Dos Passos, John 1896–1970
Dos Passos, an American novelist, is best known for the gigantic, innovative, U.S.A. trilogy, novels based on American social and economic conditions during the 1920's. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 29-32.)
The Communist critical movement in America … tended to identify their ideal with the work of John Dos Passos. In order to make this possible, it was necessary to invent an imaginary Dos Passos. This ideal Dos Passos was a Communist, who wrote stories about the proletariat, at a time when the real Dos Passos was engaged in bringing out a long novel about the effects of the capitalist system on the American middle class and had announced himself—in the New Republic in 1930—politically a 'middle-class liberal.' The ideal Dos Passos was something like Gorky without the mustache—Gorky, in the meantime, having himself undergone some transmogrification at the hands of Soviet publicity—and this myth was maintained until the Communist critics were finally compelled to repudiate it, not because they had acquired new light on Dos Passos, the novelist and dramatist, but because of his attitude toward events in Russia.
Edmund Wilson, "Marxism and Literature," in The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subjects (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1938, 1948 by Edmund Wilson), Oxford University Press, revised edition, 1948, pp. 197-212 (in the Galaxy paperbound edition).
[The] shadowy image of a brilliant purpose shows through in Manhattan Transfer. It can be seen in the complex panorama of many-sided life which gives the novel the look of having been photographed rather than written; it can be sensed in the quick, raw-nerved violence of the prose which, although it is not yet a "style," seems to have been compounded out of the same dirty concrete as that of the city it describes. It is present, particularly, in the truly remarkable energy and daring of Dos Passos' conception. But it is, as yet, blurred and undirected. The energy and the violence lead to nothing because they have no object. There is no frame in which they can be concentrated and no purpose which they can be used to serve.
For Dos Passos, at the time he wrote Manhattan Transfer, there seems to have been no cause great enough to impel him toward a supreme integration of his powers. He had all the vitality and insight he needed to produce a major work of art; and he certainly had all the idiosyncrasy and passion he needed. But he had to believe once more in the necessity of taking a stand, of affirming a principle, before he could display his powers in a way that would be more meaningful than a mere cataloguing of disgust.
It is generally believed that the bitterness engendered in Dos Passos by the injustice done to Sacco and Vanzetti provided him with the focus and purpose he needed to write his immense trilogy U.S.A. However true this may be, one can just as easily explain his achievement in that work in terms of natural creative evolution….
[As] the result of the experiments he made in Manhattan Transfer , Dos Passos was able to return to the material he had begun to explore in that book and see in it implications which had previously escaped him. He sensed now that the real victims of the system were the working classes and that the real evils of the system stemmed from wealth and power. He was thus able to focus his sympathies upon a specific social group and set them...
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against his hatred of another social group, just as in his earlier work he had focused his sympathies upon the individual aesthete and set them against his hatred of war. He was able to write now within the frame of two distinct and separate worlds, two nations, and to bring to his writing the full power of his protest (for he believed in the cause of the working classes as he had formerly believed in the cause of the aesthete) as well as the full power of his futility (for he knew, in spite of his belief in their cause, that the working classes under capitalism must always be defeated).
The dramatic intensity of U.S.A. derives from the perfect balance of these conflicting forces within Dos Passos. There is, on one side, the gradual corruption and defeat of the characters whose lives are depicted in the straight narrative sections. There is, on the other, the implicit indignation of the harsh, cutting style, which runs persistently counter to the drift of the narrative and comments upon it. Then, in the "Camera Eye" and "Biography" sections the style picks up additional counterforce….
This hypothesis of universal ruin, introduced lyrically through the "Camera Eye" and historically through the "Biographies," is given dramatic proof in the narrative proper. Here all the social classes of U.S.A. are represented. There are J. Ward Moorehouse, Charley Anderson, Richard Ellsworth Savage, Eveline Hutchins, Eleanor Stoddard, the prototypes of privilege; and Joe Williams, Ben Compton, Mary French, the prototypes of unprivilege. Each has a different story, but all come to the same end….
The U.S.A. which Dos Passos describes is thus more than simply a country or a way of life. It is a condition of death, a wasteland of futility and emptiness. In it, the best and the worst must be defeated; for defeat can be the only answer for the inhabitants of a world in which all goals are unattainable and the most powerful gods are corrupt. Yet, although the thing he describes is death, Dos Passos brings to his description a savage kind of power which saves it from becoming dead too. Through it all, he has consistently hated and condemned; and he has expressed his hatred with great strength and purpose. This has given meaning to the meaninglessness of his characters, value to their valuelessness. His style has been the perfect instrument of that meaning, protesting at every step in its development against the horror of the thing it was disclosing.
John W. Aldridge, "Dos Passos: The Energy of Despair," in his After the Lost Generation, McGraw, 1951, pp. 70-6.
The relation of the individual to society has consistently been the key problem for Dos Passos, both as writer and citizen; and his conviction that individual freedom was being lost within a steadily congealing social organism attracted him from the very beginning of his career to any expression of revolt. The revolt could be aesthetic or social, but preferably both simultaneously…. Dos Passos was not himself split between aesthetic and rebel [and] he did not see art and politics as antitheses, but as facets of a unified whole….
