Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
What two communications media influenced John Dos Passos’s technique in his novels? How successful do you consider these innovations?
Who or what functions as the protagonist of Manhattan Transfer?
Is it possible to justify Dos Passos’s relative inattention to character development in his fiction?
How does Dos Passos unify the multifarious contents of U.S.A.?
Dos Passos’s allegiances and activities over the years suggest great shifts in his political and social attitudes. What underlying consistencies persist in his works over the decades?
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
John Dos Passos (duhs PAS-uhs) published only one collection of poetry, A Pushcart at the Curb (1922), which re-creates a journey through crowded streets and countryside of Spain and the Near East. He also published a collection of plays, Three Plays (1934), written and produced during the author’s experimentation with the expressionistic techniques of the New Playwright’s Theatre group.
In addition to Dos Passos’s many long fictions, which he called contemporary chronicles, he also published many volumes of historical narratives, essays, and reportage. Among his books of travel and reportage, which spanned his entire career, were Rosinante to the Road Again (1922), Orient Express (1927), In All Countries (1934), Journeys Between Wars (1938), State of the Nation (1944), Tour of Duty (1946), The Prospect Before Us (1950), Brazil on the Move (1963), The Portugal Story (1969), and Easter Island: Island of Enigmas (1971).
Most of Dos Passos’s historical narratives were written in his later years and reflect the shift in his political stance; they include The Ground We Stand On: Some Examples from the History of a Political Creed (1941), The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson (1954), The Men Who Made the Nation (1957), Mr. Wilson’s War (1962), Thomas Jefferson: The Making of a President (1964), and The Shackles of Power: Three Jeffersonian Decades (1966).
Achievements (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
John Dos Passos’s importance cannot be highlighted with one literary accomplishment or summarized with a list of singular achievements. Rather, Dos Passos offered a constant but integrated response to the nation and to the new. Throughout his writing career of fifty years, he was committed to exploring individual freedom and utilized every literary means to that end. Combining his interest in history with his experience as a journalist and artist, Dos Passos produced a remarkable number of novels, poems, plays, essays, and various nonfictional pieces. They are important for their intrinsic merit as well as for their great documentary value. In addition to his extensive list of publications, Dos Passos was a loyal and impassioned correspondent; his letters to significant literary figures and friends also serve as chronicles of the age.
Finally, and unknown to many of his readers, Dos Passos was a talented painter. His sketchbooks, watercolors, and drawings—which date from his youth to his last days—are evidence of Dos Passos’s fascination with the visual innovations and artistic movements of his lifetime. His painting had a significant influence on his methods as a writer.
Although Dos Passos experienced a decline in popularity when the critics believed he had abruptly shifted his political views to the right, there is now a revived interest in his best works, which are acknowledged as among the most inventive pieces of the twentieth century.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Becker, George J. John Dos Passos. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1974. A critical biography, this short book links Dos Passos’s major works, his artistic observations, and his treatment of American social institutions.
Carr, Virginia Spencer. Dos Passos: A Life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984. Presents a detailed biography with critical insights into the personal and political influences on Dos Passos’s fiction.
Casey, Janet Galligani. Dos Passos and the Ideology of the Feminine. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Discusses Dos Passos’s female characters. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
Colley, Lain. Dos Passos and the Fiction of Despair. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1978. One of the most frequently cited texts in Dos Passos scholarship.
Ludington, Townsend. John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey. Rev. ed. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1998. A standard biography first published in 1980; updated introduction.
Maine, Barry, ed. Dos Passos: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1988. Devoted to the contemporary critical reception of Dos Passos’s individual novels. Divided into twelve sections, each covering a major work. These chapters contain between two (Number One, The Grand Design) and twelve (The Big Money) different reviews, taken from publications ranging from American Mercury to the Daily Worker.
Maine, Barry, ed. “U.S.A.: Dos Passos and the Rhetoric of History.” South Atlantic Review 50, no. 1 (1985): 75-86. This important article treats the role of narrative in conveying history in the first of Dos Passos’s trilogy, with attention to the relationship between narrative and film.
Nanney, Lisa. John Dos Passos. New York: Twayne, 1998. An excellent introductory study of Dos Passos and his works.
Sanders, David. John Dos Passos: A Comprehensive Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1987. Includes an index.
Strychacz, Thomas. Modernism, Mass Culture, and Professionalism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Places the U.S.A. trilogy in historical context.
Wagner, Linda W. Dos Passos: Artist as American. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. A comprehensive (624-page) study of Dos Passos’s development as artist/observer, treating his quest for an American hero through his major works.