Tuesday, March 28, 2017

James McGrath Morris's "The Ambulance Drivers"

James McGrath Morris is an author of biographies and narrative nonfiction. His books include the New York Times bestselling Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press, which was awarded the Benjamin Hooks National Book Prize; Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power—which the Wall Street Journal deemed was one of the five best books on American moguls and Booklist placed on its 2010 list of the ten best biographies; The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism—a Washington Post Best Book of the Year; and, Jailhouse Journalism: The Four Estate Behind Bars.

Morris applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War, and reported the following:
From page 99:
fakers, he wrote that impostors thrive because of the provincial nature of the French people and the gullibility of its press. Even the impoverished artists and writers who nursed ten-centime cups of coffee for hours at La Rotonde, a cafĂ© across the street from the Hotel Jacob, were subjected to his ridicule. “They are nearly all loafers expending the energy that an artist puts into his creative work in talking about what they are going to do and condemning the work of all artists who have gained any degree of recognition.”

Sarcasm was Hemingway’s weapon of choice when his achievements failed to match those around him. He had worn out his “typer ribbon” pounding out stories for the Toronto Star, but the fiction for which he had come to Paris to write filled only a few folders tucked away in a sideboard.

Even the autobiographical war novel he had started remained skeletal at best.
Dos Passos basked in his success back in the United States. The publication of Three Soldiers marked the beginning of the literary life he had sought. By April Dos Passos received $8,000 in royalties from the sale of more than forty thousand copies in the first few months of the book’s publication. It was a tidy sum, more than a dozen times the earnings of the average American in 1922.

Even six months after the book’s appearance Three Soldiers continued to cause a ruckus. In March 1922 the Chicago Tribune published a full-page review entitled “Propaganda of Novel Is ‘Blow at Americanism’” by an anonymous writer described only as a “member of the first division, a legionnaire, a father and a citizen.” In explaining his purpose the veteran said, “the reviewer writes as a citizen of a state to warn his countrymen of the anarchistic, Bolshevistic doctrine running through this story, and to call their attention to the book’s affront to every just and decent principle upon which society is founded and organized business and government maintained.”

In the thousands of words that followed, the reviewer offered up a screed that attacked every aspect of Dos Passos’s portrayal of military life and challenged the actions of the book’s characters as if they had been real people. “Dos Passos has become the Knight Errant of all that
Despite having subjected previous books to this test, the Ford Madox Ford concept of judging a work’s merit by its page 99 remains nerve racking. I’m glad to report that I passed. I’m happy with my page 99.

First, it illustrates a rule that I advocate when I teach writing. The idea is that narrative nonfiction should use only contemporaneous references. So, for instance, in this excerpt I note that Dos Passos earned $8,000 in royalties from his book. I could have told readers that the sum equaled $111,644.86 in 2017. The problem with making such a comparison is that it yanks the reader from the epoch to which they have surrendered themselves when reading your book. It may also glumly remind them of the state of their finances or mundane matters like bill paying. Instead I look for a comparison that explains the value of the money within the context of the times. In this case, I wrote, “It was a tidy sum, more than a dozen times the earnings of the average American in 1922.”

Second, I engage in a pleasurable bit of foreshadowing. I explain that Hemingway meager output of stories “filled only a few folders tucked away in a sideboard.” Where the pages were stored will become important several chapters later when his wife Hadley removes them, packs them in a valise, and proceeds to lose the bag traveling to join her husband in Switzerland.

Last, I liked the tone of the page and thought it read well. But, sadly, I notice that I took a short cut in using the overused phrased “basked in his success.” I could have done better in explaining Dos Passos’s literary achievement. Sigh. A book is never really ever finished.
Learn more about the book and author at the official James McGrath Morris website.

The Page 99 Test: Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power.

The Page 99 Test: Eye on the Struggle.

--Marshal Zeringue