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Dos Passos, John 1896–1970
An American novelist, Dos Passos came to prominence as a liberal in the 'thirties, published the monumental U.S.A. trilogy, and in his later years became quite conservative. He is known for his "camera's eye" view of individuals and society. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 29-32.)
John Dos Passos seems to be primarily a poet who turned to the novel because its loose construction and lack of rules would let him do things impossible in any other form. It is characteristic of him to try to make the novel do what it has never done in the hands of anyone else. His mark is less the generally high quality of his work than the immense success of the one or two books in which he finally achieves what he has been trying so long to do….
U.S.A. as a whole is a record kept by a man who has lived in America and loved much of it but who never, up to that point in his life, has been able to accept it completely….
Basically Dos Passos' material, like [Thomas] Wolfe's, consists of reminiscence. His major effort is to summon up the memory of things past…. Always his subject, like Wolfe's subject, is the years. This is why Hollywood has kept its hands off Dos Passos, as it did for so long off Wolfe. Moving pictures cannot be made of the passage of time. The record of time, on film, must be kept by a series of stills. Movies call for action, and action—the picture of things happening—is not Dos Passos's line because he, like Wolfe, is interested not in happenings but rather in their effect on people. His characters are primarily victims; they do not act so much as they undergo things. In other words, his treatment of time and of people is characteristic of the novel of erosion…. We read Dos Passos and are convinced of what time has done to us, and recognize the frustration and futility as our own.
W. M. Frohock, "John Dos Passos—Of Time and Frustration," in his The Novel of Violence in America, Southern Methodist University Press, revised edition, 1957, pp. 23-51 (in the Beacon Press paperbound edition, 1964).
[The] U.S.A. trilogy does hold up. The 42nd Parallel. 1919. The Big Money. These three books are still the most striking example of the panoramic novel that we have. Their purpose is the study of American society—the whole nation—during the first quarter of the twentieth century….
The decline of Dos Passos' work is another tragedy in contemporary letters. But if the trouble with the later Hemingway or the later Faulkner is that they are not really serious any more, perhaps the trouble with Dos Passos is that he has become much too serious. There is a strain of monomania in the books of his later period. Only he knows the truth of the historical processes today, the nightmare omens of disaster, and even if he were quite correct, the literary projection of this catastrophic vision lacks dignity, power, and feeling. What one objects to, in the end, is that Dos Passos' view of life has become so petty. If we are all really going down, as he preaches, in a universal debacle, let us go down with some grandeur.
Maxwell Geismar, "John Dos Passos" (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1958 by Maxwell Geismar), in his American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity, Hill & Wang, 1958, pp. 65-90.
Dos Passos has been admired for characteristics which today, with a perspective of twenty years, appear to be superficial: for his success in the novel of protest; for his brilliant technical innovations in such a work as U. S. A.; for his contemporaneity—his grasp of the problems and events of the time as they related to individual characters in his fiction. When the novel of protest became all too familiar, the innovations of U. S. A. no longer new, and the events of his major novels no longer current ones, even his best work seemed to become no longer relevant. (Preface)
Manhattan Transfer marks an important stage not only in Dos Passos' progress toward his fatherland but in his development as an artist. In the preceding two novels Dos Passos had examined a rather special contemporary institution (the army) and a rather special area (Cambridge); but, in terms of form and of content, he had remained within the contemporary tradition of the art novel and of the story of the Sensitive Young Man…. Living in Manhattan from 1923 to 1925, in the very center of our urban-financial society, he was ready for a broader view and a broader challenge. The book that emerged from these years was something new, a city-novel studying American social patterns from within and in a vertical cross-section in a single characteristic area. (p. 122)
Philosophical anarchism—the insistence on individual liberty—has been Dos Passos' constant theme. In his first three novels and in Rosinante he expressed it in variations of his complementary characters: the natural sensuous man (Lyaeus) and the intellectual or seeker (Telemachus) who is dimly aware of an essential self to be found somewhere within the tangle of restrictive social forms in which he has become enmeshed. In each version of the seeker there is a distinctive autobiographical element which becomes increasingly identifiable as we approach the intimate personal narrative of the Camera Eyes of U. S. A. (p. 125)
