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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.)
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[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 conventional sense, but fewer characters are featured and the course of their lives is given in greater detail with less frequent interruptions. Each case is more fully documented. But these are case histories for a social worker's filing cabinet. (p. 411)
Many readers object to the unconventionality of Dos Passos' narrative method, as they do to that of Joyce in Ulysses and Eliot in The Waste Land. The simplest way to meet this objection is to point to the principle of abstract composition as it appears in various schools of post-impressionist painting as well as in poetry and fiction. The object here is not the complete and literal reproduction of a scene now present to the bodily eye and according to the laws of optics. It is rather the assembling within the frame of one picture of representative portions of many scenes related to one another not by their simultaneous presence in the same spot but by mental association—of contrast, analogy, irony, symbolic correspondence—and given significance and esthetic effectiveness by their planned arrangement in the new visual pattern. The application of this principle in the novel obviously does away with the "dramatic" type of narrative (with its neatly articulated "beginning, middle and end") that has dominated fiction from the beginning. There is no reason to suppose that this principle of abstract composition will displace the established tradition in fiction,—which has the advantage of following what we may call the standard or commonsense way of arranging human life in the imagination. It is sufficient to remind readers that Dos Passos is working on a new and in some ways more rewarding line, and suggest that they look for his effects in the direction in which they were sought by him.
The same readers who object to this narrative technique are likely to be repelled by the inconclusiveness of the story, and by the little meaning and little value in the lives presented. Well, that of course is Dos Passos' theme. If he does not offer examples of generous souls pursuing and achieving noble ends, it is because his main impression of contemporary life is of ordinary people caught in the mechanism of a soulless society, and exceptional cases would be irrelevant to the point he is making. If he does not make the point himself in personal commentary, it is because he is a modern objective realist, who does not want to risk the artistic integrity of his performance by mounting the soapbox.
The technical novelties of his narrative procedure are all intended to take the place of personal commentary, as well as to relieve the tedium of the conventional. (pp. 412-13)
The incoherencies of stream-of-consciousness in the Camera Eye [sections of U.S.A.] are a perfect rendering of the naïveté of early childhood, the confused gropings of conscious manhood. The tonelessness and uneventfulness of the case histories correspond to the sheer behaviorism exemplified in these lives, which are made up of reaction to stimuli rather than of the voluntary pursuit of significant ends. Perhaps the furthest triumph of art in Dos Passos is the virtually complete submergence of his own personal style in that of his characters. All that is left here of the author-as-author is the somewhat greater concern with color and form in the outward scene than can be plausibly attributed to Mac and Margot. Vocabulary and idiom, rhetoric and grammar are those of the several characters; and above all what may be called the moral tone is that of the people who go through these undramatic adventures. In some cases, where the spiritual confusions are particularly dense, as with Eleanor Stoddard and J. Ward Moorehouse, the effect is an irony all the more destructive because it is free from burlesque ventriloquism. The dialogue has not the point and resonance of Hemingway's, but serves well the rather different purpose of Dos Passos. Here we acknowledge with delight in an objective artist that gift for yielding himself wholly to his subject which, in the volumes of personal commentary, left us with some sense of let-down.
Altogether Dos Passos has given us the most comprehensive and convincing picture of American life in certain highly characteristic phases that is anywhere to be found. And if we shrink from the frosty glitter of the exhibit, we must yield to its fascination as a work of imaginative art. We are held by the teeming fertility of his invention, the colorfulness of his appeal to the senses, and by the bold originality and stark impressiveness of his structural composition.
But this brings us to the most radical of all objections that may be urged against Dos Passos. It may be urged that his representation of human nature is purely external and superficial, that he actually implies as his own philosophy the very behaviorism of which his characters are victims, that he has no conception of anything other than man political and economic. (pp. 414-15)
Dos Passos is not aiming at depth psychology, and must deny himself much of the fascination of a Joyce or Proust. He is not aiming to expose the dialectical complexities of European culture…. The only riddle he poses is the simple relation of the individual to the group history of his own time. Above all he has chosen to present men not self-conscious and deliberately seeking for answers and solutions, but men passive to the commonest impulsions of instinct. If one's taste is for poetry and metaphysics and for nothing else, one will deny the appeal of Dos Passos and will rate him as distinctly inferior.
