Last Updated on September 21, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2138
Dos Passos, John 1896–1970
An American novelist, Dos Passos is best known for his U.S.A. trilogy. Disturbed by the social and economic conditions faced by Americans in the twenties and thirties, Dos Passos pictured his country as a wasteland. A self-proclaimed "middle-class liberal," Dos Passos was concerned with individual freedom in an increasingly repressive society. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)
Dos Passos, in U.S.A., focused entirely on the "widening gyre" [as in Yeats' "Second Coming"]. He obliquely explored the physical and social landscape that West symbolized in Day of the Locust by viewing the period leading up to the depression through one set of intellectual and emotional lenses of the thirties. There is no "green light," Hollywood vista, Daisy Buchanan, or Faye Greener in U.S.A., no symbolic goal—only a gyre continually widening beyond reach. And there is no vehicle, only the collective life of all the characters. The real subject is the motive power, or the force that drives the characters in the "widening gyre": America's aimless and uncontrollable energy, the spirit of laissez faire and the melting pot, which the style so fully and palpably embodies. The style (which Dos Passos mistakenly considered the "speech of the people" in his appended introduction to The 42nd Parallel) drives to include everything in an apparently indiscriminate and shifting mixture. And the style finally levels all human action, motivation, and destiny—turns action into movement, reduces motivation to conditioned response, converts destiny into blueprint. If we see the style, which embodies America's destructive energy, as the subject, the trilogy is a success. Still, Dos Passos' Marxist materialist determinism intrudes, and the overall pattern is consecutive and causal. Dos Passos finally simplifies his vision by showing the "widening gyre" to be the cause of the "centre's" destruction. (p. 133)
Richard Pearce, in Criticism (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright 1971 by Wayne State University Press), Vol. VIII, No. 1, (Winter, 1971).
Dos Passos' USA … remains the most ambitious work of fiction attempted by any writer in English during the Thirties, and technically it was extremely influential, and not in English writing alone. It was an attempt at what used to be called the Great American Novel, a kind of epic of the American experience during this century. It fails, I think, because in the end Dos Passos cannot fuse it into a unity; and though it is complicated it is not complex. What I am tempted to call the novel proper—and that one can extract from a novel something one speaks of as the novel proper is surely a sign of the author's failure—is, despite all the documentation, curiously lifeless, a result partly of Dos Passos' extremely flat style of rendering his characters. The vivifying quality, the poetry, goes into the other elements of the novel, the biographies of eminent Americans with which it is interspersed, and the sections of what Dos Passos calls Newsreel, and the device, which certainly arouses aesthetic problems, called the Camera Eye. These seem to me brilliant, the biographies outstandingly so. But they also appear as so much husk around the novel proper. When one compares USA with Ulysses, one can only say that, by comparison with Joyce, Dos Passos was an amateur. (p. 248)
Walter Allen, in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1974, Hofstra University Press), October, 1974.
Most of [Dos Passos's] experience, in personal evolution, politics, and technique, is distilled in U.S.A., the triumphant point of his career. The novel isn't only a massive vision of America corrupting itself over Dos's own lifetime …; it's also a great technical enterprise in which the attempt is made through presentational tactics to relate personal psychology to the historical process. But the personal life of the author, given in the 'Camera Eye' sections, exists in a pained isolation of images, self-dwarfing and self-abnegating. In unstylised form we get this sensibility in the letters [in The Fourteenth Chronicle]: the self is uneasy and not very assertive, and the gestures outward toward principles and process seem, here, like efforts to contact reality and wholeness which can't quite succeed, though there's no doubting the fervent radical indignation….
Where he mainly differs from his lost generation peers is in his personal withdrawal and loneliness and the scale of his pessimism, which starts early and persists as if as a character trait, however vindicated by circumstances. The letters lack intensive confession, and you feel back to an unease with self further behind them; the novels are the justification for reading them, as well as a proper curiosity about the mental movements of an important figure in a crucial generation of American writers and thinkers. They have not that kind of immersed involvement in history that Fitzgerald's have: for Dos Passos, history was outside the self, pulling and pushing it. But this is a significant accounting, carrying a lot of the experience of a total culture inside it. (p. 509)
Malcolm Bradbury, "Inside U.S.A.," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 11, 1974, pp. 508-09.
If you are a Dos Passos fan (as I am), then you will appreciate [Century's Ebb, his] posthumous fiction-history. It is in the mature Dos Passos manner: a complex intersection of fiction, social history, biography, blank verse, and sermonizing, the whole interspersed with bits and pieces of headlines, popular tunes, and slogans intended to evoke the texture and subliminal meaning of the passing scene.
Dos Passos bore witness to the chaotic complexity of the twentieth century in much the same manner as monastic historians of the patristic period chronicled the fall of Rome and the birth of Christian Europe. Monk and novelist felt themselves in the presence of a social situation so multitudinous and so intrinsically chaotic that the only appropriate response was to open up the forms of narrative itself, so that it might reflect the teeming confusion of an age in which fact and fiction, legend and event, prose and poetry, myth and statistic melted together in the crucible of crumbling orthodoxies and social transitions….
The closer Dos Passos came to the present (and we are speaking here in terms of decades and half-decades) [in Century's Ebb], the more his narrative method came under strain. Implicit in his earlier chronicles—and underpinning them as ontological—were correct acts of selection in the matter of who and what was most representative. No matter how unstructured and unassessed was the history of the 1890–1930 period, it already had for Dos Passos an underlying myth and an agreed-upon cast of characters. Dos Passos's chronicles were, in their own way, mixed-media events: in dialogue with, and sustained by, a sense of history already brought to semi-coherence by the triaging of newspapers, magazines, and motion pictures.
