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THE BREAKING POINT: HEMINGWAY, DOS PASSOS, AND THE MURDER OF JOSE ROBLES

By Stephen Koch
New York: Counterpoint, 2005
308 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett

Stephen Koch presents a complex book, in part a biographical study of the personal relationship between Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, in part a political analysis of the Spanish Civil War, focusing on the role of the Soviet Union. Along the way Koch also get a bit lost in the biographical study of two of Hemingway’s marriages. Ironically, while the murder of Jose Robles is the subtitle, the person of Robles and his murder actually plays a rather minor role in this study.

For me the most interesting, even exciting parts of the book dealt with the Spanish Civil War. On Koch’s account the Spanish people themselves play an almost minor role – at least in relation to this study. The Republic has been established by 1936, significantly by Spanish Republicans and anarchists. General Franco, a strong-armed Fascist was on the move to overthrow the Republic and establish a Fascist state. Then enter the major players – first Hitler and the German state which both want to support the overthrow of the Republic, and wish, at the same time, to test out and show off German military might. However, even that move is tempered with intrigue. Hitler, while ostensibly an ally of Italian dictator Mussolini, doesn’t trust him fully, so Hitler engineers it so that Italian Fascists are the dominant foreign soldiers aiding Franco, thus keeping Mussolini incapable of in any way rising against Hitler.

But the key player on Koch’s account is the Soviet Union. Leader Joseph Stalin wants to protect the Soviet Union from any German attack while at the same time furthering tensions between Germany and the rest of Western Europe. Stalin is convinced Hitler would never attempt a two-front war and couldn’t win one if he did. Stalin wants to insure Hitler does not even consider attacking the Soviet Union. Thus the Soviet Union announces its anti-Fascist stance in Spain and even sends some military officers to help the Republicans. However, at the same time, Stalin is negotiating a mutual non-aggression pact with Hitler. Further, a gigantic, powerful, very secret and extremely successful propaganda program is engineered by Stalin to further both his goals of bringing the U.S. and all of Western Europe to be hostile to Hitler and Fascism and to see the Soviet Union as the key world hope against Fascism.

Koch seemed to me to do a brilliant job of laying out the basic lines of these complex arguments. However, the devil is in the details. His particular vehicle to drive those huge global insights sketched above, is to focus on the Spanish Civil War, using Hemingway and Dos Passos, both active reporters at that war, as figure heads in developing the role of Soviet propaganda campaigns in pulling off those huge tasks. The historical irony, of course, comes later. By mid-1939 it would appear the Soviets had gotten everything they wanted. As Koch presents it:

The irony, of course, is that Hitler crashed this house of historical planning by his about face and his invasion of the Soviet Union, bringing them fully into World War II. I’ve gone on and on about this phase of the book. Yet it isn’t Koch’s main story of the study. Rather he tells it to enrich our understanding of his major theme – the rise and fall of the friendship between Hemingway and Dos Passos, and how the murder of Jose Robles during the Spanish Civil War sparked the permanent break of the friendship of these two important writers.

Koch lays out a clear line of argument. On his view neither Hemingway nor Dos Passos was very politically astute, and in the 1920s and much of the 30s, were rather leftist and pro-Republican Spain. Koch presents Hemingway as much less authentic in his Republicanism and more self-interested in how his writing on Spain would advance his career. Dos Passos is painted as even more politically naďve than Hemingway, but a better person, one who was deeply touched by the murder of Robles.

Jose (Pepe) Robles was a Spaniard who had strong Republican sympathies but had given up on the revolution and come to the U.S. where he was teaching at John Hopkins. He and Dos Passos became close friends. Eventually Robles returned to Spain and became an important figure in the leadership of the Republicans, eventually being assigned to liaison with the Russian leaders in Spain. Eventually he was murdered. The crime was never much investigated nor solved, but Koch, while admitting that fact, leads us to assume it was the Russians who killed him. Hemingway and others accepted the propaganda line that Robles was traitor to the Republic, a spy for the Fascists and was justly killed.

As Koch presents it Dos Passos reacts to Robles death as a loving, caring friend and pursued the case in a manner that was seen by Hemingway and many other leftists as politically naďve, and served the interest of the Fascists, damaging the position of the Republicans.

The argument of the centrality of Robles’ murder to the break between Hemingway and Dos Passos wasn’t as convincing to me as I would have wished. Two major factors account for my lurking doubts.

  1. While Dos Passos public pursuit of information about Robles’ death may we have upset American leftists, I just wasn’t convinced that fact best accounted for Dos Passos’ fall from literary grace. Koch himself seems to make a stronger case that Dos Passos’ fall was more linked to the weaker writing he produced after 1935.
  2. Secondly, while Koch does make a strong case that Hemingway was in no way a nice or even decent person, he still seemed to so detest Hemingway as person that he somewhat sacrifices Dos Passos and Satanizes Hemingway in a not very convincing manner.

    Having said that, I would nevertheless point out that while Koch seems to utterly detest Hemingway as person, he does admit he was a major and important writer and he does some excellent pro-Hemingway literary analysis along the way.

    Another large part of the book, that which focused on Hemingway’s private life, parts that didn’t much impact his relationship to Dos Passos, but dealt more with Hemingway’s marital life, seemed to have little to do with either of the major arguments – the Spanish Civil War tale or the break up of the Dos Passos / Hemingway friendship.

    Rather, much of those extended passages on Hemingway which seemed not to impact the Hemingway / Dos Passos friendship at all, seemed to me part of an ad hominem argument to condemn Hemingway on the general grounds that he was basically a bad person.

    That may even be true that he was, but as used by Koch to make the case about the ruined friendship, just makes me feel he was reaching hard and using fairly irrelevant data to sway the reader to his main thesis. The book did fascinate me. I read it straight through in a few days, gripped by it in the main, aggravated at times by lots of repetition. It seemed like the author thought we readers couldn’t remember details for 20 or more pages. It also aggravated me the author seemed often to make gratuitous ad hominem attacks on Hemingway.

    Despite the flaws, I’m quite happy I read the book and I learned a great deal.

    Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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    Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu