John Dos Passos Dos Passos, John (Roderigo) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John (Roderigo) Dos Passos 1896–1970

American novelist, essayist, poet, and journalist.

Dos Passos is best known for his sociopolitical novels of pre-World War II America. His central concerns are social injustices, including the exploitation of the working class, and the injurious emphasis on materialism in American society. The U.S.A. trilogy is considered his masterpiece.

Detail and realism are important elements in Dos Passos's work, often emphasized through such innovative means as his "newsreel" and "camera eye" techniques, and the inclusion of biographical excerpts.

Strongly political, Dos Passos moved from his early, left-wing revolutionary philosophy to a later conservatism. The 1950s witnessed a decline in his reputation; however, in recent years scholars have reaffirmed the artistic merit of his innovative methods and re-evaluated his later work.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 8, 11, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., Vols. 29-32, rev. ed. [obituary]; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 1.)

Joseph Warren Beach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[We] have now had more than twenty years to digest Manhattan Transfer and fully ten years to come to terms with the completed trilogy of U.S.A. In books like Journeys between Wars, The Ground We Stand On, and State of the Nation, Dos Passos has exhibited his personal outlook upon the world, furnishing us the context in which to consider his "dramatic" representations of life. We should now be in a position to challenge this figure and ask ourselves what and how great is his significance for literary art.

The first thing we can say with a considerable degree of confidence is that his work before Manhattan Transfer is negligible, that his volumes of travel and commentary are relatively negligible, and that his place in literature (thus far) must rest on four novels, Manhattan Transfer and the three parts of U.S.A. The poems are negligible except as a reminder, important for understanding him, that this man is by natural inclination distinctly "esthetic"—drawn to the picturesque, the decorative, the exotic, and to the romantic in the sense in which that term applies to Amy Lowell and John Gould Fletcher…. The influence of Sandburg is strongly felt in Manhattan Transfer in the language and arrangement of the prose poems prefixed to the chapters. But the influence of Sandburg means a passage from the mere cult of the exotic to a more robust grappling with the familiar,—from the esthetic as evasion to the esthetic as significant composition.

The early fictions are negligible for similar reasons, and equally interesting for the light they throw on the author's temperament. One Man's Initiation and Streets of Night show us a young man fastidious and sensitive, shrinking from cruelty and ugliness physical and moral, and acutely conscious of the presence of ugliness in war and in sex. Three Soldiers … is in line with many novels following the first World War in jealous concern for the individual soul trying vainly to save itself from the clutches of the military (the social) machine. One thing more that is clear from these fictions is that their author is not a born story-teller in the traditional sense, being more concerned with the relation of the individual to society than he is with the idiosyncrasy and personal exploits of the individual.

The volumes of commentary on the state of the world are relatively negligible from the point of view of literary art. But they are of great importance for the understanding of Dos Passos' social philosophy, and they have many sturdy merits. They are good reporting in the sense that they render what he has seen—in interbellum Russia, in the United States during the second war, in Spain, in the Pacific—with a minimum of interference by the author. Dos Passos is patient and humble before the facts. He shows no parti pris. His ideology is that of one seeking to understand. He is, I suppose, some kind of socialist; which means, in effect, that he abhors the tyrannies and impersonal cruelties of our industrial machine. He can record the feeling of the Spanish peasant that in America men are not able to live their own lives. He is indignant over "justice denied in Massachusetts" or to the Harlan miners. He is sympathetic toward industrial experiments under the New Deal. He is for the American way, but he does not feel that contemporary capitalism favors the ideals of Tom Paine and Roger Williams. In 1945, in the preface to First Encounter, he is as safe in his political pronouncements as a candidate for a college presidency.

Perhaps the disillusionments of the last quarter of a century have taught us that there are no short cuts to a decent ordering of human affairs, that the climb back up out of the pit of savagery to a society of even approximate justice and freedom must necessarily be hard and slow. The quality of the means we use will always determine the ends we reach.

There is nothing in the style of this to suggest any kind of literary distinction. The only distinction it has is that of earnestness and mild good sense. The last sentence, to be sure, is radical, and if taken seriously would mean a revolution in human behavior, being as it is a reversal of Machiavelli's doctrine. But it is pitched so low that few will hear it, let alone take it to heart. The merit of Dos Passos' own style, when he is not trying for esthetic expressiveness, is the ingratiating humbleness of spirit which it displays. His sole ambition is to be the self-effacing medium of what he has to render. And that is, in his best fiction, a merit of very high order.