I am afraid that, in completing Century's Ebb, Dos Passos knew that his earlier method had come under strain in dealing with the 1935–1969 period, both as a matter of substantive vision and literary technique….
A dedicated conservative in his later years, Dos Passos in Century's Ebb has the perennial problem of conservatives: to come up with heroes and mediating symbols. Did he, when he put aside his manuscript, suspect that John Foster Dulles, Joe McCarthy, and the astronauts just weren't compelling enough as public figures to sustain a conviction of enduring American tradition amidst the chaos? Did he realize, as he meditated upon this incomplete and uncompleted book, that the experiences of so many of its fictional characters were, in the last analysis, inconclusive, a faint puttering in comparison with the lives of his previous protagonists?
Or did he intend it that way? Did he intend that his last chronicle be one long, grand anticlimax, because, being a Jeffersonian conservative, he felt the Republic sadly detached from its founding ideals, and that American lives were being led to no purpose?
Century's Ebb, in short, suffers not from a lack of scale, but from a certain subtle fatigue, a weariness with it all…. Century's Ebb will not add an iota to the reputation of John Dos Passos, which is already enduring. It will not offer much in the way of either satisfying narrative or compelling moral vision. It will give greatest satisfaction to those familiar with the Dos Passos oeuvre—and especially to those familiar with the conservative philosophy of Dos Passos in the years since the Second World War. It is a plaintive coda to a major canon in the corpus of contemporary American literature.
Kevin Starr, "A Plaintive Coda," in Harvard Magazine (copyright © 1975, Harvard Magazine, Inc.; reprinted by permission), October, 1975, p. 69.
Century's Ebb is not a very good book; it would not reward serious interest outside the context of the chronicles and were it not the last gesture—I assume—of its author. It's appropriate that the work looks like a Dos Passos novel…. The fiction as always is supposedly naturalistic, but is betrayed here by its stiffness…. The essays—for want of a better word—are impressionistic, cranky, and lively, the occasional vulgarity (liberals are "nervous Nellies") really only the ideological obverse of the style of U.S.A. But, especially since Century's Ebb is a "chronicle"—a word suggesting enormous significance—the inconsequentiality of some of the fictional episodes and essays taxes one's patience, and the forced relationship between the fiction and the essays compels one to wonder if Dos Passos's method hasn't always been a safe one—since such a separation exists between the old-fashioned storytelling and what is thought "experimental" in his work. (p. 16)
Dos Passos fictionalizing direct experience is, of course, not new, but there is something—I don't know—coy about it here, a sort of peek-a-boo quality that undercuts and diminishes the supposed intention of The Thirteenth Chronicle. (pp. 16-17)
Joseph Kennedy and Bernard Baruch play themselves, but … did the two old gentlemen have the conversation heard here? (Note, for contrast, E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, where improbable meetings are given an artistic truth this probable meeting is without.)
My point is that Century's Ebb amounts to much less than a "chronicle." In the absence of a sustained vision—some large historical sense—that draws the disparate elements into a web of consequence and inevitability, it becomes a kind of invitation to a quiz game (dressed up with some provocative essays futilely assuring us there's something epic here), a release for the reader's own frustrated investment of attention and energy, little more than a roman à clef—in my book a trivial form of literature, if an elevation of gossip. The earlier novels, before Dos Passos thought of the formal term, were chronicles—so why the degeneration? Many possibilities, I'm sure, but I'd like to sketch one.
To write fiction that stands as a serious historical account of the time-spirit, a witness, one must control the writing, it seems to me, by either conviction or wonder—exploration or awe—not by defensiveness, self-justification. Dos Passos consistently has his eye on a liberal audience—the substance and tone betray that fact…. I'm not suggesting any automatic and necessary connection between such a tone and a roman à clef specifically—of course not. But surely what's left of a "chronicle," deserted by graceful conviction or naive wonder, is merely pop costume-fiction of one kind or another. (p. 17)
Samuel Hux, "Pignatelli's Progress," in Saturday Review (© 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 18, 1975, pp. 16-17.
Like the author of Ulysses, who circulated the word claritas—the radiance that attends intellectual apprehension—Dos Passos wanted multifariousness to cohere, and trusted that a cunning interplay of literary techniques would make that happen. He was willing to outwait the impatience of readers who thought the techniques themselves incoherent, mainly because they fragmented the orderly look of print…. Using "newsreels," meditations, chunks of prose-poetry, fictional interludes, biographies like Time covers, he composed Chronicle after Chronicle: a twentieth century American reader's own life and times….
Century's Ebb,… Chronicle Number 13, is a posthumous book never really firmed up by the author…. Its focus is the Spanish Civil War and Truman-Era leftism. Its three fictional sequences, intercut, chronicle a fiscal hotshot on the lam in South America, a pair of left-wing True Believers, an attorney whose experience of Stalinist chicanery in Spain swings him rightward….
What works, works thanks to Dos Passos' gift for stepping efficiently through clutter. (p. 1247)
What's most evidently missing, from end to end of the book, is any sense of anyone experiencing those years. A lot of pop-lecture clarification occurs, and much pointing of facts the current mythology forgets (though Dos Passos' mythology forgets different facts)…. Don't mistake it for real fiction,… nor, above all, for the sort of literary cubism it masquerades as…. (p. 1248)
Hugh Kenner, "Methadone Fix for Experience Addicts," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), November 7, 1975, pp. 1247-48.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support