What Dos Passos has done in Manhattan Transfer is to turn the well-made novel upside down. Superficially the form is chaotic—a succession of scarcely related or unrelated portraits of dying and dead souls seeking some meaning in existence as they are first sucked in and then whirled around and around, occasionally passing one another, in the whirlwind of the mad pursuit of success which is Manhattan. There is no conventional plot, and there is little or no significant action except in the deceptively casual release of Jimmy Herf at the end of the book. Most of the characters are rather acted upon than acting…. In Manhattan Transfer the apparent chaos of the whirlwind itself provides the form and the action. Developing in tighter and tighter concentric circles until only three characters … are left alive in the calm at its center, it acquires a centrifugal force which ejects one of these, Jimmy Herf. But it must be remembered that this is a manmade whirlwind, and that the force which ejects Jimmy is his moral conscience. Jimmy's lesson comes—like the voice Job heard—from within the whirlwind…. (pp. 129-30)
[Dos Passos'] quest for artistic form was resolved when he discovered how to make of one of the oldest artistic forms one of the newest. This was the documentary…. In U. S. A. he made the documentary novel his own. (p. 145)
The term "architect of history"… defines the dual intention, artistic and historical, of Dos Passos' persistent criticism of people and events. All of his art is criticism, and all of it is historically oriented…. The task of preaching self-criticism could best be accomplished if people could be made to see how petty and inadequate or distorted were their ideals, how uncritical in origin, and especially how grotesque and even pernicious their results. The artist should, therefore, be able to discern with the eye of a reporter the results of ideals in contemporary society. He should be able to trace them to their sources with the understanding of an historian. He should express his findings with the acid of the satirist "to sear away the old complacency" and give effect to his criticism. All of these requirements were implicit in Dos Passos' criticism from the start, for he had started with the humanistic faith and the critical attitude. He found his audience in the novel, which he deliberately limited in style and content to the documentary satire; but with this form he also limited his audience to "the handlers of ideas" and to "men and women of imagination and humanity," who were most likely to profit from his preaching—and, in turn, to benefit others. He continually sought to trace the events he described to their sources…. (pp. 149-51)
U. S. A. is first of all a book of memories. These memories, all relating to the United States during the first third of the twentieth century, are presented and developed contrapuntally in autobiography, history, biography, and fiction. The form is that of the associational process of memory itself, by which perceptions are established in the mind and later recalled. And the purpose of the work is equivalent to the function of the memory: to establish in the mind perceptions which, in association with other perceptions from experience such as those of pleasure or pain, develop into attitudes toward certain kinds of experience, frames of reference, or standards by which we judge today. (p. 154)
As a realist Dos Passos reveals his characters in the historical framework of time, place, and social milieu which help to form them. These backgrounds, usually presented through the memories of the characters themselves, are various enough to provide a representative cross-section, geographically and socially, of American society…. Dos Passos is an objective reporter of existing phenomena. But in portraying the individuals themselves and their attempts to sit up and look around and think, he is a selective critic. He controls our choice of attitude by creating characters with whom we must at first sympathize, for their beds and their wants are ours. We continue to sympathize as they struggle to express themselves and to satisfy their needs; but we become indignant at the Procrustean forces that chain them prone in their beds or at the individuals as they lose the courage to struggle, refuse to think, or prefer to crawl back under the sheets within the security of the familiar narrow limits of their bedsteads. (p. 159)
Rather than satire—or rather including the satire and including also his naturalism—Dos Passos' method in U. S. A. is that of tragedy, a method based on an ironic attitude toward the past. U. S. A. is a great agglomerate tragic history. The protagonist, obviously enough, is the real U. S. A. in the first third of the twentieth century. (p. 162)
Part of the reason for Dos Passos' unpopularity is probably his lack of sufficient self-esteem for the reader to share. His contemporary, Hemingway, for example, had it both in himself and in his characters. Even in Swift the reader can climb to the heights of satire with the author—Gulliver being only an alter ego, the equivalent of some of the fictional characters of U. S. A.—and look down on the puny mass of men with the possibility of self-gratulation that he is not among them. But in Dos Passos' participating satire even the author is satirized; if the reader indulges in any identification (which he can scarcely avoid), he must lose not only his self-esteem but also his complacency. (p. 163)
If [his fiction] has been predominantly his own story, it is because, like Thoreau, Whitman, and Henry Adams, and less obviously Melville and Twain—all of whom he admires—he has used the self to explain the universe. Starting on the undefined ground of his common humanity, he made of himself the representative man, seeking to define himself and his integrity. (p. 186)
John H. Wrenn, in his John Dos Passos, Twayne, 1961.