[In U.S.A.] the historian, the artist, and the social rebel are fused. The trilogy is an acid analysis of thirty years of American capitalism, an analysis that envisages the country as split between the exploited and the exploiters; yet none of the fourteen characters important enough to carry the interwoven stories in their own names comes from other than the working class or the lower or middle layers of the middle class. What Dos Passos is concerned with is the efforts of ordinary people to survive in a business civilization and the disintegrative effect that such a civilization has upon them through their experience of economic injustice, war, and financial boom. The class analysis undoubtedly owes something to Marx, but the spirits of other men preside more powerfully here. As the trilogy develops, one sees that it is the history of the rise and incipient decline of yet another empire, chronicled with the ironic detachment of a twentieth-century Gibbon who happens also to be a novelist. More importantly, when one reaches The Big Money, the basis of Dos Passos's economic criticism becomes at last almost explicit, for it is in this third, climactic volume that he places the key "biography," that of Thorstein Veblen, whom he had read so much…. If one accepts the fact of Dos Passos's reliance on Veblen more than on Marx, it likewise becomes clear why there are no major characters from the owning class; they would simply be in the way of the author's intent….
Because of its dependence for ideological basis on Veblen's bitter drink, U.S.A. seems a somber and negative book; yet it contains a tentative affirmation. The positive hope of U.S.A. comes from Walt Whitman, of whose revolutionary quality Dos Passos [once] wrote…. Even more than in Manhattan Transfer one sees that Whitman's love of the American spoken word lies behind Dos Passos's own colloquial style in the stories, and like the poet, the novelist has tried to include, not just New York, but all America in his work. Equally important, Dos Passos looks for the cure of his sick country, not to a dictatorship of the proletariat, but to a restoration—the word is significant—of the democratic vista.
Walter B. Rideout, The Radical Novel in the United States 1900–1954, Harvard University Press, 1956, pp. 157-62.
A writer seldom retrieves a long-lost reputation at a single stroke, but John Dos Passos has probably done just that with Midcentury, by far his best novel since he completed the U.S.A. trilogy with The Big Money in 1936. It is written with a control of narrative styles, a grasp of character, and a sense of the American scene. In its fictional passages this panoramic novel recaptures the Dos Passos verve and intensity of a quarter-century ago, while the background sections, made up of sociological tidbits and pertinent biographical sketches, show much of the old Dos Passos skill at manipulating the devices which helped to give U.S.A. originality and force….
In repeated, vigorous, and one-sided attacks on labor unions, Dos Passos hammers away at racketeering of the kind we all know exists. But he hardly suggests that there are good as well as evil unions. About three-fifths of the way through the volume, however, when the antiunion poundings threaten to become tiresome, he introduces two new and interesting characters, Jasper Milliron and his son-in-law, Willoughby Jenks, who take part in exciting battles at management levels where the villainy of unions is only incidental. In adding this dimension, Dos Passos proves again that he can write about business—which doesn't have to be a dull subject—better than anyone since Theodore Dreiser. The sequences concerned with it in Midcentury are worth a dozen grey-flannel-suit and executive-suite novels. Here the author gives fictional life to some of the phases of American civilization recently noted by popularizing sociologists, but he does so with pronounced individuality and the stamp of authority. If the sociologists look, with a scientific eye, at outwardly directed and herd-motivated men, Dos Passos regards them with deep pessimism and gloom—here projected fictionally in the downfall of Jasper Milliron and in the ensnaring of Will Jenks in an unhappy compromise.
Not that Dos Passos has ever been a cheerful writer. He began his career in the early 1920s with two despairing war books, long before such novels became fashionable. In 1925 his Manhattan Transfer displayed a gallery of unhappy city dwellers, but readers hardly noticed the mood of the book as they admired its cinematically shuttling episodes. This technique was elaborated in the "collective" novels comprising U.S.A., which perhaps didn't really champion the masses so much as this author's enthusiasts of the time thought they did, but rather celebrated individualism.
With his next trilogy, District of Columbia, completed in 1949, Dos Passos suffered a loss in critical reputation and, presumably, in readers. It wasn't merely a matter of disagreement with the opinions he set forth, but rather, in most cases, with the excessively dogmatic and story-spoiling way in which he expressed them. District of Columbia and the novels following it lacked the concentrated power of U.S.A. and gave their readers almost no hint that the author had left in him the kind of imaginative energy that manifests itself in Midcentury….
The prose of Midcentury has fewer color shadings than the earlier volumes. But it is recognizably Dos Passos' in its sparing use of the commas that hook a reader's eye and in its Joycean ramming together of words ("a shortnecked grayhaired man"). The writer's distinctive cadences are also noticeably present, in the choral chants of the biographies and, more emphatically, in the hard-surfaced narrative passages and in the crackling realism of the dialogue, all of it good American-built writing.
Harry T. Moore, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 26, 1961, p. 1.