But if one's taste is more catholic, one will at least consider the nature of his artistic intention. He has, one may assume, no love for flat souls; but his theme is souls made flat by something in the culture-complex in which they have their being. To have presented them in other terms would have been to betray his subject. To complain that his representation is two- or at best three-dimensional is simply to characterize the method and medium which best suit his artistic intention. The thing to note is the brilliant virtuosity with which this method is applied and the inescapable impressiveness of the effect. One can be a passionate devotee of Proust and still admit the esthetic importance of Dos Passos.
But then, one says, his study is not "religious," and he can therefore have no standard of values, no moral sense, without which human nature becomes an unedifying subject of contemplation. Well, that is the moot question of our time, and not to be decided by the testimony of a horde of poets and critics, some of them deliberately unacquainted with the intellectual culture of our age, and many of them inclined to confusing double-talk—employing such terms as religion and myth in senses that would never have been admitted by Dante, Milton, or Swift, let alone St. Augustine or St. Thomas. (pp. 415-16)
There is one quasi-religious concept of which Dos Passos is strongly aware. It is what Kenneth Burke calls "piety." This, he says, is the desire, the impulse of the human being to identify himself with the group. And this, one would suppose, is a human development of what in the lower animals is called gregariousness. Dos Passos' characters, while reasonably gregarious, are singularly lacking in the type of piety that Jesus calls love. But this again is his theme; he is depicting a society unaware of what it takes to make a society. And the atomistic lovelessness of his people is a reminder of what he considers the great desideratum. If the reader misses this, it is because he is given objective realism where what might be expected is a tone of obvious satire.
But there is something missing to make these characters full-fledged human beings, and that is the conscious sighting and willed pursuit of ends conceived as having value. Here again we must give Dos Passos the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is precisely what he has in mind. His aim is to depict a society of people passively drifting without benefit of inner controls. His people are for the most part likeable and easily understood, but they are seldom lovable or admirable, and for that reason they are individually unimportant to the reader. And that is the head and front of his offense. His people are not "sympathetic" like those of Tolstoi, Dickens, Henry James, or André Malraux. They do not have the psychological interest of Dostoevsky's or Proust's, or the poetic interest of Kafka's. His vision of man is not religious but rationalistic. And most modern readers prefer psychology and the religious vision, along with reasonably sympathetic characters.
The reader will consult his taste, as ever. But tastes change and broaden. Dos Passos is now a standard though unpopular writer, like Henry James. He is an artist of bold originality, ingenuity and dash. He has covered the American scene more adequately than any other novelist. His social commentary is sharply defined and mordant. He has survived some twenty years of critical scrutiny…. Another twenty years and he may need no apologia. Our children may positively relish his flavor and take him for granted as an American classic. (pp. 417-18)
Joseph Warren Beach, "Dos Passos 1947," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1947 by The University of the South), Vol. LV, No. 3, Summer, 1947, pp. 406-18.
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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 thinking. (pp. 118-19)
Dos Passos' reputation really was established with his novel of post-war disillusion, Three Soldiers. To this day, it remains one of the very best of twentieth century American war novels, and it describes the ordinary soldier trapped in the army machine, one of the instruments of the state grown healthy in war. Here, we find the theme of bigness, bigness in which the individual is lost, developed as a cause of disillusion. (p. 119)
The Great Days is a panoramic novel of the Second World War and its aftermath. However, Dos Passos tells the story and unfolds his panorama through the memory, experience and changing fate of a famous journalist. Ro Lancaster is 59, and in the post-war world, he has become a has-been. Drawing all his money, $3000, from the bank, he flies to Cuba with a redheaded gal who is thirty years his junior, physically striking, lost and frigid. Elsa is like a daughter of a character from USA. Lancaster seeks to refind love, but he is too old, too marred by experience. The seeds of disillusion are planted deep. The action of the novel ensues on two planes, present and past. Lancaster, going downhill, remembers the Great Days. These are recalled in terms of his own past, his love for his wife, Grace, who died of cancer, their life together, and the scenes and events he has witnessed as a reporter. This permits Dos Passos to describe wartime Washington, war and the functioning of the supply line in the Pacific, the Nuremburg Trials, post-war Paris. And since Dos Passos is an excellent journalist, his description of the Great Days is vivid. (p. 120)
But the Great Days are over and Ro Lancaster is one of yesterday's celebrities. He sees, in the rise of Soviet power, newer and graver dangers than those of the past. His trip to Havana is a mistake and, broke, he puts the girl on a bus in Milwaukee; he sinks into the nondescript crowd in the bus station. A full circle has been travelled. From the soldier caught in the gears of the big army machine of World War I, Dos Passos has pursued the themes of liberty and bigness through to the present; his fading celebrity slips back into a life of commonness and anonymity.
