Adventures of a Young Man Themes
by John Dos Passos

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Adventures of a Young Man Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In addition to its primary critique of radicalism and its failures, Adventures of a Young Man treats the themes of disillusionment, the family unit, and love. None of these is new for the writer, but he treats each in a fresh and illuminating way.

The novel chronicles Glenn's disillusionment with American culture, then with various Communist movements. He finds the society repressive, and his brief career in banking confirms his fear that the dominant culture is totally indifferent to the suffering of the poor. Having flirted with radical ideas in college under the influence of Columbia economist Mike Gulick (who appears as a very successful establishment liberal in The Grand Design), he throws himself into the movement wholeheartedly, expressing both a profound psychological need to do something worthwhile with his life and a hope to contribute to the well-being of the oppressed, but he consistently learns that the organized left will sacrifice individuals to promote its own interests. He becomes unwilling to accept party discipline and is formally expelled while working at a plant in Pittsburgh. When the Party rejects his application for reinstatement, Glenn joins the International Brigade to fight fascism in Spain. Jailed near the front line for free thinking, he is sent on a suicide mission as Franco's armies surround the town in which he is held. Although he knows he is being offered as a sacrifice by the Party that has betrayed him several times, his commitment to the relief of human suffering and the principles of reform require that he undertake the assignment at the cost of his own life. The gesture resembles that of Robert Jordan, the hero of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), in the sacrifice of one's life for an ideal in which he no longer believes. But Jordan's sacrifice is tragic; Spottswood's is melodramatic, one of the least convincing scenes the author ever created. Part of the dignity of Jordan's sacrifice is that he realizes his own life cannot be sustained because of a wound he received from the fascists guarding the bridge. More importantly, Jordan, like Dos Passos but unlike Spottswood, feels a powerful solidarity with the Spanish peasants with whom he has fought. This love is compounded by his erotic love for Maria. Unlike Jordan, Spottswood mixes politics and sexual love many times in his story, but he is unable to make the leap from erotic to spiritual love.

All of Dos Passos' fiction treats the possibility of love as a personal alternative to ideological constructs, but in Adventures of a Young Man this theme is treated somewhat more clinically. Glenn has many love affairs, but he cannot form a lasting commitment to another person, even the admirable Lupe Perez, on whom Glenn develops an adolescent crush in Texas. At one point Lupe almost grounds Glenn's romantic pretensions about his work as a stock advisor as being a "spy in the camp of the enemy" and his vision of his eventual destiny as "part of the new masses in their great upsurge towards a new world" by reminding him that his bank job at twenty-five dollars a week is better than most people's labor at ten, thus superimposing (for both Dos Passos and the reader) common sense on Glenn's idealistic affiliation with "the workers." Lupe, by contrast, expresses her belief in the strike practically; she collects food and money for the strikers at great personal risk. By contrast, Glenn's frustrations in movement politics render him unable to make himself vulnerable as one must be when giving love. Yet a letter he wrote to his brother while serving in the International Brigade, which Tyler reads while being betrayed by the demagogue Chuck Crawford in Number One, indicates that Glenn never completely lost the capacity to feel familial love. He did, however, lose the opportunity to grow emotionally and spiritually by experiencing authentic love.

Love for one's family is another of Dos Passos' key themes throughout the trilogy. District of Columbia treats the breakdown of the Spottswood family as Glenn throws himself into Party politics, Tyler becomes a bitter, alcoholic, political henchman, and their father Herb, who once lost a teaching job because he would not compromise his pacifist principles, finally achieves influence and economic success as a radio commentator dedicated to bringing America into World War II. By contrast, in The Grand Design Dos Passos portrays two men who find in their families' love a source of support that sustains them in the confusion of New Deal politics. Glenn's boyhood friend Paul Graves, who taught him social awareness at a youth camp in Adventures of a Young Man, is able to preserve his identity through a confusing series of political entanglements, largely because of the point of reference his wife and children provide him. Similarly, Millard Carroll, a liberal businessman who makes material sacrifices to come to Washington and work for the New Deal, retains his integrity while most of his associates lose theirs. At least some of Carroll's honor traces to his love for his family, a love that can hurt—one of his sons is killed in military service during World War II.