Of all the recorders of what happened last summer—or last decade—John Dos Passos is the most dogged. Not since the brothers Goncourt has there been such a dedication to getting down exactly what happened, and were it not for his political passions he might indeed have been a true camera to our time. He invents little; he fancies less. He is often good when he tells you something through which he himself has lived, and noted. He is well equipped to be a good social critic, which is the role he has cast for himself: conscience to the Republic, stern reminder of good ways lost, of useful ways not taken.
With what seems defiance, the first two pages of John Dos Passos's … novel Midcentury are taken up with the titles of his published work, proudly spaced, seventeen titles to the first page, sixteen to the second: thirty-three books, the work of some forty years. The list is testament to Dos Passos' gallantry, to his stubbornness, and to his worldly and artistic failure…. Admired extravagantly in the '20's and '30's, Dos Passos was largely ignored in the '40's and '50's, his new works passed over either in silence or else noted with that ritual sadness we reserve for those whose promise to art was not kept. He himself is aware of his own dilemma, and in a … novel called The Great Days he recorded with brave if bewildered objectivity a decline similar to his own. I shall not try to ring the more obvious changes suggested by his career. Yet I should note that there is something about Dos Passos which makes a fellow writer unexpectedly protective, partly out of compassion for the man himself, and partly because the fate of Dos Passos is a chilling reminder of those condemned to write for life that this is the way it almost always is in a society which, to put it tactfully, has no great interest in the development of writers, a process too slow for the American temperament. As a result our literature is rich with sprinters but significantly short of milers.
Gore Vidal, "John Dos Passos at Midcentury" (originally published in Esquire, May, 1961), in his Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952–1972 (copyright © 1960, 1961, 1971 by Gore Vidal; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1972, pp. 96-102.
No American writer has attempted more, and few writers anywhere have brought to successful completion novels of the size and scope of U.S.A. Dos Passos' ambition was impossibly grandiose, and as an attempt to present in fictional terms the development of American society from 1900 to 1929, U.S.A. was doomed to at least partial failure. Yet it remains, for all its faults, the fullest and most impressive fictional treatment of that period, and it firmly establishes Dos Passos's claim to be considered the most important social novelist since Dreiser.
Dos Passos is a more subtle writer than Steinbeck, but we can recognise something of the same attitude—individualistic, agrarian, fundamentally conservative—throughout his work. In almost all his novels there is an underlying emotional commitment, closely akin to Veblen's and not unlike that in such novels as Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes and Anderson's Poor White, which finds its most nearly explicit statement in one of the later books, The Grand Design (1949), the final section of the District of Columbia trilogy.
Michael Millgate, "John Dos Passos (© 1964 by Michael Millgate), in his American Social Fiction: James to Cozzens, Oliver & Boyd, 1964, pp. 128-41.
Dos Passos' most significant image of the man on the road as representative of America is the anonymous youth of the prose-poem entitled "Vag" which caps The Big Money. For this somewhat improbably seedy hitchhiker, the road reveals only defeat and Dos Passos' repulsion….
The punch, the slam, the grab, the twist, the snarl—"the big knee brought up sharp into the crotch"—come not just from the cop who roughed up the poor vag but from all of American "history [as] the billion-dollar speedup." This violent motion without catharsis is the intellectual theme of Dos Passos, and one which leaves no individual freedom of experience, on the road or in the sky. The broad social perception and compassionate anger presented in the image of the vagrant frenziedly turns apotheosis to stink and abstraction. The narrowing of responsiveness—in Dos Passos and more generally in literary naturalism—reveals a revulsive obsession with failure which may also be the inversion of the pathological American insistence on success. Curiously, the hobo as more victim than rebel, which recurs in so much moralistic American fiction—as a case of social fatality and stinking pathos without sensibility or elan—denigrates the impetus to rebel and wander outside.
Kingsley Widmer, in his The Literary Rebel (copyright © 1965 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965, p. 117.
Dos Passos' novels are out of fashion at the moment, partly because his later work is inferior to the work he did in the thirties, but largely because the sense of private reality is momentarily the fashion in the intellectual marketplace, where an astonishing number of one-time intellectual Leftists are busy burning their old political draft cards for newspaper reporters and making a public career out of the happy conviction that their private experience—especially of political events—is not as that of other men. But this violent shift of attitude among the couturiers of the intellectual world ought not to conceal from us the importance for the American novel of Dos Passos' work or of the sense of reality it expresses….
Despite Dos Passos' commitment [in The Big Money] to the kind of outer reality represented by social history, despite his sympathy with the radical political tradition that has persisted throughout American history, he writes neither social history nor political propaganda. Behind his image of American society in the 1920's is an image of human experience as a whole; behind his political dislike of the Big Money is a despair of the human situation itself that justifies Malcolm Cowley's description of The Big Money as "a furious and sombre poem." If his wonderfully particularized, brilliantly organized portrait of America in the boom years of the twenties shows us what the Big Money does to simple, hopeful Americans, it also suggests what organized society does to all such men in all times.
Dos Passos is the only major American novelist of the twentieth century who has had the desire and the power to surround the lives of his characters with what Lionel Trilling once called "the buzz of history"—the actual, homely, everyday sounds of current events and politics, of social ambitions and the struggle for money, of small pleasures and trivial corruptions, amidst which we all live. He has given us an image of a major aspect of our experience that has hardly been touched by any other novelist of our time.
