Friday, March 31, 2017

Review of "The Ambulance Drivers" by James McGrath Morris

This review first appeared at the New York Journal of Books on March 27, 2017

“Paris represented everything their homeland was not for the generation of Americans writers like Hemingway and Dos Passos who had come of age during the Great War. An incomprehensible number of men, more than 9 million, had been killed, and twice that number had been maimed. It seemed to these young aspiring writers . . .the world was no longer the same and never would be again.”

John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway initially crossed paths in 1918 as ambulance drivers in war torn Italy. The two literary icons would met again in the early 1920s in the American expatriate society of Paris where the allure of the city had seduced many writers, artists, and composers. By this time, Dos Passos was already an established author and highly respected, while Hemingway was still an up and comer on the brink of greatness. Throughout the 1920s and better part of the 1930s they were best of friends and honest critics of each other’s works.

“John Dos Passos was one of the few people at certain times whom Ernest could really talk to” and “Their nascent friendship rose out of a unique common bond . . . they dreamed of penning the great books of their generation. They were almost alone among American writers of their age in having witnessed the war that defined their generation.”

Although these two former Chicagoans had many things in common on the surface, they were complete opposites as far as philosophy and temperament. Hemingway was arrogant, certain of himself, willing to get ahead at the expense of others, and athletic. Dos Passos was well educated, timid, considerate to a fault, and not an athlete.

By the mid-1930s, their relationship began to deteriorate. Hemingway became more obsessive about his writing and even more self-centered in his relationships. Dos Passos, who was busy with his own writing was inattentive to Hemingway. The latter’s egoistical selfishness to friends was worsened by his almost total lack of social awareness, his preoccupation with the horrors of war, and his own self-destructive psychoses.

Tiny incidents accumulated to an intolerable level, at least in Hemingway’s mind, and he began to lash out at his baffled friend. The ultimate breaking point, however, came in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway and Dos Passos were in Spain, when JosĂ© Robles a patriot in the leftist Popular Front and good friend of Dos Passos disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The Hemingway-Dos Passos relationship finally reached its endgame on April 22, 1937, when Hemingway, brimming with confidence and cruelty, told Dos Passos that Robles had been shot as a proven fascist collaborator, a renegade, a dirty spy, a betrayer of his friends. Dos Passos was left shocked and devastated. Their friendship never recovered.

James McGrath Morris, the author of several critically acclaimed biographies, including the New York Times bestselling Eye on the Struggle and Pulitzer delves head first into the mercurial relationship of these two American literary legends in his new book, The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War.

Throughout this riveting biography Morris expertly narrates the journeys, relationships, and life-changing events that inspired two of the greatest authors of the 20th century. While Hemingway believed that literature should be a perfect representation of an imperfect world, Dos Passos wanted his writing to change the world. Both versions played a significant role in shaping what would become the voice of the Lost Generation.

The Ambulance Drivers is a lively and engaging biography that takes a fresh look at the life of Dos Passos, but fails to shed any new light into Hemingway, whose life has already been well documented. Although readers may at first hesitate to embark on yet another analysis of Ernest Hemingway, Morris’ framing of the context of his fragile and contemptuous relationship with fellow literary giant John Dos Passos creates a worthwhile read. It will most certainly fascinate Dos Passos and Hemingway aficionados, as well as the casual literary biography enthusiast.

Michael Thomas Barry is the author of seven nonfiction books that includes America’s Literary Legends: The Lives & Burial Places of 50 Great Writers.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Review of Murder in Plain English by Michael Arntfield & Marchel Danesi

Murder in Plain English: From Manifestos to Memes--Looking at Murder through the Words of Killers

The review first appeared at the New York Journal of Books on March 6, 2017

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“Humans are the planet’s outliers when it comes to murder. We are, needless to say, also the only species that has the ability to document our experiences associated with murder through the written word.”

Why are we as a society so obsessed with crime? Our fascination with murder in particular has led to the writing of countless volumes of books which have further stoked the insatiable need to know as much as possible about these heinous acts as possible. Is there a link between murder and literature? And how can we use the writings of killers to identify them, catch them, and stop them? Murder in Plain English: From Manifestos to Memes—Looking at Murder through the Words of Killers, co-authored by Michael Arntfield, a professor of criminology at Western University and Marcel Danesi, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, attempt to answer this unique and thought provoking question.

“The first book to examine murder through the written word, not only the writings of the killers themselves, but also the story of murder as told in literary fiction and crime dramas that are now a staple of film and television. Based on extensive research and interviews with convicted murderers, the book emphasizes the often-overlooked narrative impulse that drives killers, explaining how both mass and serial murderers perceive their crimes as stories and why a select few are compelled to commit these stories to writing whether before, during or after their horrific acts.”

Arntfield and Danesi call their tantalizing theory, “literary criminology,” the study of crime through literature and language. In this book they attempt to “penetrate the raison d'ĂȘtre of murder, through two sets of eyes, those of the literary writer and those of the murderer-as-writer.”

Early on in the text the authors make an astounding statement that they believe “countless deranged killers . . . were failed writers of one kind or another,” and further state, “literary genius . . . is rather common. Mass murderers, terrorists, and serial killers alike, regardless of education or literary level, demonstrate a consistent narrative impulse to both document and rationalize their grisly crimes.” Although part of this statement is true, they never fully backed up the murderer as “literary genius” claim with any evidence.

Murder in Plain English includes an extraordinary large and impressive collection of murderers and their foul deeds, both well-known and obscure. Be warned this is not a book for the faint of heart and is explicit in its descriptions. Unfortunately, the sheer number of stories, its rambling disjointed nature, and academic writing style makes for a difficult and often unpleasant read.

While the books premise is extraordinarily unique, the author’s obvious bias and often forced inferences on the evidence, instead of reasoning from facts to conclusions leave the reader confused. Despite all the specifics, analysis, and provocative nature of the subject matter there is no greater understanding of the reasons why people commit murder. The mere statements of killers and madmen, whether in written confessions, letters, diary entries, manifestos, or memes cannot be considered literature and any attempt at connecting the two is a stretch beyond the point of reason. In the words of the authors themselves “This linkage between writing and murder has undergone very little expert scrutiny or analysis,” and to be honest there’s a reason for that.