Dos Passos, John (Vol. 11)
Dos Passos, John 1896–1970
An American novelist, essayist, poet, and journalist, Dos Passos is best known for his sociopolitical novels of pre-World War II America. His central concerns are social injustices, the exploitation of the working class, and the injurious emphasis on materialism in American society. Detail and realism are important elements in Dos Passos's work, often emphasized through such innovative means as his "newsreel" and "camera eye" techniques, and the inclusion of bits of biography. Strongly political, Dos Passos moved from his early, leftwing revolutionary philosophy to a later conservatism. The U.S.A. trilogy is considered to be his masterpiece. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)
F. R. Leavis
After Manhattan Transfer (1927) one remembered the name of John Dos Passos. After The Forty-second Parallel one looked eagerly forward to the succeeding members of the trilogy (for something of that order seemed to be promised) in the conviction that we had here a work demanding serious attention as no other appearing under the head of the novel during the past two or three years had done. Nineteen-nineteen is a challenge to justify the conviction.
The Forty-second Parallel established Mr. Dos Passos as an unusually serious artist—serious with the seriousness that expresses itself in the propagandist spirit…. [He] cannot be interested in individuals without consciously relating them to the society and the civilisation that make the individual life possible. (p. 102)
The undertaking involves a peculiar technical problem, one that none of the methods customarily associated with the novel will meet. No amount of enthusiasm for collective humanity will dispose of the fact that it is only in individuals that humanity lives, that only in the individual focus does consciousness function, that only individuals enjoy and suffer; and the problem is to suggest that multitudinous impersonality of the ant-heap through individual cases that, without much development, interest us as such. Manhattan Transfer represents a sufficient degree of success. It is of the essence of Mr. Dos Passos' method here—and of his vision of modern life—that of no one of his swirl of "cases" do we feel that it might profitably be developed into a separate novel; and yet we are interested enough. Here we have them in poignant individuality, a representative assortment of average men and women, engaged in the "pursuit of happiness"—a pursuit sanctioned by the Constitution, but, of its very nature, and by the very conditions of the civilisation to which they belong, vain. (p. 103)
Manhattan Transfer ends with Jimmy Herf (the character to whom the author seems closest) walking, with an air of symbolic finality, out of New York. The Forty-second Parallel gives us the America into which he walks—a large undertaking, which calls for some modification of technique. The representative lives...
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A novel is a mirror. So everyone says. But what is meant by reading a novel? It means, I think, jumping into the mirror. You suddenly find yourself on the other side of the glass, among people and objects that have a familiar look. But they merely look familiar. We have never really seen them. The things of our world have, in turn, become outside reflections. You close the book, step over the edge of the mirror and return to this honest-to-goodness world, and you find furniture, gardens and people who have nothing to say to you. The mirror that closed behind you reflects them peacefully, and now you would swear that art is a reflection. There are clever people who go so far as to talk of distorting mirrors.
Dos Passos very consciously uses this absurd and insistent illusion to impel us to revolt. He had done everything possible to make his novel seem a mere reflection. He has even donned the garb of populism. The reason is that his art is not gratuitous; he wants to prove something. But observe what a curious aim he has. He wants to show us this world, our own—to show it only, without explanations or comment…. We recognize immediately the sad abundance of these untragic lives. They are our own lives, these innumerable, planned, botched, immediately forgotten and constantly renewed adventures that slip by without leaving a trace, without involving anyone, until the time when one of them, no different from any of the others, suddenly, as if through some clumsy trickery, sickens a man for good and throws a mechanism out of gear.
Now, it is by depicting, as we ourselves might depict, these too familiar appearances with which we all put up that Dos Passos makes them unbearable. (pp. 61-2)
Dos Passos' hate, despair and lofty contempt are real. But that is precisely why his world is not real; it is a created object. I know of none—not even Faulkner's or Kafka's—in which the art is greater or better hidden. I know of none that is more precious, more touching or closer to us. This is because he takes his material from our world. And yet, there is no stranger or more distant world. Dos Passos has invented only one thing, an art of story-telling. But that is enough to create a universe….
Dos Passos' time is his own creation; it is neither fictional nor narrative. It is rather, if you like, historical time. (p. 62)
The fictional event is a nameless presence; there is nothing one can say about it, for it develops…. In Dos Passos, the things that happen are named first, and then the dice are cast, as they are in our memories….
The facts are clearly outlined; they are ready for thinking about. But Dos Passos never thinks them. Not for an instant does the order of causality betray itself in chronological order. There is no narrative, but rather the jerky unreeling of a rough and uneven memory, which sums up a period of several years in a few words only to dwell languidly over a minute fact. Like our real memories, it is a jumble of miniatures and frescoes. There is relief enough, but it is cunningly scattered at random. One step further would give us the famous idiot's monologue in The Sound and the Fury. But that would still involve intellectualizing, suggesting an explanation in terms of the irrational, suggesting a Freudian order beneath this disorder. Dos Passos stops just in time. As a result of this, past things retain a flavour of the present; they still remain, in their exile, what they once were, inexplicable tumults of colour, sound and passion. Each event is irreducible, a gleaming and solitary thing that does not flow from anything else, but suddenly arises to join other things. For Dos Passos, narrating means adding. This accounts for the slack air of his style. (p. 63)
Passions and gestures are also things....