John Dos Passos writes with great ease and he is technically inventive. He has conceived various means to write the story of his times as he sees it. The Great Days is a well and even an ingeniously constructed book. It is remarkable to think of how much it takes in, because the novel is only of normal length. Dos Passos has always been best at establishing scenes, rather than in portraying characters with depth and strong individuality. The characters reflect a world that is constantly changing, bringing failure and defeat. (pp. 120-21)
[Dos Passos] has honestly recorded the play of hope and disappointment over four decades. He has done this with dignity and seriousness.
The future will tell how right or wrong he has been, and I personally think and respond differently than he does. From Three Soldiers to The Great Days, we can see in Dos Passos the effort of one man of talent and sensibility to take hold of this changing play of forces in our life. It is worthy of new attention and a fresh evaluation. Dos Passos' work is a true, constructive achievement. (p. 121)
James T. Farrell, "How Should We Rate Dos Passos?" in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1958 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 138, No. 17, April 28, 1958 (and reprinted in his Literary Essays: 1954–1974, edited by Jack Alan Robbins, Kennikat Press, 1976, pp. 118-21).
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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 over-used and faded material, and in the slackening of the craftsman's hand that used to deal so readily with such fundamentals as the establishment of time, place and mood.
Chosen Country, as the title implies, is a tribute to U.S. civilisation and an announcement that the author has aligned himself with the most authentic tradition of American cultural identity. This is meant to be the Jeffersonian tradition; unfortunately it savours more of the elderly, comfort-loving, Time-reading, Republican-voting, stockmarket belt—the thinnest crust of any tradition. The author of Facing the Chair creates a hero of Italian descent who, after an early life of waywardness, 'comes home' to the United States. The story is written with a complete disregard for the nature of conviction and personal development and culminates in a section entitled, with supreme vulgarity and despite the fact that much of it is set in Canada, 'O My America My New Found Land'. Jay Pignatelli's rediscovery of his native land is accompanied (needless to say) by his marriage to a girl from an 'old family'. There seems little doubt that the writer considers this arrangement to have put everything right, and this belief alone measures the distance he has travelled. (pp. 135-36)
For the first time, Dos Passos offers himself as a novelist of the happy ending, and by doing so relegates his art to the level of the sentimental film or the Norman Rockwell illustration. (p. 136)
Chosen Country is a novel of almost five hundred pages, and because of its length it painfully demonstrates how thin Dos Passos has stretched his material. The absence of dramatic pressure and positively relevant incident, often amounting to even plain tedium, is highlighted by the reduction of the narrative style, for the most part, to a bare sequential recitation. In his effort to restore a measure of vitality to his fiction, Dos Passos makes use of his family history in a manner that has contingent interest but is never fruitfully integrated. The whole of his artistic logic has been inverted to create a fairy tale of error, reform and conversion. (pp. 136-37)
Jay Pignatelli's history is offered as a success-story, and his marriage to an old-stock American implies that the Union has fulfilled its paper promises and discovered a unique strength through blending native and immigrant traditions. Whatever the ultimate merits of this point of view, it is not dramatically validated in Chosen Country. Jay's choice is a puppet's twitch. The articulated skeleton of the novelist's former self maintains Jay as the residual legatee of other, more memorable incarnations; it is incapable of realising him as a man making deliberately, out of experience and self-correction, a significant decision. (p. 137)
Purely conventional—even old-fashioned—in form, Most Likely to Succeed aims for the most obvious of the ironies suggested by the title. Not only does it miss electrifying the platitude that a man may be a success by all worldly canons yet fail humanly … but it sets a positive puzzle for the reader by its inattention to prime requisites of the novel. The failing novelist, himself execrated by the critics and with the fear of professional perdition haunting him, has lost the 'récul esthetique'. He is no longer an intelligible writer in the basic idioms of his craft. For instance the action of 'Morocco' takes place in 1926, as the hero explicitly announces on the first page; prolific allusions to Paris, the Ballet Russe and Dada certainly date it in the twenties. But there is a bewildering lack of temporal actuality. In erasing the landmarks of his own past—here Dos Passos aims at wiping out the New Playwrights' Theatre, as he had earlier wiped out Harvard, Roosevelt, Sacco and Vanzetti—the author has left obscure necessary delineations of circumstance. (p. 138)
