The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Roblesby Stephen Koch
When American authors John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway went to Spain in 1937 to witness the Spanish Civil War firsthand, the devastation they encountered was far from impersonal: As Spain was unraveling thread by thread, so was the relationship between these two literary titans. They had arrived in Spain as comrades, leftist writers-in-arms. But a… See more details below
When American authors John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway went to Spain in 1937 to witness the Spanish Civil War firsthand, the devastation they encountered was far from impersonal: As Spain was unraveling thread by thread, so was the relationship between these two literary titans. They had arrived in Spain as comrades, leftist writers-in-arms. But a real-life literary mystery unfolded when Dos Passos’ friend José Roblesa Spanish-born Johns Hopkins professordisappeared. Written from a novelist’s eye for detail, The Breaking Point is the story of two lives at the intersection of friendship and murder, of love and death, and of literature and history.
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Read an ExcerptThe Breaking Point
Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles
By Stephen Koch Counterpoint Press
Copyright © 2006 Stephen Koch
All right reserved.
WHEN A MAN MAKES FRIENDS
John Dos Passos met Josi Robles Pazos for the first time in 1916. It was on a night train from Toledo to Madrid, and the hour was late; both were very young men; and the First World War was at its height. In 1916, a third-class ticket on the dilapidated old clunker that ran from Toledo to Madrid must have cost next to nothing, and the ride would have been jolting and slow. It probably took the train hours to crawl the fifty miles that lie between Spain's ancient royal stronghold and its modern capital: long enough for strangers in a compartment to get to know each other, especially since both of these strangers were just out of college, were studying at the same instituto, and both were at the age when making friends comes easy.
The gangling myopic American kid who would one day write Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A. had just spent the day in the ancient fortress town, flying high on every work of art he saw and every human situation he ran across. After eating a late-night Spanish dinner on some terraza in Toledo, and washing it down with a carafe or two of wine, young Dos-everyone called him "Dos"-was heading back to Madrid and his graduate student'spensisn. The Toledo he was leaving rose up behind him, magnificent on its mountain. In 1916 the citadel must have still looked very much as it did when El Greco had painted it three hundred years before: an imperious bulwark perched on a rock, shimmering in obsolete majesty, menaced and menacing, a fortification against time, lit against the Spanish darkness by moonlight so bright that it made the buildings give off a white, almost ghastly, glow. The twenty-one-year-old Dos was high on everything he saw in the ancient stronghold: high on the great Cathedral with its Grecos, high on the Toledo carnaval, with its people, masked and drunken, dancing the jota in ancient streets. But how could Dos fail to be intoxicated with Toledo? He was intoxicated with all of Spain, with Spanish capes and gates and mules and mountains; with the Spanish light and the Spanish night, with Spanish women, with Spanish everything. Even the Spanish dust moved Dos to ecstasies. The foot-caressing dust of the Spanish road! That powdered velvet of peasant feet!
The tall young American took up lots of space, and even when fully sober, he swayed a bit when he walked. Then-and always-Dos Passos dressed like a gentleman, but his arms dangled, and his legs were long, and he had a swanlike neck on which was perched an unprepossessing head with a receding chin. Even at 21, his hairline was creeping back noticeably, and he squinted at the world through blinking, intensely interested, but very myopic eyes. The kid sank down onto his hard third-class seat with a tired happy groan.
The compartment was a blur. Dos fumbled in a jacket pocket for his indispensable glasses-they were pince-nez-and clipped them to his nose. Everything came clear. Someone sitting across the way was looking at him.
The man staring back at Dos seemed to be just his age, and he was every bit as tall. Spanish, for sure. A thoroughly Spanish Spaniard, with a face like an eagle's, very brainy-looking. The hair he wore slicked back from his clear, hard face was black as a crow's wing, so black it was almost blue. Glowing with Iberian pride, this stranger was as elegant and self-possessed as Dos was rangy and excitable, and he assessed Dos Passos through shrewd eyes that did not need glasses. The train began to lurch out of the station. The Spaniard's smile was a little mocking, but not unfriendly. Dos Passos's smile was big and broad.
"Hola," Dos said through that Harvard accent of his.
It was soon clear that Josi Robles and John Dos Passos had plenty to say to one another, and by the time the bleary train finally crept into Madrid, they were friends for life. That can happen, as the seventy-year-old Dos Passos would sigh, when you're twenty-one.
John Roderigo Dos Passos was in Spain studying art and architecture at the Centro de Estzdios Histsricos because in 1916 Spain was a neutral country and therefore pretty much the only place in Europe that Dos's father, John Randolph Dos Passos, the flamboyant lion of Wall Street known as the Commodore, would pay for his son to be. In 1916, one of John Randolph's leading goals in life was to keep his son from getting himself killed in this horrendous insensate European war that was ripping civilization to shreds and slaughtering people by the millions. John Randolph fully approved of his son's love of art and architecture; what scared him was Dos's youthful impulse to head for where the action was. In 1916, the "action" was in a French and Belgian landscape of shattered leafless trees, torched villages, reeking rat-infested trenches, and desolate fields strewn with the mangled corpses of young men exactly his son's age. The Commodore was going to pay for that in a pig's eye.
