Essays - Spring 2023

The World at the End of a Line

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The grandson of one of American literature’s Lost Generation novelists reflects on his namesake’s love of the sea

By John Dos Passos Coggin | March 1, 2023
Dos Passos in Provincetown in June 1942. He first visited in 1916, and in 1929 he and his wife moved into the house at 571 Commercial Street. (Associated Press)
Dos Passos in Provincetown in June 1942. He first visited in 1916, and in 1929 he and his wife moved into the house at 571 Commercial Street. (Associated Press)

John Dos Passos was the author of the U.S.A. trilogy, Manhattan Transfer, and Three Soldiers, among many other books, for which, in 1957, he was awarded the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was also my grandfather. I never met him—he died 13 years before I was born—but I have been able to get a sense of his formidable spirit from old family photographs. In one of my favorites, taken when he was in his 60s, he is in a boat on the Potomac River near Dos Passos Farm in Westmoreland County, Virginia. The river is wide there, near where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay, and my grandfather is holding up a pufferfish, inflated in full glory before the camera. His smile swings for the fences and reminds me of something he wrote in a 1918 letter to a friend: “While we live we must make the torch burn ever brighter until it flares out in the socket.”

In the beloved mythology of America’s Lost Generation writers, the pastime of fishing seems wholly owned by Ernest Hemingway. As Jack Hemingway, Ernest’s oldest son, wrote in the foreword to a collection of his father’s writing about the sport, “In our family not only fly fishing but all sporting forms of fishing were a sort of religion.” Hemingway first learned to fish as a boy, during the summers he spent at his family’s property on Walloon Lake in Michigan. Fishing fed his appetite for adventure and, after he became famous, his public image. Among other places, Key West became a central location in Hemingway lore, but it wasn’t until 1928, on my grandfather’s recommendation, that he first visited the place. The good fishing and easygoing culture there suited him perfectly. He was on his second marriage by then, to Pauline Pfeiffer, whose uncle bought the couple a house in Key West in 1931. Hemingway loved to share the grit and spectacle of sportfishing with friends. He even took Max Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s, out on the Gulf Stream, a warm, fast-moving Atlantic current that Dos Passos once described as a “magnificent and mysterious phenomenon, always changing and always present like a range of mountains.” In the spring of 1930, Hemingway, Perkins, and a few other friends spent two weeks in the Dry Tortugas, a small island chain about 70 miles west of Key West. There they slept in a shed, subsisted on liquor, canned goods, and Bermuda onions, and spent their days fishing and shooting birds. The straight-laced Perkins, accustomed to wearing a suit and fedora, grew a beard and, said his fellow adventurers, looked like a “rebel cavalry captain.” A few years later, Hemingway bought the Pilar, a 38-foot motorboat designed for saltwater fishing, aboard which he stowed a Thompson submachine gun and other firearms for killing sharks. (He once managed to shoot himself in both legs with a .22 Colt pistol when his bullet hit the Pilar’s brass rail and ricocheted in pieces. The shark escaped.) When later in life Hemingway’s writing hit a slump, it was the ocean that gave voice to one of his most highly regarded books. The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952, received specific praise from the committee that awarded him the Nobel Prize in Literature two years later.

Dos Passos loved and extolled the sea every bit as much as his friend Hemingway. From 1928 to 1935, before their friendship frayed under the strain of the Spanish civil war, the two men often fished the waters near Key West together, catching tarpon, sailfish, marlin, wahoo, mahi-mahi, and tuna. The tropics were also the doctor’s prescription for Dos Passos’s recurring bouts of rheumatic fever. They usually brought along a couple of bottles of champagne, but by custom these remained untouched until the first fish was caught. Everyone on Hemingway’s boat received a nickname: “Dos” or “Muttonfish” for Dos Passos, “Hem” or the “Old Master” for Hemingway, “Old Bread” for the boat’s engineer, and “Saca Ham” for the cook. Conversation on these expeditions remained light. “It was a delight to be able to chatter amiably on all sorts of topics without tripping over that damn Party line,” wrote Dos Passos in his 1966 memoir, The Best Times. Hemingway was as competitive at fishing as he was with everything, but nobody got too sore. “Hem was the greatest fellow in the world to go around with when everything went right,” Dos Passos wrote. Hemingway once invited Arnold Gingrich, the editor and cofounder of Esquire, to go fishing with the gang. “The man was in a trance,” Dos Passos remembered. “It was a world he’d never dreamed of. He was mosquito bitten, half seasick, scorched with sunburn, astonished, half scared, half pleased. It was as much fun to see Ernest play an editor as to see him play a marlin.”

Unlike Hemingway, Dos Passos practiced moderation in most things and valued ideological nuance and evolution. The friends operated at different speeds: Hemingway raced; Dos Passos cruised. Take, for example, the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Dos Passos enjoyed the experience primarily for the spectacle, the food, and the drink. Hemingway saw it as a test of manhood. There “were too many exhibitionistic personalities in the group to suit me,” Dos Passos wrote. “The sight of a crowd of young men trying to prove how hombre they were got on my nerves.” Likewise when it came to fishing, Hemingway and Dos Passos had different motives. Dos Passos fished “for the pot”—to catch lunch or dinner. For that reason, he disliked fishing for tarpon, which figured among Hemingway’s favorite quarry, no matter the theatrics involved in fighting them. “I hated to see the great silver monsters lying in the dust on the wharf,” he wrote. “They aren’t fit to eat. About the only use is for mounting. Some people make knicknacks out of the dried scales. Sheer vanity catching tarpon.” Dos Passos looked to the sea as a salve for his spirit. It was in 1924, during a break from writing one of his best novels, Manhattan Transfer, that he discovered Key West. He understood that islands in general—and by extension, the sea—tended to refill his cup of inspiration. He called his happy affliction “islomania.”

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