[Most Likely to Succeed] presents a hero-failure who never convinces in any dimension. It suffocates under a cold-war blanket of hatred. Dos Passos has proved nothing about failure and he has falsified a critical period of history; any consciousness of the giant threat of fascism is absent from Most Likely to Succeed. So is the sense of life among ordinary people. Like other anti-Communist revivalists of the fifties, Dos Passos equates Communism with wealthy, parasitic 'elements', and by aiming at this barn-door irony he extinguishes deeper, subtler ironies—and truth. Jed Morris is a total failure. The author say so. But it is not a failure which can touch or persuade the reader, it is contrived. It rings with the infallible false note of the counterfeit.
The remaining two novels published during Dos Passos' lifetime illustrate a further weakening of artistic control, and in each of them a man of about the author's age and with the author's own experience is shown at the end of his tether. Roland Lancaster, in The Great Days, comes alive only when he thinks of the past; his affair at the age of fifty-nine, with a much younger girl, is a series of humiliations and cross-purposes. To underscore the contrast, the narrative is divided into two alternating sections. In one, Lancaster gives a first-person account of the key episodes in his life. The other, impersonally narrated in the dramatic present, concentrates on the Cuban trip with Elsa. Lancaster has grown world-weary through the exhaustion of experience: 'Hasn't he always entertained the dream of boxing up his old wornout life and sending it to dead storage?' Elsa embodies his last hope of self-revitalisation, and Cuba the opportunity to mend his professional fortunes as a journalist.
The Great Days partially returns to the use of engrammatic perceptions—Lancaster is used up as a result of a cumulative barrage of assaults on his energy and integrity—but it takes pains also to accommodate Dos Passos' ideological grudges. Potentially the most interesting theme of the later works—reassessment and apologia pro sua vita by the aging novelist—is dissipated. Dos Passos has worked in much of the material from which his later journalism derives, and the positive values are cemented in with egregious reliance on cliché. (pp. 140-41)
The reader is left to draw the conclusion that Roland Lancaster's personal and professional impasses have left him on the edge of nothing, where he can acquire the impetus for a fresh assault on life, repudiating the vanities that have plagued his career. Yet his failure is loosely and rather opaquely described; it is never thoroughly established as a lifelike consequence of impelling circumstances. The depletion of a talent is apparent in nearly every line—not just in the extensive use of unintegrated reportage and the heavy-handed editorialising but in the limpness of characterisation, dialogue and atmosphere….
In Midcentury creative exhaustion is terminal: not even a reversion to the manner of USA can disguise it. If The Great Days is Dos Passos' last attempt to get outside himself, Midcentury is his final effort to penetrate society. The penetration is not deep, though: the theme of the book is the extinction of the self-willed individual by the power of large group interests and monopolies but it is expressed in querulous and bigoted accents. (p. 142)
Midcentury is loose, barren, and repetitious. Blackie Bowman is potentially the most interesting character, but his experiences are little more than yet another version of the essential John Dos Passos tale, and they lack scope and density. General MacArthur and Dean are praised for their patriotism, a value now unambivalently good. The Documentaries miss the variety and ironic juxtaposition of the Newsreels in USA. The seven abstracts of Investigator's Notes are seven separate pieces of evidence against labour corruption—one would have served, especially as five of the profiles (Bridges, Harry Lewis, Reuther, Tobin/Beck/Hoffa, Senator McClellan) treat the same subject. The lyrical intention of the three prefaces and the epilogue—to warn that 'institutional man' must 'sacrifice individual diversity'—is rendered as a blunderbuss assault on Big Unionism (to a minor extent, on Big Business and Finance); the interplay of tension between social and individual forces is neglected. Midcentury is not so much pessimistic as grievance-ridden. (p. 143)
Midcentury, professing to defend the individual against the enveloping institutions that threaten to crush him, only reflects a jaundiced disappointment. Maladroit in its construction, rife with traces of the magazine origins of much of its material, it embodies a sorrowful deterioration.