It was Spain or nothing.
"Pepe" Robles and Dos-during their twenty-year friendship, Dos Passos invariably referred to Robles as "Pepe"-had more in common than their shared fascination with art and language. In those days, Pepe was much further to the left than Dos, but both of them saw themselves as radicals, and both were radicals carrying a heavy load of excess bourgeois baggage. Both came from "important" families. The Robles clan was monarchical, aristocratic, and very well connected. Josi's conservative brother was an army officer who was, or soon would be, in the personal entourage of the King. Dos Passos's father was a rich, influential, even famous corporate lawyer and Wall Street Republican who in his American way was every bit as well connected as the Robles family. Not long before, Dos had been forced to get all gussied up in a wing collar and dress suit for dinner at the American embassy in Madrid, because his father just happened to be a great friend of the ambassador. Of course.
There was, however, a hair on the soup of Dos Passos's heritage. John Roderigo Dos Passos was, as his biographers delicately put it, the "natural" son of John Randolph. He was "illegitimate." He had already reached the age of fourteen before his father at last married his mother in 1910. During the fourteen years of wandering before that wedding, John Randolph had been unwilling or unable to divorce his legal wife, though it is clear he ardently wished he could. The first Mrs. Dos Passos was psychologically unstable; John Randolph had long since ceased to love her. Even so, he did not see his way clear to divorce and remarriage.
While waiting out her anguished years of her genteel disgrace, Lucy Sprigg Madison had traveled around Europe guarding her secret and raising her son, who was discreetly known as "Jack Madison." They were two upper-crust waifs straight out of some unwritten tale by Henry James. Lucy kept little Jack Madison moving from fancy spa to high-toned school to tactful resort, lavishly but quietly financed by the guilty, grieving Commodore. It was a kind of odyssey-in-reverse: Telemachus wandered with Penelope while Odysseus tended the home fires. When John Randolph's legal wife died at last in 1910, the senior Dos Passos instantly made Lucy into an "honest woman." Their son, who by now had assumed the name John Roderigo Dos Passos, had been sent to Choate, where at first the guys made fun of him because he spoke English with a strong foreign accent. His first language had been French.
In Madrid, Dos Passos swiftly discovered that his sharp-featured new friend had an even sharper tongue. Pepe Robles was filled with tart cynical stories about the wicked Spanish world and the revolution it so richly deserved. Pepe laughed a lot; all his radical talk glinted with mockery, some of it aimed at his new friend's soft-headed, liberal "do-goodism." So American.
They got along beautifully. Pepe Robles was going to show Dos Passos the real Spain. Instructed by Pepe, Dos would see the great, true art of the great, true Spain. Pepe would teach Dos Passos that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were not mere characters in a novel, but the country's spiritual soul. Robles would show Dos a suffering Spain that was "all that society and respectability reject." They soon had many friends in common, and in no time this clique of smart Spaniards and their American sidekick were spending weekends crossing the country together, hiking the mountains together, looking at art together, and seeing the people together. They all argued constantly-about poetry, about progress, about primitivism, about Spain's entry into the modern world. Robles took Dos Passos to Toledo to see El Greco's hierarchical, mystical, architecturally sublime painting The Burial of the Conde de Orgaz in the capilla of the Iglesia of San Tomi-a massive image of death and redemption, surging up in the small chapel space, showing the body of a pious count being laid into the dank pit of his tomb while the spectator strains back to see his soul's upward flight into a shining heaven. Dos stood beside Pepe, staring up at it, overwhelmed, moved especially by "the infinite gentleness of the saints lowering the Conde de Orgaz into the grave." Among Dos's friends, El Greco's great painting was a symbol, because their generation was "working to bury with infinite tenderness the gorgeously dressed corpse of the old Spain."
There was more. Pepe Robles introduced Dos to bullfighting-the running with the bulls, the mystery of blood and death, and the moment of truth-and for good measure got him into flamenco too. Dos's Harvard friends despised bullfighting. Bull-fighting was primitive, brutal. Sport? It was maybe two steps up from cockfighting. Robles listened with a scornful smile: typical norteamericano liberalism. He and his friends would teach Dos about life as a Spaniard lived it. "Our life," they told him, "is one vast ritual. Our religion is part of it, that is all. And so are the bullfights that so shock the English and Americans,-are they any more brutal, though, than fox-hunting and prize-fights? And how full of tradition are they, our fiestas de toros: their ceremony reaches to the hecatombs of the Homeric heroes, to the bull worship of the Cretans and of so many of the Mediterranean cults, to the Roman games. Can a civilization go farther than to ritualize death as we have done?"
