Literary reputations are fragile things, easily influenced by events or opinions which may have little to do with the works on which they are based. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, John Dos Passos was often ranked alongside William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway as one of America’s leading writers. Faulkner himself cited Dos Passos as among the best contemporary writers because of his willingness to experiment, to push the limits of fiction. Jean-Paul Sartre went so far as to call him “the greatest writer of our time.” For a time, Dos Passos commanded great attention. His works did tell stories in new ways. He was both a naturalist and a modernist. His novels reflected the scope and the fragmentation of the twentieth century world. He liked the panoramic rather than the miniature, the people rather than the individual. In Three Soldiers (1921), he wrote what may very well be the best novel of World War I. In Manhattan Transfer (1925), he wrote one of the finest evocations of postwar urban experience. In his masterful trilogy, U.S.A.—composed of The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936)—he created one of the great political and social fictions in American literature. In all of these works, his essential theme was history, the play of events on human lives (it is not surprising that Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was his favorite novel). Most would agree that after U.S.A., he never again reached quite as far and certainly never matched the earlier achievements, but each of these first books has held up impressively well.
Dos Passos’ standing, however, went into eclipse in the late 1930’s and, despite two recent biographies, shows little indication of resurrection. There are several reasons why this is so. For one thing, he never created characters who live in the imagination. His works have given readers no Jay Gatsby or Jake Barnes or Quentin Compson. Dos Passos’ people were too often representative “types,” more form than substance. Readers might follow them throughout a book—or several books—but they moved fast and were hard to get to know.
Much the same might be said of Dos Passos himself. In his 1980 biography of the writer, Townsend Ludington discussed Dos Passos’ life in terms of a journey (John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey), an entirely appropriate metaphor, for Dos Passos, like so many of his characters, rarely stayed still. Indeed, few have traveled as far—geographically, intellectually, or politically—as this peripatetic writer, and yet, for all the pure adventure of his life, he did not cut a romantic figure, nor did he try to create one for himself, as did Hemingway or the young Faulkner. Dos Passos was more the observer than the doer. Although he was always in the middle of things, he absorbed rather than radiated. There was an essential passivity to his character which tended to keep him in the background.
Finally, there was Dos Passos’ political swing from radical to conservative. His best works were rooted in an anger which did not give way to despair, which (for all of their naturalistic assumptions) suggest the possibility of change and reform. When Dos Passos’ heroes shifted from John Reed and Eugene Debs to Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, his works became more hidebound: They tended to admonish rather than inspire. It would be a mistake to draw too direct a correlation between his growing political conservatism and the lessening of his artistic powers. Indeed, in retrospect, he seems to have been a rather uncomfortable Socialist and a rather relieved Republican, but clearly, the way he saw the world affected the way he wrote about it, and many of his early admirers, who were often drawn to him because of his message, felt betrayed by his transformation.
It is unlikely that Virginia Spencer Carr’s biography, Dos Passos: A Life, will do much to change Dos Passos’ present reputation. It is a long, thoroughly researched and documented study of the public man. It is not an interpretative biography, either in terms of his personal life or his writings. Carr had access to Dos Passos’ letters and papers, and she had the aid of Dos Passos’ second wife, Elizabeth Hamlin Dos Passos, who was apparently actively involved in the making of the biography (but who is practically a noncharacter in it herself, taking a distinct backseat to Katy Dos Passos, his first wife). It is difficult to fault Carr for her inclusiveness in terms of facts in dealing with Dos Passos—she has drawn together many more details than did Ludington in his...
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