Over a period of forty years, in some thirty published volumes, John Dos Passos has carried on a romantic, constantly disappointed love affair with the United States. His books, crowded with personal experiences and historic events, are at once celebrations, indictments, and pleas for reform. Yet though his passionate complaints seem always to be set in political terms, his own political attitudes have swung in a large arc from left to right. Obviously something profounder than politics is at work. (p. 5)
Though Dos Passos was never a Marxist he shared the belief current among intellectuals that history was heading toward some sort of final conflict. No writer could stand aloof. Whatever he said would add its thrust to one of the forces—progressive or destructive—that were coming into collision. The sense of social change, of released energy, which had given power to Manhattan Transfer, was expressed on a far vaster scale in U.S.A. (p. 21)
The trilogy is intended to be a total history of public moods and social changes through some twenty-five years, as experienced by twelve very different Americans. Public events are far more important than in Manhattan Transfer; the political analysis is more explicit and revolutionary. To cope with such tremendous matters, Dos Passos makes daring experiments in form. Never afterward did he use these techniques so fully.
In U.S.A. four distinctive modes of presentation have crystallized: the Newsreel; the Camera Eye; biographical sketches; and extended fictional narratives. (pp. 21-2)
Most of U.S.A. lavishly reproduces the immediately felt experiences of its twelve characters, in diction and rhythms and ways of thought appropriate to them. Dos Passos learned this mode from Joyce, but he uses it here with great authority and flexibility, especially when he enters the minds of women and children…. Everybody is on the move, socially and geographically. Even more than Manhattan Transfer, U.S.A dramatizes American mobility. Sex as a driving force, a nervous release, adds to the general restlessness. But profound and sustained love, like profound religious or creative excitement, is totally absent. (p. 23)
Even so, U.S.A. creates a positive effect because of the richness of the felt experience, the importance of the events, and the boldness of its challenge. And though the four separate modes of presentation might seem a confession of disunity, they are skillfully employed to bring diverse materials together according to certain dominant themes. (p. 24)
The history Dos Passos sees, though, is rather limited. He has not used what he knows of the world outside the United States to help us understand the unique character of the American experience…. No one in U.S.A. thinks of the centuries before. It is as if history began with the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. (p. 26)
Dos Passos writes social novels without sociology, without social institutions. He can show powerful individuals making secret deals, but not the corporate determination of policy within churches, universities, magazines, the Senate, or even the Communist party. Because of this inadequacy, when Dos Passos wrote introductory and concluding sketches for the 1937 one-volume U.S.A. he could not find a symbol that would really suggest either the country or his own vast and important work of imagination. At the beginning he lists a jumble of things or qualities, and then decides that "mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people."
This is not borne out by the trilogy itself. Like other writers as different as Ezra Pound and Sherwood Anderson, Dos Passos speaks of the way language is being corrupted by the false commercial and political uses to which it is put. But reproducing the direct speech of common Americans is what he does least well. (p. 30)
The sole formal device which Dos Passos never revived after U.S.A. was the Camera Eye, with a uniquely sensitive and developing personality—his own—behind it. At the end of Midcentury he denounces men of power as passionately as he had cried out against the executors of Sacco and Vanzetti thirty years earlier. But there is no longer the positive passion for experience which once enabled him to live out so fully the lives of all his characters, good and bad. In U.S.A. he had understood the self-doomed, like Dick Savage and Charley Anderson, as well as those doomed from outside. With the weakening of this savoring of experience for its own sake has come a deadening of his prose.
In his later work Dos Passos mentions good and evil frequently, and even speaks of God, but without the kind of thought which Berdiaev and Niebuhr, Camus and Sartre, devoted during these same years to the problem of moral man in an immoral society. Dos Passos studied American history, but the character of the country eluded him because he had stopped trying to define himself as well. (pp. 43-4)
Robert Gorham Davis, in his John Dos Passos ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 20), University of Minnesota Press, © 1962 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).