Yet beautiful though all this might be, it had to change.
"Our culture is too perfect, too stable. Life is choked by it," his friends would say. Revolution had to come, even if "the new Spain" was "a prophecy, rather than a fact. Old Spain is still all-powerful."
Insights like these left Dos fascinated, enchanted. The Spain he saw through Pepe's eyes touched him more deeply than capes and painting, and in a way that did indeed challenge America with its love of energy and optimism. Here was a great nation that seemed to understand instinctively the bond between human nobility and death. Here was a people that possessed that genuine tragic sense of life that until now had been hidden from Dos's callow American eyes. Dos discovered Unamuno and Cervantes. He discovered Jorge Manrique, whose long poem on the death of his father is the most famous elegy in Spanish.
Nuestras vidas son los rios Que van a dar en la mar, Que es el morir.... Our lives are rivers ... on their way to the sea that is death.
In his brilliant early book on Spain, Rosinate to the Road Again-naming himself Telemachus-Dos Passos describes drinking with Harvard friends, trying to get them to "come to grips with old lady adventure-sort of a search for the Holy Grail." The young firebrand wanted to show his Cambridge pals the vibrancy and power of tragic ritual. After beer and roast pigeons in the Cafi del Oro de Rhin in the Plaza Santa Ana, Dos chanted Manrique for them, swaying with "the rhythms of death sweeping around the world," and then he led them all through the dark stony maze of streets to a huddled little theater for some flamenco: they were going to see the greatest dancer in the world-the greatest-a gypsy named Pastora Imperio, performing what she called a "dance of death." Pastora Imperio would hit these guys where they lived. She was Spain! Pastora was intensely sexy. She was sex itself. But she brought to the Eros of the dance that true Spanish tragic sense. Watch her and you could see what Manrique was saying. It was right there in her dazzling footwork, caught in the flash of her snapping fingers. "She is right at the footlights; her face, brows drawn together into a frown, has gone into shadow; the shawl flames, the maroon flower over her breast glows like a coal ... she draws herself up with a deep breath, the muscles of her body go taut under the tight silk wrinkles of the shawl, and she is off again, light, joyful."
That would teach them adventure!
When the performance was over, "Telemachus" and one Harvard pal set out, drunk, to walk to Toledo. Rosinante to the Road Again tells the story of their walk into a dawn that rose "merry with the jingling of huge two-wheeled carts, each drawn by three or four or sometimes five hulking mules. Always in the lead was a little donkey trotting along with mincing steps." This was Cervantes' road. Dos was a tourist no more. He had heard the rhythms of death pounding in his soul, and he was truly alive at last....
But Death still had a thing or two left to teach its initiate.
In January 1917, back in the States, without any warning, the Commodore suddenly collapsed and was gone. And this death was real.
After he married her, Lucy Madison subsided into her recovered respectability. She became hypochondriac, then withdrawn, then really ill, dying before her time. Meanwhile John Randolph became more and more present in his son's life. Father and son were in constant communication. The archives bulge with their letters, almost all in French, on every possible subject, not least the politics over which they so sharply disagreed. Theirs was maybe a compensatory closeness, but it continued right until the January morning in 1917 when the Commodore was found on the bathroom floor of his house in Washington, dead of galloping pneumonia.
Now twenty-two, Dos stood stricken in a telegraph office in Madrid, staring at the yellow cable from his half-brother, bearing its news. Home. He had to go home. Spain was over.
All through his grieving-and it was hard, heavy grieving-one image kept coming back to Dos Passos. He kept seeing his father on the beach near his house in Sandy Point, Virginia. For some reason crows, lots of crows, used to cluster in swarming flocks on the sand dunes there. They were nasty and loud and ominous and deathly black. John Randolph used to scare them off by "calling back" at them.
Excerpted from The Breaking Point by Stephen Koch Copyright © 2006 by Stephen Koch. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
What a gripping literary saga! The two heavyweight American writers of the Great Depression era-Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos-feud over the horrific death of Jos Robles. Written like a mystery novel, laced with political intrigue, and with the Spanish Civil War as the backdrop, The Breaking Point is one knockout punch of a book.
The Breaking Point is literary and political history that belongs alongside Homage to Catalonia and the best biographies of Hemingway and Dos Passos. It's important historical analysis of the Spanish Civil War, but made in the context of the profoundly conflicted friendship of two American literary giants.
(Russell Banks, author of The Sweet Hereafter and Darling)
(David Remnick, author of Resurrection)
(Ronald Radosh, Professor Emeritus of History, CUNY, co-author of The Rosenberg File)
A magnificent tapestry...Double Lives is the best of all possible worlds-carefully made history to be read at night.
(Alan Furst, author of Dark Voyage)
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