Dos Passos ends as the fulminating enemy of youth, having begun as its spokesman. Romantic failure is turned into cheap, patriotic self-regeneration and scepticism hardens into dogmatic fetishes of belief and repudiation. Nevertheless, it is an injustice that he should now be widely out of print (at least in Britain), forgotten and despised. The wonder is not that he should have ceased to be a widely respected literary figure, but that he should have left an oeuvre which, despite the relatively small proportion of first-grade work, contains so much that is admirable.
In Manhattan Transfer and especially in USA Dos Passos had faced up to a universe which bore no objective meaning and in which the existential struggle to create meaning in volitional life-activity itself seemed hopeless. The 'impassioned objectivity' of his manner and his technical resourcefulness helped to make him an author of genuine distinction. Dos Passos at his most accomplished communicates that most frightening sense of a world in which the impedimenta of a human-created civilisation refuse to yield any human meaning for the individual who reaches out to their lethal or recessive profiles. Fitzgerald wrote, wisely, that he spoke 'with the authority of failure', that he could use the phrase suggests how failure is a kind of qualification for making authentic judgements on life—and the significance of the remark is sharpened for Americans. When Dos Passos shows the sickly futility of a life—shows it in the accumulated detail of daily defeat, shows it transformed (to use Sartre's term) into a 'destiny'—he overcomes the ignoble facts by the truth and courage of his portrayal. This task it is the duty and justification of art to perform. That he omits other truths—the transcendence of pervading misery by the intensity of man's perceptions and will to understand; the supremacy of love, however transient its realisation; the deep satisfactions that come out of struggle—no more invalidates his attitude than the existence of happy marriages disproves Hemingway's view of male-female relations. The reader who has shared in the life of our century turns the pages of Dos Passos with the shock of self-recognition.
When the fiction of John Dos Passos ceases to draw energy from a nexus of alienation and doubt it loses artistic cohesion. The persona he chose, or grew into, was increasingly inimical not simply to his earlier purposes as a writer, but to the essential character of his literary ability. When Dos Passos 'came home', when he published crude magazine polemics and volumes of sentimental popular history, he surrendered the insight which underlay his major trilogy and which is so finely expressed by James T. Farrell: 'Time slowly transfigures me just as it transfigures all of us. There is no security in an insecure world. There is no final home on a planet where we are homeless children.' Farrell has also paid tribute to the vitality of the naturalist tradition, including USA: 'They have been written in the spirit of truth. If they are part of a tradition, that tradition has had more force and more impact, and has been able to nourish and give more energy to successive generations than any other tradition. This is especially so in America.'
For it remains the case that Dos Passos is an American writer; he had no need to resort to anti-Communist bluster, Barry Coldwater and the National Review to assure himself of this. The great American theme of success, from its enshrinement in popular self-help mythology to the beautifully controlled resonances of The Great Gatsby, entails its own corollaries of failure, despair and disillusion. Fitzgerald recorded such emotions in typically personal terms: '… an over-extention of the flank, a burning of the candle at both ends; a call upon physical resources that I did not command, like a man over-drawing at his bank … a feeling that I was standing at twilight on a deserted range, with an empty rifle in my hands and the targets down'. Yet not for nothing is Fitzgerald associated with the zeitgeist of inter-war America. What distinguishes his self-analysis is its freedom from rancour or blame; his artist's objectivity served him well. Similarly, the best work of Dos Passos—even where it draws on personal and political sympathies—never identifies a single source of error, a single evil. 'Impassioned objectivity'—more objective in Manhattan Transfer, more passionate in USA—allows him an exceptional freedom and versatility; antithetical properties (success/failure; radicalism/conservatism; mass institutions/the private consciousness) are deployed with extreme skill and tension. When this tension is dispersed by crude polemicism, the vital framework collapses. A primitive world-view is matched by severe technical regression. Dos Passos' disservice to himself arises not from craft-experiment, but by the sincere yet damaging change in his viewpoint that persuaded him to re-interpret failure, success, morality and history.