Arthur Mizener, "John Dos Passos: 'The Big Money'," in his Twelve Great American Novels (copyright © 1967 by Arthur Mizener; reprinted by arrangement with The New American Library, Inc., New York, New York), New American Library, 1967, pp. 87-103.
Dos Passos … is a tireless social commentator, whatever the genre. The introduction to his collected plays is a diatribe against the commercial theater, which is disparagingly compared to a socially meaningful theater….
His first play, The Garbage Man, was written in 1923, before Dos Passos had found his fictional voice. Like O'Neill, Wolfe, and Elmer Rice, Dos Passos at this period saw Expressionism as a more viable form than Realism in which to register social protest. German Expressionist plays tend to be stridently social (e.g. Toller) or, stemming more directly from Strindberg, to focus on the poetic quest of the protagonist (e.g. Kaiser's From Morn to Midnight). Dos Passos mixes the two streams, and writes a confusing play….
Dos Passos' Production Note indicates that he feels the play rests upon popular forms such as musical comedy, but, far from popular, the dialogue of the protagonists is painfully literary. A poetic quest play demands a poet—Brecht's Baal, Strindberg's Road to Damascus, even Williams' Camino Real—but Dos Passos is a journalist. What we best remember in Dos Passos' novels are the journalistic inserts that build a society—the Camera Eye, headlines, biographies. But the maudlin love story of The Garbage Man barely reflects the society in the background, while the dialogue is inflated by pseudo-poetry and Expressionist sighs.
Dos Passos clings to realism in his next two plays, the one focused on a family and the other on a place. Airways, Inc. (1928), as its title suggests, deals with a big business corporation, but it deals even more with the disintegration of a family under capitalism….
The play is agit-prop melodrama: capitalist sympathizers are stupid and vicious, whereas the few radicals are humane and selfless. Unlike old-fashioned theatrical melodrama, however, violence is banished off stage, while the dialogue rambles on stage…. Neither image nor rhythm is distinctive….
Though Dos Passos avoids direct didacticism in his Depression play, Fortune Heights (1933), the diction is again dull, because Dos Passos has no ability to make us care about his characters. Or perhaps we find their diction dull because we do not care about his characters. There is, of course, no more facile criticism than to say that a play has or has not convincing or credible characters. And yet, this is a particular problem of realistic drama with a social orientation, if it is not to be a tract in dialogue form. We may debate about whether or not Death of a Salesman is a tragedy, but we do so only because we care about Willy. We may or may not respond to a play with Aristotelian pity and terror, but if we do not respond with any emotion, mere dialogue cannot create a drama…. [In Fortune Heights the] hesitant speech of Dos Passos' mid-westerners recalls that of O'Neill's New Englanders, but Dos Passos is never able to focus on the large, dramatic character; his eyes are busily darting all over the worn canvas….
At about the time he wrote Fortune Heights, Dos Passos was working on USA, where he found the journalistic voice for which he is celebrated; he conveys a cross section of a big city in the grip of depression, through Camera Eye, Newsreel, biographies, legends, headlines. And he had the wisdom not to attempt drama again.
Ruby Cohn, "John Dos Passos," in her Dialogue in American Drama, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 179-83.
Never forgetting his initial indoctrination in aesthetics at Harvard—in the midst of that Eliot-Cummings-Hillyer coterie—Dos Passos has striven to advance his theses with artfulness as well as indignation. As a consequence, his works demonstrate technical inventiveness and a freshness of style which, along with their "message," give them life—indeed, enable them to contribute to the maturing of twentieth-century American fiction….
It is in U.S.A. that Dos Passos is seen to greatest advantage, both as an "architect of history" and as a skillful novelist. The trilogy, covering the years from 1899 to 1929, develops the theme of power throughout, illustrating how the corporation (for example, the United Fruit Company) thwarts the individual and produces economic injustice, how war is a moral cheat and a waste, how "socialism" fails to benefit the common man. The woes of the country are summed up for Dos Passos in the Sacco-Vanzetti case, the clearest violation, he felt, of America's fundamental principle of individual liberty….
The trilogy, growing stronger and more fierce as it progresses, steadily develops the author's thesis that the world is a gray horror, filled with oppression, inequity, and false values. War and war profiteering, the bludgeoning of strikers, the abrupt dispatching of undesirable aliens, are the norm. At the center lies the Ward Moorehouse success story, the Fords and Samuel Insulls in the forefront, the Randolph Bournes and Joe Hills in the rear, the working people disregarded. Benjamin Disraeli's "two nations" have come to roost in America.
Though Dos Passos does not register his opinion about all this directly in U.S.A., preferring to preserve the documentary approach and the objective narrative pattern, still, the reader can detect his tone and must define it as disillusioned, and decidedly so….