The turn from one of these books of commentary to Manhattan Transfer or U.S.A. is like the turn from Victor Bergen to Charley McCarthy, so much more vivid and colorful is the creature than the creator. (pp. 406-09)

Dos Passos has always been a "collectivist" writer. Of the two sciences that preside over the modern literary heaven he has taken sociology rather than psychology for his guiding star. The individual interests him, but mainly as a member of the social body; and his aim is always to give a cross-section of this body so as to show the structure of its tissues. In Manhattan Transfer it is the entire urban center that he shows; in U.S.A. the entire country, from Hollywood to Washington, from a Fargo boarding house to a New Orleans garage. In both cases he covers the period from the Boer War to the great boom following the first World War. In Manhattan Transfer the system is to present a prodigious number of persons of the most representative groups in short shots, without transition, each going his own way; some of them appearing once, just for the record, some several times over a course of years, some frequently enough to give the impression of leading characters, especially when their orbits cross in marriage, business, or other social contact.

In more or less remote ways they all affect one another; but they hardly seem aware of this, and when they do become more closely involved, this hardly amounts to a plot, with its clearly marked issues, critical scenes, and dramatic resolution. The time element is not there for the sake of a plot, but simply to furnish a measure of process in the social body. What the characters say and do is thematic and illustrative of sociological principles. (pp. 410-11)

In U.S.A. there is even less of plot in...

(The entire section is 2678 words.)

James T. Farrell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Dos Passos is one of the few living American writers who is a world figure. Abroad, his books are sometimes cited as criticisms of American capitalism and as novels which expose American claims and propaganda. At home, Dos Passos is now regarded by some of his former admirers as a man who has made a complete turn, and has abandoned liberalism for the extreme right; he has gone from The New Republic to The National Review. In consequence, he is regretfully considered as writing in a state of rigor mortis, and tears—mostly of the crocodile variety—are shed for him. He is a source of shame and danger to the Madison Avenue psychological warriors who would defeat the Kremlin by selling the USA as though it were the biggest cake of perfumed soap in history; his books are not very useful to the People-to-People geniuses and cannot be sent through the gaping holes of the Iron Curtain with as much success as can stamp kits and hobbycraft chat. And he cannot be cited as a novelist of the liberal spirit, fighting reaction and perpetuating the New Deal spirit. Therefore, he is a good man gone wrong. And a good man gone wrong is, ipso facto, unworthy of consideration as a man of letters. Dos Passos' liberalism has so decayed that his lifetime of work is not as important as two short stories and one wooden novel by Lionel Trilling. His credentials as a writer might just as well be taken away from him and he might best be forgotten. He is no longer one of us. He cannot write anyway because the new critics do not study him and Mark Shorer probably would not approve of him.

Thus the level of concern for a writer in this Republic after it has come of age, lost its innocence, become a world leader. Thus the destiny of any man who is guilty of the sin of disillusionment. You must be for something, because in both the liberal and the conservative camps, there is no political future for one who is not for something. After some decades of trying, we have failed even in convincing our friends that a novelist does not necessarily have to be for, and that a writer should not be judged in terms of immediate political considerations. It is in vain. Philistinism and self-righteousness are too numerous to be destroyed.

Dos Passos deserves reconsideration and his recent novel, The Great Days, helps us to see what he is about. In his own feeling, he is a libertarian. During his long literary career, he has been concerned with bigness. Bigness and liberty are not easily compatible. Dos Passos has always been a novelist of disillusionment, and this is central in his...

(The entire section is 1076 words.)

Iain Colley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The fact has to be faced that in his later fiction John Dos Passos is a failing novelist rather than a novelist of failure: a failing novelist largely because he has ceased to be an effective novelist of failure. It is scarcely possible to believe that the author of USA is producing books of which none is a vitalising pleasure to understand and evaluate, but it is true. Worse still, he is a writer whose deficiencies are no longer enlightening objects of critical attention, but one whose art is radically weak even in its most elementary aspects. The novels degenerate not simply in their incapacity to develop fresh thematic energies, but in the restless juggling of technical approaches, in the repetition of...

(The entire section is 2566 words.)

Linda W. Wagner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although Dos Passos' writing eventually focused on American themes, his earliest poetry and fiction were more self-conscious than country-conscious. His favorite protagonist was a young, well-educated naif—usually a Brahmin—hungering for all experience simultaneously. There was much fascination with women, with sex (although never explicit), and with travel, all described through a romantic haze of impressionist color. There was also a strong sense of rootlessness, and the most carefully drawn figures are those of the boy's commanding, successful father and his genteel, passive mother.

Dos Passos' early writing is also self-conscious in another sense, in that it illustrates the artistic...

(The entire section is 5057 words.)

Charles Marz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Dos Passos records and resists in U.S.A. the extinction of the private voice, the invasion of the private space, by the devastating forces of history. The landscapes of the test, like those of Three Soldiers and Manhattan Transfer, are strewn with that devastation's debris—the residue of character, the remains of narrative. Dos Passos chronicles in the trilogy the voices and the acts of residual men—the echoes, the fragments that compose America.

U.S.A. expands the themes and techniques of Three Soldiers and Manhattan Transfer. Structurally it is even more artificial and patterned. The usual criterion of realistic style, that it vanishes before the...

(The entire section is 1934 words.)