Townsend Ludington’s biography of John Dos Passos points up both the strengths and weaknesses of one current fashion in literary biography, the production of lengthy and exhaustively detailed chronicles of authors’ lives. In recent years, for example, there has been Carlos Baker’s life of Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Blotner’s life of William Faulkner, both massive books, rich in detail and revealing at every turn exhaustive research. Now readers have Ludington’s life of Dos Passos, filled with details of his youth and adulthood gleaned from years of reading letters, manuscripts, and notes as well as conversations with Dos Passos’ family and friends.
Scholars are always grateful for works like this; they make accessible much accurate information and remove the need for such exhaustive digging to be done again. Fans of the writers so treated are also justifiably grateful; they get the chance to learn a great deal about the personal lives of authors about whose works they care deeply. To both these audiences, Ludington has discharged his responsibilities well. His work is rich in detail and clearly written, filled with the best and most accurate versions of incidents and episodes, opening for everyone the range of Dos Passos’ experiences.
Yet, precisely because it is primarily chronicle, this work raises serious questions about its larger purposes and usefulness. Presumably, the life of every person is in some sense interesting since it is an example of what is humanly possible to the rest. Yet, one does not write biographies of everyone. Presumably, the life of an artist is interesting and worthy of biographical treatment because it in some sense illuminates the artist’s work. It is, after all, because the person being written about is an artist and not something else that makes his life worth the effort to chronicle and describe. Yet, a major problem in Ludington’s account of Don Passos lies precisely in the fact that little connection is made throughout this lengthy work between the life and the art.
Certainly, Dos Passos’ life is worthy of close examination because of the kind of life he led and the kinds of fiction he wrote out of his life’s experiences. His major novels—U.S.A., Manhattan Transfer, and the rest—are praised for their vivid evocations of certain times in twentieth century America and for their piercing social satire of the failings and foibles of the American experience. To the extent to which Dos Passos was an experimenter in forms of fiction, he participated in the great coming-of-age of American letters in the 1920’s and deserves a place in literary history next to Gertrude Stein and Hemingway. To the extent to which his work reflects the growing social concern of writers in the 1930’s, he deserves a place next to Faulkner and James T. Farrell. A resident of Paris in the 1920’s and a writer for radical periodicals in the 1930’s, Dos Passos participated in the major movements of American literature in the first half of the twentieth century. That he befriended radicals in the 1930’s and supported Barry Goldwater in the 1960’s only adds complexity to the shape of his literary career.
Just as clearly, Dos Passos’ life invites readers to speculate about the relationship between it and his life’s work. The illegitimate son of a successful corporate lawyer, Dos Passos spent much of his early life wandering with his mother from hotel to hotel as they waited for his father to decide he could marry his mother. It is possible that Dos Passos’...
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