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HERBERT MARSHALL McLUHAN
The reader of Dos Passos … is not required to have much more reading agility than the reader of the daily press. Nor does Dos Passos make many more serious demands than a good movie. And this is said not to belittle an excellent writer who has much to offer, but to draw attention to the extreme simplification to which Dos Passos has submitted the early work of James Joyce. Three Soldiers (1921), Manhattan Transfer (1925) and U. S. A. (1930–36) would not exist in their present form but for the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners and Ulysses. It is as a slightly super-realist that Dos Passos has viewed and adapted the work of Joyce in his own work. (pp. 148-49)
From [the imagists Dos Passos] learned much that has continuously affected his practice. Their romantic tapestries and static contemplation of the ornate panorama of existence have always held him in spite of his desire to be a romantic of action. (p. 149)
[In] recent decades the artist has come to be the only critical spectator of society. He demands and confers the heightened significance in ordinary existence which is hostile to any self-extinction in the collective consciousness. So that when the balance is lost between individual responsibility and mass solidarity, the artist automatically moves to the side of the individual. With equal inevitability, the less resourceful man, faced with the perplexities of planned social disorder, walks deeper into the collective sleep that makes that chaos bearable to him. The work of Dos Passos is almost wholly concerned with presenting this situation. His people are, typically, victims of a collective trance from which they do not struggle to escape. And if his work fails, it is to the extent that he clings to an alternative dream which has little power to retract the dreamers from their sleep, and even less power to alert the reader to a sense of tragic waste. (pp. 149-50)
Dos Passos is not a thinker who has imposed a conceptual system on his material. Rather, he accepted the most familiar traditions and attitudes as part of the material which his art brings into the range of the reader's vision. It is by the range of his vision and the intensity of his focus that he must receive criticism. (p. 151)
Looking first at the technical means which he employs as a writer, there is the basic imagistic skill in sharpening perception and defining a state of mind with which Manhattan Transfer opens:
Three gulls wheel above the broken boxes, orangerinds, spoiled cabbage heads that heave between the splintered plank walls, the green waves spume under the round bow as the ferry, skidding on the tide, crashes, gulps the broken water, slides, settles slowly into the slip.
Many passages of this wry lyricism counterpoint the episodes of the book. The episodes and characters are also features of a landscape to which these lyric chapter overtures give point and tone. The point is readily seized and the tone extends over a very narrow range of emotions: pathos, anger, disgust. But Dos Passos employs the impressionist landscape monotonously because he has never chosen to refract or analyze its components to zone a wide range of emotions…. The author is sensitive to the ugliness and misery as things he can see. But he is never prepared to explore the interior landscape which is the wasteland of the human heart…. (pp. 151-52)
Dos Passos too often seems to imply that [human] suffering is sordid and unnecessary or that some modification of the environment might free his characters from the doll-mechanism that is their private and collective trap. Seeing nothing inevitable or meaningful in human suffering, he confronts it neither in its comic, intelligible mode, nor in a tragic way. It angers and annoys him as something extraneous.
The difference from Joyce is instructive. For in Ulysses the same discontinuous city landscape is also presented by imagistic devices. The episodes are musically arranged to sound concordantly. But Joyce manipulates a continuous parallel at each moment between naturalism and symbolism to render a total spectrum of outer and inner worlds. The past is present not in order to debunk Dublin but to make Dublin representative of the human condition…. The most ordinary gesture linked to some immemorial dramatic mask or situation sets reverberating the whole world of the book and flashes intelligibility into long opaque areas of our own experience.
To match Joyce's epiphanies Dos Passos brings only American know-how…. Joyce contemplates things for the being that is theirs. Dos Passos shows how they work or behave. (pp. 152-53)
Joyce constantly has his attention on the analogy of being while Dos Passos is registering a personal reaction to society.
It is not a serious criticism of Dos Passos to say that he is not James Joyce. But Joyce is his art master and the critic is obliged to note that Dos Passos has read Joyce not as a greater Flaubert, Rimbaud or Mallarmé, but as it were through the eyes of Whitman and Sandburg, as a greater Zola or Romains. This is negative definition which does not bring into question the competence of Dos Passos or belittle the quality of positive delight he affords. His U. S. A. is quite justly established as a classic which brought into a focus for the first time a range of facts and interests that no American had ever been able to master. But it is in the main an ethical and...
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[An] attitude of determined omniscience informs all of U.S.A., even the biographical sections. Of the five historical personages who were still alive when Dos Passos wrote about them, none retains any control over his own destiny; that privilege is reserved for the abstract forces of history conceived under the aegis of Marxist-Veblenian determinism. The biography of Thomas Edison is oblique in emphasis; its subject, discussed in the past tense, is unable to free himself from his obsolete and socially dangerous work ethic because "he never worried about mathematics or the social system or generalized historical concepts." Henry Ford waits in seclusion for death, helpless and uncomprehending before the changes...
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