John Dos Passos

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 953

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.

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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 approach of World War I.

Dos Passos’s final year in school was somewhat sad, for his mother died, deepening his sense of isolation. It was also a springboard for his literary career, since it afforded the opportunity to collect and edit material and negotiate funds from his father for Eight Harvard Poets. He wrote for various Harvard publications, especially The Harvard Monthly, for which he was secretary and editor.

In 1916, Dos Passos studied architecture in Spain—an experience that would color his perspective on the civil war there and alienate him from his friend, Ernest Hemingway. It was at this time, too, that Dos Passos’s father died of pneumonia; his subsequent feeling of abandonment can be traced through correspondence with friends in The Fourteenth Chronicle (1973).

During “Mr. Wilson’s War,” as he dubbed it, Dos Passos, like many writer friends, joined the selective Norton-Harjes Ambulance Unit, serving France and Italy. Following the war, he was considered to be a member of the so-called lost generation, but always remained somewhat apart. Dos Passos immersed himself in and contributed to the artistic excitement in Paris. Designing and painting sets for the ballet and writing consistently for the first time, Dos Passos also observed the peace conference and the postwar unrest.

Travels took Dos Passos to the Basque country, to New York, and to the Near East on the trans-Siberian railroad. There, the danger of the desert, the stench of the cities, and the exotic activity greatly affected Dos Passos’s creative notions. Back in New York by 1924, he rode on the wave of socialism, jazz, and the fragmentation of the postwar period—precisely the right mixture for his highly stylized work, Manhattan Transfer. Simultaneously, he directed the New Playwright’s Theatre group, which produced his dazzling, expressionistic productions on labor issues: The Moon Is a Gong (1925), Airways, Inc. (1928), and Fortune Heights (1933).

In 1928, Dos Passos met and married Katy Smith, a writer and friend of the Hemingways. Her temperament, wit, and goodness seemed to be the perfect match for Dos Passos’s solitary nature and restless spirit. The couple enjoyed years of extensive travel and literary success before Katy was killed in a tragic automobile accident, in which her husband was driving. As for his political development during these years, Dos Passos supported the labor cause and the more universal cause for justice and individual freedom. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, however, and the making of a film rallied writers to Spain, Dos Passos’s reaction to the execution of his friend, the poet José Robles, caused a serious rift with Hemingway.

The 1940’s and 1950’s marked a transition away from the political left: For Dos Passos, it was a natural shift to maintain his defense of freedom; for others, it remained a puzzling and outrageous movement to the right. During this period, Dos Passos was a war correspondent in the Pacific theater during World War II; after the war, he married a widow, Elizabeth Holdridge, with whom he had a daughter, Lucy. He spent his remaining years traveling widely—particularly to South American countries such as Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, and also around the United States. Discomfort due to a serious heart condition plagued him.

On September 28, 1970, Dos Passos died of a heart attack in an apartment near Baltimore. He is buried near Spence’s Point, his family’s home in the northern neck of Virginia.

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