We are reminded that the work falls within the tradition of polemical writing, demonstrating both the virtues and the vices of the genre, a clarity, gusto, and force on the one hand, an excessive degree of denunciation and one-sidedness on the other. If impressed by the moving account of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, one is at the same time distressed by the unfair portrait of Wilson as a hypocritical politician. If appreciative of the brilliant vigor of the Body of an American profile, one is at the same time bothered by the occasional didactic statement ("And you ask why the prestige of our nation has sunk so low in the world") or over-simplification (for example, Franklin Roosevelt as a power-hungry Caesar). Happily, Dos Passos avoids, for the most part, the shortcomings of "exposure literature," refusing to employ its rhetoric, character manipulation, and too simple structure and relying instead upon an original and lively technique….
His concern for technique is repeatedly demonstrated in U.S.A., reflected, for one thing, in his utilization of a carefully thought out form. He sets up an elaborate structural pattern for the work, a scheme of enormous scope and containing multiple elements, most notably his four pioneering devices, the newsreels, Camera Eyes, profiles, and intertwined "life histories." All these function as separate entities yet at the same time fuse to enforce the leading ideas, lift and enliven the narrative, and produce a strong sense of mood. Above all, they bring into focus what is finally the book's protagonist—or antagonist—twentieth-century American civilization.
The newsreel sections, consisting of headlines, songs, slogans, and advertisements, serve to establish chronology and to create mood. Mixing the trite with the crucial, showing the inconsistencies in the American public image ("Army casualties soar," "peace dove in jewels given Mrs. Wilson"), they generally convey a sense of the shoddy, restless wartime and postwar boom period.
Perhaps more interesting because less mechanically ironic and more specific are the Camera Eye passages. Written in a semi-stream-of-consciousness style, they are primarily devoted to an impressionistic rendering of the author's autobiography, yet they, too, establish time and atmosphere, giving some sense of how the private life is of a piece with the culture complex. The satirical mood often predominates, with reflections on the horrors of war as felt by a participant and on the absolute futility of his postwar military activity of piling scrap. Most charged with emotion, indeed a prose poem, is the Sacco-Vanzetti section in The Big Money, expressing intense unhappiness about the injustices cropping up in the American "way of life." As a rule, however, the Camera Eye confines itself to reflecting the character of the author, partly the sensitive artist but partly, too, the "protestant," questioning the assumptions of the genteel bourgeois class to which he belonged….
The substance of the novels stems, of course, from the fourth device, the series of fictional biographies, twelve in all, which crisscross through the trilogy. Almost invariably recording a drifting, meaningless existence, the sketches attach to the individual destiny a strong sense of futility….
The panoramic format of U.S.A., with the special devices for the most part deftly inserted and with a swift and flexible narrative sustained throughout, works well for Dos Passos. The structure has the fragmented chaotic quality needed to accentuate the fractured lives and fractured values. The tumbled-together headlines of the newsreels, sensory ramblings of the Camera Eyes, rushed phrasing of the profiles—all accentuate a headlong pace, one which crystallizes the concept of going nowhere, of lives involved in a weary treadmill.
In keeping with the mood of the work, the style and language employed by the author are almost uniformly flat. Perhaps the method might be called documentary-graphic or the deadpan voice. Enlivening this, however, is a staccatolike rhythm, achieved through the Dos Passos reliance on short paragraphs, sentence fragments, and a general lack of formal syntax and punctuation, and producing an impressively harsh, spasmodic effect. The controlling principle of the style appears to be directness, the nuances and shadings eschewed. Whether setting forth a character description, an action sequence, or a propaganda speech, Dos Passos uses simple language, often resorting to colloquialisms and profanity and rather seldom introducing an image or a figure of speech…. Conceivably, the flatness causes a certain sense of monotony over the long span of the trilogy, but it usually succeeds in accentuating the vapidity and aimlessness and in heightening the irony (for example, the final lines of the Unknown Soldier profile—"Woodrow Wilson brought a bouquet of poppies"). The flatness is relieved, too, by the strong epithet ("toadfaced young man"), the chantlike repetitions, and the usually suitable talk of the characters (the vaporous phrasing of the "laborfaker" Barrow, the polished drawl of Judge Cassidy). The jargon and popular rhythms of the newsreel, the brisk fragments of the profiles, and the more image-strewn Camera Eye passages, filled with sounds and colors, contribute to the variety as well. Dos Passos's survey of the restless, simmering urban American environment is effected in wiry, terse, appropriately restless prose.
W. Gordon Milne, "John Dos Passos (1896–1970)," in The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists, edited by George A. Panichas (reprinted by permission of Hawthorn Books, Inc.; © 1971 by The University of Maryland; all rights reserved), Hawthorn, 1971, pp. 263-77.
The trilogy of novels recording what he learned from his travels is an impressive work that embodies a paradox. Dos Passos was primarily interested in presenting his material—that is, in offering a panorama of American life at all levels over a period of thirty years. But no previous novelist had found a method of painting such a panorama. Tolstoy? one asks. His War and Peace had achieved a breadth beyond the dreams of other novelists, but even Tolstoy had devoted most of his attention to four great families of the Russian nobility. Dos Passos wanted to present typical persons from many levels of society, giving sharp attention to each—even using their special idioms—while suggesting the movement of society as a whole. To do so he was forced to invent devices of his own…. There were to be hundreds of characters, but the substance of the novel would be the life stories of twelve more or less typical men and women…. At this point … [he] was setting out to make himself a master technician.
