look back on Hemingway with affection and respect:
Hem had uncommonly good eyesight. The hunter’s cold acuity. In those days [the twenties, of course] he seemed to me to see things and people uncolored by sentiment or theory. Everything was in a cool clear white light, the light which pervades his best short stories. “A Glean Well Lighted Place” for example.
Speaking in admiration of Hemingway’s intense dedication to learning all about any subject he wanted to write on, Dos Passos says,
He stuck like a leech till he had every phase of the business in his blood. He worked himself into the confidence of the local professionals and saturated himself to the bursting point. . . . Some of Hemingway’s best writing springs from this quality. When he described the matador’s work in Death in the Afternoon, he knew what he was talking about.
Writing of the time when things began to go sour between them, Dos Passos can speak about the trouble by laying part of the blame on himself, and can describe Hemingway’s own poses and peculiarities more with wry ness than with bitterness. Writing of visits that he and his wife made to the Hemingway home in Key West in the early thirties, Dos Passos says,
things got rocky between Ernest and me more often than they used to. It may have been as much my fault as his. Katy and I laid it to the literary gaspers. . . . The famous author, the great sports fisherman, the mighty African hunter: we tried to keep him kidded down to size. We played up to him some at that, particularly nights when he had a sore throat and would retire to bed before supper and we’d all bring him drinks and eat our supper on trays around the bedroom. We called it the lit royale. I never knew an athletic and vigorous man who spent as much time in bed as Ernest did.
In the recollections of the early thirties the hints of the troubles and disillusionments to come are there, like storm warnings, but true to the promise of its title, the book stops short of the storm, which for Dos Passos as well as many others seemed to break conclusively with the Spanish Civil War. If most of the Best Times ended with the twenties, there were still a few good lunches and a few pleasant trips and visits in the first few years of the following decade. But there the book trails off, rather sadly and abruptly, without direct reference to the wars and troubles ahead; The Best Times is basically a book of nostalgia and love for the twenties.
Dos Passos’ own feelings about that era can best be summed up by quoting several lines from Fitzgerald’s ode in essay form to “My Lost City,” which is the New York of the twenties. In the romantic voice that sounds so unfamiliar now and seems to come from so terribly far away, Fitzgerald perhaps was speaking for all of that great literary generation when he looked back on the twenties and lamented:
... I can only cry out that I have lost my splendid mirage. Come back, come back, O glittering and white.