"The notebooks that I keep are rarely of any use to me when I write," John Dos Passos recently confided to an old friend, Senior Editor Robert Cantwell, "because I can never find the notebook for the time I'm writing about."
When he wrote the recollections of fishing with Ernest Hemingway that begin on page 58 of this issue, Dos Passos needed no notebook to stimulate his memory. He had something far better: a crystal-clear portrait of Hemingway in his mind, as honest and forthright as a Mathew Brady photograph. Cantwell, who came to know both men well after his own first novel was published in 1931, considers this essay "perhaps the best and simplest portrait of Ernest Hemingway in American literature, and one of the most brilliant and engaging of Dos Passos' works. To a good many younger Americans, Hemingway has become either a mythical figure or a psychological mystery, but he was an understandable human being back in the days when he was discovering the joys of fishing for tuna, and Dos Passos has recaptured a moment that is good for all time."
Three years older than Hemingway, Dos Passos was out of Harvard (cum laude) and driving an ambulance in World War I when Hemingway, fresh from the Oak Park, Ill. high school, was a fledgling reporter on the Kansas City Star. They met briefly on the Italian front after the disaster at Caporetto. The son of a prominent corporation lawyer, Dos Passos began his literary career with four years of contributions to the Harvard Monthly, and as an aspiring architect was something of an esthete. Literary history would indicate that two writers as far apart as these could never get together.
But Dos Passos is also the most tireless encourager of talent in the annals of American literature and, with the innate tact and casual humor that characterize him, he encouraged Hemingway. Despite extreme nearsightedness, Dos Passos also developed some outdoor enthusiasms that Hemingway admired, making himself a powerful swimmer, a skillful sailor, and a foreign correspondent in the old-fashioned ends-of-the-earth tradition (one of his jaunts was a 37-day camel ride from Ramadi to Damascus shortly after World War I). People who knew them both found that Dos Passos' sociability and tact countered something combative and challenging in Hemingway's makeup. The recollections in this issue suggest how much these two owed each other.
June 28, 1964
Dos Passos lives on his 1,800-acre farm in Virginia near the mouth of the Potomac, where he canoes and fishes for the striped bass that run right past his door. He is currently finishing his monumental biography of Thomas Jefferson, and his essay on Hemingway is an unusual interlude in his literary works. This is the first thing he has ever written about his old friend. Dos Passos has known more writers than anyone of his time, but this is also (unless one counts a tribute to Scott Fitzgerald written after his death) the first recollection that Dos Passos has published about any of them. It is a beginning that cries for more.