The paradox is that the technique, much more than the observed material it was designed to present, has had an effect on literary history in more than one country. Dos Passos' picture of America succumbing to decay as competitive capitalism gave way to monopoly capitalism is powerful, but in the end subjective; one is not obliged to accept his notion of a catastrophic decline and fall. One has to acknowledge, however, that his technical inventions soon reappeared in the mainstream of fiction. The Grapes of Wrath, The Naked and the Dead, and scores of other American novels … have owed a debt to Dos Passos for solving some of their problems in advance. So have novels by famous Europeans, as Jean-Paul Sartre explained in the Atlantic Monthly:
… it was after reading a book by Dos Passos that I thought for the first time of weaving a novel out of various, simultaneous lives….
[Nothing] he wrote after U.S.A. had the same widespread and lasting effect….
His loss of literary stature might tempt one into making a false generalization about fiction and politics. Dos Passos was a radical and wrote works of great inventiveness and power; then he became conservative and produced such bald, embittered tracts as Most Likely to Succeed and The Great Days; so therefore—but that is entirely too simple. The history of fiction seems to show that great novelists can hold almost any sort of position, radical or conservative, aristocratic or egalitarian; they can be monarchists like Balzac or angry reformers like Dickens, or they can shift positions like Dostoyevsky without necessarily harming their work—but on one absolute condition, that they should believe in their characters more firmly than they hold to their opinions. Dos Passos in his later work often failed to meet that condition, and there too he broke another rule that seems to have been followed by great novelists. They can regard their characters with love or hate or anything between, but cannot regard them with tired aversion. They can treat events as tragic, comic, farcical, pathetic, or almost anything but consistently repulsive….
In … books he published during the later years there are admirable passages, though it must be added that almost all of them are retrospective…. It is as if [he] were saying that the best times were all in the past, or as if, in the various prospect of desolation, he could not bear to contemplate his literary decline and fall.
Malcolm Cowley, "Dos Passos: The Learned Poggius" (originally published in The Southern Review, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1973), in his A Second Flowering (copyright © 1973 by Malcolm Cowley; reprinted by permission of The Viking Press, Inc.), Viking, 1973, pp. 88-9.
[We] have yet to account for the contradictory qualities of [Dos Passos'] best work, U.S.A., for example, which presents a fictive world dominated by failure and frustration that nevertheless dazzles us with its energy and vitality. No one yet has come to grips with the significance of the fact that an apparently political novelist presents us with instance after instance of the futility of political action…. Dos Passos' ideas about political action and the exercise of power have an important source, not in an historian or political theorist or even in another novelist, but in a poet, Walt Whitman….
In Camera Eye (46) of U.S.A., Dos Passos identifies with Whitman in a context which throws … light on this question of the incongruity of such a political vision…. Dos Passos' shame at the futility of what he is asking men less well off than he is to do is mixed both with self-contempt and a somewhat mocking though essentially serious rededication to a task he is not at all sure can be accomplished. He sharply differentiates the world where men fight for power and get their heads broken from the sheltered room where the power is reached for theoretically, and democracy is fiction, not history….
The worthlessness of the highflying America, the America which overtook and replaced imperial Britain in the American century, and of all who spiritually live in her, is one great theme of Dos Passos' work. The other is the articulation of the true, obscured America, in the double sense of giving it a voice and a definition, thereby bringing it into existence. All the true American possesses in Dos Passos' vision is his voice and his hunger. It is, in a sense, astonishing that the very great vitality, abundance, and excitement of the book should emerge from so many stories of disappointment and defeat….
Dos Passos' sense of history ill-disguises the notion of a legendary golden age analogous to Whitman's primal innocence … and his goal, like that of Whitman's voyage, is a return to that original purity and unity, to "storybook democracy."… Clearly such a belief in a golden age is necessary for the fervid characterization of the world of power that he gives us as well as for the fidelity to the voice of the submerged groups which is one of the triumphs of U.S.A. But it is myth, not history; it generates expressive and rhetorical power, not political. For … equally fundamental in Dos Passos is the belief in the ultimate impassibility from history to myth, diversity to unity.
Lois Hughson, "In Search of the True America: Dos Passos' Debt to Whitman in 'U.S.A.'," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Summer, 1973, pp. 179-92.
Generations of bright high school kids learned their attitudes toward manliness, love, and style from Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck; and toward America from James T. Farrell and John Dos Passos. As the America they defined has frayed, Farrell and Dos Passos have joined the general neglect. Some may recall that Dos Passos followed an orbit of youthful estheticism toward a burning socialism to a final distaste for the ugliness of the time that was more than a reversion to preciosity. Ultimately, he became something of a right-winger and wrote novels that have been dismissed as the maundering complaints and naggings of an aging mandarin. As he wrote of his own father, he knew "the loneliness of one who has outlived his generation."…
USA and other books of Dos Passos's prime are not read very much any more, but those familiar Modern Library editions helped to form the generation of writers now garnering the fame and esteem for which Dos Passos longed and which, briefly, like them, he tasted. Despite his political drift and a curious self-indulgent privacy of style, a personal isolation unpenetrated by this book [The Fourteenth Chronicle], his concern with individual liberty was constant….
