John Dos Passos met the Spaniard Jose Robles in 1916 during his first venture to Spain. Dos Passos met Ernest Hemingway two years later. He would lose both friends during the Spanish Civil War. Robles was murdered at the beginning of the war, and that tragedy opened an irreversible rift between the two American writers. These events make up the central drama of Breaking Point: Dos Passos, Hemingway, and the Murder of Jose Robles, by Stephen Koch.
In 1937 Dos Passos was at the height of his career, regarded as the premier American leftist writer. Although Dos Passos's fame never equaled Hemingway's, the inventor of the succinct sentence was in a moderate career slump, having watched his prestigious cultural standing subside as the quintessential Lost Generation writer of the twenties. According to Koch, Dos Passos's success and Hemingway's concurrent creative foundering rankled the notoriously mercurial writer. Enter the Spanish Civil War. Jose Robles, a Stalinist and Spanish military officer of formidable rank, was arrested and executed by his own red army, a victim of Stalin's purges that had just begun in Russia and had spread to the Spanish conflict. Robles went to his death a committed Stalinist, but to shroud the reality of the purges, Stalinist officials declared that Robles had been shot as a fascist spy.
Dos Passos was politically astute and a committed leftist though not a declared Stalinist. Hemingway, who was more interested in fame and philandering was rather apolitical, but he positioned himself on the left with the Spanish Republic during the war. Having arrived in Spain first, Hemingway learned of Robles's murder before Dos Passos and believed every word the propagandists spouted to him about Roble's fascist connections. In a deplorable moment, Hemingway saw his chance to publicly humiliate the more politically savvy leftist writer. Dos Passos received a double blow. Not only was he informed of the loss of his close friend Jose, he was victim to the petty grievances of his other close friend, who openly relished Dos Passos's public friendship with a man who had been shot as a fascist spy.
Hemingway's public ridicule of Dos Passos is the climax of the book. It is also the most well written portion, as it rises to the emotional drama of a suspense novel. If the reader had a dislike for Hemingway before Koch's portrayal of the crucial event, afterward, he or she will find him utterly contemptible. Koch reveals Dos Passos as the intellectual superior of the two, but also as someone who is confoundedly naïve about the horrific excesses of war.
The remainder of the book describes the effect that the war had upon the two writers. With Dos Passos's name being tossed around with fascism he became the pariah of the left, while Hemingway once again stepped into the spotlight, not only once again as the prominent American writer, but even a leftist one. Dos Passos never recovered artistically. The dampening of his political charisma nurtured the roots of his future conservatism.
The book is not primarily about the Spanish civil war, Jose Robles, or even Dos Passos and Hemingway. It is instead an apology for why writers think and behave they way they do. The relationship between the writers is often peripheral to what makes each one of them tick. Most of Koch's discussion of Hemingway turns on his search for creative salvation through women. When these relationships ultimately fail him, he becomes the insufferable boar that history has revealed. Dos Passos's precarious fame always hung in the balance between his reserved personality and his emphasis on aesthetic perfection. Unlike the boisterous Hemingway who always drew a crowd, Dos Passos preferred the shadows behind the stage lights, letting the power of the writing promote the writer. After his disillusionment with the Spanish war, however, the source of his aesthetic genius suffered a lethal wound. Dos Passos lived until 1970, but his art died in 1937.
Koch's book is light on the history of the war, biography, and literary analysis. If one wishes to understand the people and events surrounding the civil war, Koch's book will not offer much help. The discussion is fragmented and many of the nuances concerning political wartime strategy that Koch mentions are not developed enough to provide beneficial context. The reader gets better biographical information of the two writers during the war years, but their lives up to the war are covered by passing statements about life in the twenties. Koch mentions and offers some light commentary on key fictional works but the connection between their writings and their politics, aesthetics, and personal foibles is thin.
Academic criticism, however, is not Koch's objective. It is a story of misguided passions, of self-serving motives, and the destructive power of tall tales on literary reputations. Koch is an engaging writer whose style will be enjoyed by both the scholar and interested lay person.