[John] Dos Passos is unequalled in his talent for manipulating social and economic history in fictional forms; the details are selected with an almost uncannily acute perception of their pertinence; the exactly right surface record, from the newsreels and the tabloids, is always at hand; the narratives achieve a pace and a surface conviction of detail.
Frederick J. Hoffman, in his The Modern Novel in America, Regnery, revised edition, 1963, p. 153.
[The] repudiation of regimentation, whether by the army or by society itself, is the constant factor in Dos Passos's fiction. He is the great nonconformist, if you like the original Jeffersonian democrat. For part of the thirties he was probably the most illustrious American writer the Communist Party secured as a fellow-traveller, but he was never a Communist, and what he saw in Spain during the Civil War led to his disillusionment with the Left. In his most recent novels the target of his hatred is trade unionism. But this is not to say he has become a reactionary. He is continuing to attack, in the name of individual freedom, power that he believes has become monolithic. He remains essentially an anarchist.
The writer he is closest to is Whitman; but he is, as it were, a Whitman who has fallen from the state of innocence. Whitman could preach the brotherhood of man and see it actually materializing in mid-nineteenth-century America: for Dos Passos the facts of life in twentieth-century America frustrate the brotherhood of man….
U.S.A. lacks form, is not an organic whole, is without any centre apart from Dos Passos's own indignation. One sees the point of the devices, but they remain devices, and the form has not crystallized out. We have instead an orderly procession of fragments, of which some—the biographies conspicuously—are now of much greater value than others.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 142-48.
In U.S.A. for the first time, the wandering journeyman of the road was accorded extended fictional treatment by a major literary artist.
U.S.A. attempts to trace the political fortunes of the American people over more than three decades of U.S. history, from the failure of the Populist revolt, described in a cutting aside on Bryan, to the defeat of the proletarian challenge and the ascendance of the trusts to a position of dominance in American life. It is not surprising, therefore, that the hobo should figure large in the plan of the work. Throughout much of this period the I.W.W. represented a force to be reckoned with in American political life, and the membership of the I.W.W. … was in large part recruited from the ranks of the hoboes or so-called floating workers…. (pp. 41-2)
Dos Passos' migrants … are not to be regarded primarily as creatures of the abyss or broken surplus workers. Neither are they red-blooded challengers of Life, blond beasts bucking the great tide of life with perfect optimism and perfect health. The hobo Dos Passos describes is intensely political. Economic considerations or the desire to see the country may enter into his taking to the road, but more often it is some political motivation that is the cause, the need to get somewhere to participate in a strike or demonstration or revolution…. (p. 43)
To Dos Passos the hoboes represent the America of Walt Whitman, of the "storybook democracy," of the immigrant haters of oppression, and their defeat leaves America the poorer for it. (p. 55)
Frederick Feied, in his No Pie in the Sky: The Hobo as American Culture Hero, Citadel Press, 1964.
Throughout his long career as one of America's best-known novelists, Dos Passos has remained true to his belief that a writer is an architect of history. Convinced that tomorrow's problems can best be solved by searching the past, he has dedicated his books to accurately portraying the sights and sounds of the world around him for future generations to see and understand. As a portrait of 20th-century America, Dos Passos' novels are unsurpassed.
Dos Passos believes that to realistically record the events of a generation, a writer must be an active participant in history. He fits well into his portrait of an author. His life reads like a novel, and from it he has drawn the basic ingredients for many of his stories….
A massive literary endeavor, U.S.A. depicts almost every aspect of life in the United States and follows some thirty characters through the first thirty years of this century. Because Dos Passos exerted as much effort to describe and make real the social scene as a traditional novelist would expend upon the development of a human hero, the actual protagonist in the trilogy is society itself. The many characters are subordinate to society—the essential point being the effect that the social and economic milieu has upon the individual.
To make this point clear, Dos Passos realized, the reader must be given as vivid a picture of the era as possible. So he employed a variety of unconventional technical devices: the "newsreel," made up of snatches of popular songs, quotations from speeches, and reproductions of contemporary newspaper headlines; the "camera eye," snapshot flashes in free verse of his own experiences; and thumbnail biographical sketches of real persons whose activities coincided with those of his fictional creations.
Bernard Dekle, "John Dos Passos: Historian of the American Scene," in his Profiles of Modern American Authors, Charles E. Tuttle, 1969, pp. 154-59.