Decline is probably a merely conventional way to characterize the shift in Dos Passos's approach to interpreting American life. He was more consistent than we realized. His first radical work is animated by boyish bitterness and anger—combined with the youthful ambition to make a literary mark. The later conservative or right-wing work is animated by aging bitterness and anger—combined with the older man's desire to take a few revenges on a time that has passed him by. What remains constant, and of constant value in a writer who never quite achieved his ambitions, is a passion that might be derived from both the paltriest and the deepest of sources: the sense of his unique self. His libertarian views, his lyrical privacy, his belief in the primacy of will—never fully dramatized in his novels—are most touching. They come clear in these letters and notes [The Fourteenth Chronicle] as they never did in his more ponderous constructions. Mauriac said that the poet can be defined as the soul of a boy carried in the body of a man. Dos Passos hid his poet's soul in the practice of stylish politics, make-work journalism, and one striking effort at an all-encompassing vision of America. He left behind him neither a perfectly exemplary work nor an exemplary life, but how many writers leave either?
Herbert Gold, "The Literary Lives of John Dos Passos," in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 11, 1973, pp. 32, 34-5.
"America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul … we stand defeated America."
One of time's ironies is that these passages from Camera Eye (50) in The Big Money are probably John Dos Passos' most remembered words; and yet, given to students today, they would likely be identified as belonging to Allen Ginsberg's "America" poem. Triggered by the Sacco-Vanzetti execution, they represent the furthest left position in Dos Passos' political thinking; his arrival at that point and his consequent turn to the right are movingly documented in The Fourteenth Chronicle, a large (643 pages) collection of Dos Passos' letters and diary entries covering 60 years, 1910–1970.
The comparison with Ginsberg is not gratuitous, though the elder Dos Passos would have disliked it. Dos Passos was in many ways a poet manqué (his diary is filled with poems) and his early letters, which compose the bulk of The Fourteenth Chronicle, often read remarkably like the travel poems in Ginsberg's The Fall of America: sharp descriptions of the sounds, sights, smells and tastes encountered on Dos Passos' endless wanderings through Europe, Asia, Africa and, finally, America. This book shows him to be in that main American tradition beginning with Whitman that seeks to grasp the American experience by accumulation of detail, by great width and scope, by swallowing America whole, as it were, rather than carving out deep chunks from certain sections as his friends Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Cummings did.
Two reasons for Dos Passos' lack of popular success (compared to, say, Hemingway and Fitzgerald) are the negative thrust of his work—he always insisted his writing was satirical—and his failure to create characters with whom readers could identify either themselves or the author. He never became a personality like his friends, and in the endless stream of anecdotes about the "lost generation" writers, Dos Passos was always the one who was listening while Cummings regaled the company with his wit and musical improvisations or who watched while Hemingway battled the huge marlin and the sharks that were made famous in The Old Man and the Sea. My favorite picture of Dos Passos is in Carlos Baker's Ernest Hemingway, where Dos Passos looks like the poor squire to the resplendently ski-clad Hemingway and Gerald Murphy.
The Fourteenth Chronicle should help in fleshing out Dos Passos for his readers. And while the book is ultimately sad, with the elderly out-of-step writer exclaiming that "the rank idiocy of the younger generation is more than I can swallow" (echoing a letter of his father's 56 years earlier), the main impression one gets from reading it is that of a decent and generous man of boundless enthusiasm and energy; if a satirist is a romantic with 20/20 vision, Dos Passos fits the description.
His writing reflects a natural blend of theory with personality; personally modest and shy, he replaced Whitman's cosmic and Ginsberg's orgasmic "I" with his "Camera Eye," the main stylistic influences being Flaubert, Joyce, Eisenstein and Hemingway. Dos Passos' multiple-protagonist novels in turn became very influential, leading to Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and the wave of New Journalists. But where the latter tend to be marked by self-indulgence or self-display, Dos Passos' style retains its basic objectivity and intelligence, even in his later works….
Dos Passos was congenitally allergic to abstract formulae—he had the poet's distrust of words—and the letters [in The Fourteenth Chronicle] deal with events, adventures, battles with censors, his long fight against rheumatic fever, impressions of cities, reports of friends, etc. Whenever he lectures or makes some general statement about life, literature or politics, he invariably tacks on some disclaimer, notably "This is all bullshit!" The letters show over and over that he was attached to people, not dogma or schools or slogans; he constantly refused to join the Communist Party even while he saw it as the hope for the future. Just as his left turn, and much of his early writing, was focused by Sacco-Vanzetti, his turn to the right was incurred in large part by the Communist assassination of Dos Passos' Spanish friend José Robles in 1936. (This event, fictionalized in Adventures of a Young Man, 1939, also ended his close friendship with Hemingway; Dos Passos could remain friends despite ideological differences, but Hemingway couldn't.)…
All along Dos Passos insists that he has not changed his stance, that he has always fought for the "individual's rights," for the worker, against Big Business (USA), Big Government (District of Columbia), Big Labor (Midcentury). His strong stand against Russia reflects his belief not that capitalism is good, but that it's better than communism. One of his letters about the oppressiveness of Russia, which he visited in 1928, reads remarkably like a recently published letter by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In fact many of Dos Passos' letters (the artist as prophet) have a distinctly contemporary sound…. The few letters that actually are contemporary, written shortly before his death in 1970, sound like a more generous, lower-keyed William Buckley (in fact the last letter in the book is a recommendation that Buckley be admitted to the Century Association)….
