Born in Chicago, the illegitimate son of a wealthy lawyer of Portuguese descent and a mother whose family lived in Maryland and Virginia, John Roderigo Dos Passos grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. He attended private schools in England, The Choate School, and later Harvard University. He graduated from Harvard in 1916 and planned to study to be an architect, but when the United States entered World War I he joined a medical corps in France and later enlisted in the United States Army. After World War I he spent a number of years as a freelance newspaper reporter.
Soon after the war, Dos Passos wrote his first novel, One Man’s Initiation—1917 (1920), based on his experiences as an ambulance driver; his second, Three Soldiers (1921), appeared soon after. Both these early works are bitter condemnations of the war and what it did to young Americans who happened to be caught in the violence. The central character in the first novel and all three of the soldiers depicted in the second are destroyed, physically or spiritually, by their experiences. In these novels, Dos Passos was already presenting a radical critique of the official view of the United States as the selfless defender of freedom for everyone.
Dos Passos would extend his criticism in his major work, beginning with his first genuinely experimental novel, Manhattan Transfer (1925), and continuing with new and unusual techniques in the three novels which formed his first trilogy: The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936); they were collected as U.S.A. in 1937. During the 1920’s, Dos Passos became more and more deeply involved in radical protests against what he saw as the degradation of American ideals. He served on the board of the communist magazine The New Masses and contributed time and effort to a number of communist causes, although he never joined the Communist Party.
He was most disturbed by the Sacco-Vanzetti affair, a celebrated case in the 1920’s in which two immigrant anarchists were accused of murder during a robbery and sentenced to...
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