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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John Dos Passos’s reputation rests solidly on the novels he published between 1925 and 1939. In Manhattan Transfer and the three long novels that make up U.S.A., he showed himself to be a daring and imaginative experimenter with prose style and a vivid depicter of the American scene. He does not present deep or penetrating analyses of his characters, but in part this results from the fact that he wishes to show that American society has a leveling influence that diminishes the differences between people’s characters even as it exaggerates the economic and social differences between them. The picture Dos Passos provided of life in the United States in the first thirty years of the twentieth century remains lively and immediate. That picture, and the new directions he provided for prose style, secure for him a place among American novelists of modern times.
From the start of his life, John Roderigo Dos Passos was the victim of circumstances that would set him on an isolated course. In 1896, he was born illegitimately in a Chicago hospital. His father, John R. Dos Passos, Sr., was a famous defense lawyer, a stock market expert, and a writer of brokerage texts. His mother, Lucy Addison Sprigg, was of a fine southern stock. Apparently, his birth was never recorded: This would have meant a scandal for Dos Passos, Sr., whose Catholic wife, Mary Dyckman Hays Dos Passos, was disabled.
For the most part, Dos Passos’s childhood was spent with his mother in Brussels, London, or the United States, where reunions with his father were possible. From time to time, he was able to visit his father along the New Jersey shore or in New York, but only in a formal gathering where the affections of the boy for his “guardian” were repressed. Dos Passos’s own account of his father’s rare presence and peculiar hold are captured poignantly in The Best Times (1966).
Dos Passos’s father, however, managed to shape the boy’s intellect and attitudes, not through fatherly attentions but with books and clear opinions about politics and through his son’s elitist schooling. Dos Passos attended Peterborough Lodge, outside London, and the Choate School after returning to the United States. In 1910, Mary Dos Passos died; the boy’s mother and father were married, and Dos Passos was given his actual surname. This new life and early schooling culminated in a grand tour of Europe and the Near and Middle East, complete with a mentor—Virgil Jones, a Dominican candidate. At this point, Dos Passos’s great interest in art, architecture, and history was kindled. Ironically, he returned home to find that his mother, like Mary, had become disabled.
The following autumn, Dos Passos entered Harvard, and the great avenues were opened for the nurturing of his writing, his political and social tendencies, and his artistic abilities. He ardently read both the classics and the moderns, as well as Insurgent Mexico (1914) by John Reed, an activist and a Harvard contemporary. Outside Harvard’s walls, Dos Passos and his friends absorbed such artistic events as the Boston Opera, Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet, the sensational Armory Show of modernist paintings, and the...
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