One feels growing in Dos Passos a clear intellect, a sympathy with the downtrodden that is not sentimental, an integrity that is not dogmatic, a belief in hard work without self-pity….
I think that Dos Passos succeeded in writing several "permanent" books (Three Soldiers, the USA trilogy, Manhattan Transfer) and that much of his other writing is greatly underestimated. I hope that this important book will send readers back to Dos Passos.
Peter Meinke, "Swallowing America Whole," in The New Republic; (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), September 22, 1973, pp. 28-31.
The best letters have always been written for a purpose of some importance to the author: letters edged with desperation, like Scott Fitzgerald's, or set out as if they were essays, like Shaw's. The best of these collections do more than add to our knowledge of the author's life; they are an extension, however informal or involuntary, of his work. As much cannot be claimed for [The Fourteenth Chronicle]. John Dos Passos's letters are of excellent value to students of his life and of the remarkable generation of which he was a part, and they show him to be both a good and an energetic man, but they are rarely of literary interest in themselves. "Letters are largely written to get things out of your system," Dos Passos wrote, but little of what he wanted to purge himself of seems particularly striking, or even original, now.
Dos Passos—who will be remembered for such novels as "Three Soldiers," "Manhattan Transfer" and the trilogy "U.S.A."—wanted even in 1917 to create a new form in fiction: "I'm dying to write—but all my methods of doing things in the past merely disgust me now…. The stream of sensation flows by—I suck it up like a sponge—my reactions are a constant weather vane." It is an accurate appraisal of himself, but like so much of what he wrote in these letters, it is expressed in mangled clichés, such as "See all you can, do all you can, eat all you can," and so on….
[In] the '30s, after he had recovered from his leftist despair of the country's future, he wrote remarkably sensible statements about Communism, which, in its Stalinist guise, he correctly saw to be the obverse of the Fascist coin. "I'm now at last convinced," he wrote early in 1935, "that means cant be disassociated from ends." He was right, of course, but the writers whom he knew at the time tended to disagree….
And when he reached the end of his life, and wrote in defense of the invasion of Cambodia, he was long past his best days of defending the little man against the juggernaut.
Peter S. Prescott, "Long Trip With a Good Man," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1973; reprinted by permission), October 15, 1973, pp. 107, 110, 112.
In 1938 Jean Paul Sartre concluded his extraordinary essay on "John Dos Passos and '1919'" with the statement, "Dos Passos' world—like those of Faulkner, Kafka and Stendhal—is impossible because it is contradictory. But therein lies its beauty. Beauty is a veiled contradiction. I regard Dos Passos as the greatest writer of our time." The judgment startles, no matter how often one reads it. Who in the United States has ever thought of Dos Passos in such terms? Even in 1938, when the novels in the U.S.A. trilogy were just being put under one cover and Manhattan Transfer and Three Soldiers still seemed new and exciting, Dos Passos was seen essentially as the writer who (in Alfred Kazin's words) "rounds out the story of (the lost) generation and carries its values into the social novel of the thirties." And now, more than 30 years later, the question to be asked is not whether anyone but Sartre ever thought of Dos Passos as our greatest writer, but whether anyone still thinks of him at all….
The publication of The Fourteenth Chronicle is not likely to alter the situation…. [It] is more tedious, and less informative, than any of Dos Passos's later (and least interesting) books. Of course Dos Passos knew most of the literary figures of his time: Anderson, Fitzgerald, Dreiser, Hemingway, Cummings, Wilson, Cowley, Dwight MacDonald, John Howard Lawson and so on, and letters to all of them are included. And, indeed, Dos Passos seems to have been witness to many important political and social events of the time…. But none of this can compensate for the fact that he was neither a very interesting nor a particularly revelatory writer of letters.
What is most distressing about The Fourteenth Chronicle is that there is little … which explains why Dos Passos, like most American novelists, was unable to sustain the level of his craft as he grew older…. [What] we get in this collection of letters and diaries is the chronicle—"a kind of autobiography," as the editor sees it—of a gentle man of letters who enjoys traveling but who, for all the good will in the world, seldom rises above the banal. Whether he is writing to a Walter Rumsey Marvin, Dudley Poore, or Edmund Wilson, Dos Passos more often than not sounds as if he is a character in a Dreiser novel….
Perhaps Century's Ebb, completed just before Dos Passos's death and due for publication next year, will help us understand why Sartre wrote that he knew of no writer whose art "is more precious, more touching or closer to us" than that of Dos Passos.
Jack Salzman, "Portrait of the Artist as a Dog," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 28, 1973, p. 4.