It is especially deplorable that Dos Passos concluded his career as a novelist with a malevolent portrait of American youth. If there is any heroism in our time, any self-denying actions comparable to the heroism of the Spanish workers who fell on the barricades of their murdered republic, much of it has been contributed by a generation of young Americans who denied the limitless power of their government to coerce the individual and who showed their opposition by active resistance. But the great wave of contemporary organised outrage in the West is spent; despite the growth of an international youth counterculture, one is more aware of fragmentation than of unity or harmony. Here are two themes perfectly in key with the interests of the novelist whose life ended in Baltimore on 28 September 1970. Such a novelist might be the chronicler of a world grown even more complex, uncertain and bewildering in the fifty years since Manhattan Transfer: not to point at causes and solutions, but by mirroring our dilemma and frustrations through the medium of art to amplify our awareness of our own situation, to provide us with an alternating focus on ourselves as social and individual beings. The time is due for Dos Passos to be re-read, as he wrote, with both sympathy and impartiality—and above all, with a seriousness equal to the most worthy of his aims and achievements. (pp. 144-46)
Iain Colley, in his Dos Passos and the Fiction of Despair (© Iain Colley 1978; reprinted by permission of Macmillan, London and Basingstoke), Macmillan, 1978, 170 p.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5057
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 principles already important to the fledgling author. These were the years of absorption in technique, and most modern writers believed that, in order for any writer to "write straight," he must have some kind of prolegomenon, some set of artistic principles. Dos Passos' beginning aesthetic grew from the contemporary emphasis on the concrete image, the scene—whether in fiction, drama, or poetry—and on the arrangement of those images and scenes into patterns resembling montage or collage. The pose of the objective author became one of his ideals, as did the use of commonplace subjects. (p. 3)
One central premise in the modernist aesthetic revolution was the importance of the image…. The concentration on the concrete and the use of free or organic form and of rhythms determined by the spoken phrase rather than the rigidity of the metronome—these principles of imagism were to lay the foundation for most modern poetry and much prose as well. (p. 4)
Dos Passos' poems, finally collected in the 1922 A Pushcart at the Curb … do seem to have been influenced in some respects by the imagist doctrines. Short poems like "XV" from "Winter in Castile" are image-centered, highly descriptive, and succinct…. Most of the longer poems also emphasize the image, although it may be only one element of a structure determined partly by the musicality of the total poem. (p. 5)
Comparing Dos Passos' poems with those of imagist poets like William Carlos Williams or H.D., however, shows some clear differences. Dos Passos seems to have been closer to the thinking of William Faulkner and Conrad Aiken in his feeling that, whatever its other properties, the modern poem should be "intensely musical." The spare colloquial idiom of the modern American streetwalker or butcher theoretically may be the stuff of art, but Dos Passos had great admiration for the poems of Stevenson, Tennyson, and Swinburne, as well as for the work of Richard Aldington and Ezra Pound…. [Frequently] Dos Passos' poems are marked by heavy assonance, one means of creating musicality in language…. (p. 6)
From this device, it is only a short step to one of his most pervasive techniques, the repetition of phrase or line, a type of refrain, whether or not conventionally placed at the ends of stanzas. At its simplest, Dos Passos' repetition occurs to create mood, often through color imagery, as in "V" from "Winter in Castile," a poem that opens "Rain slants on an empty square" and closes with the mournful "in the grey rain, / in the grey city." In more ambitious poems, Dos Passos uses repetition to vary mood rather than to maintain it…. Dos Passos believed in the use of regular poetic forms so long as they achieved desired effects. (p. 7)
Another element of Dos Passos' concept of musicality stemmed from his notion that free verse was never literally free but was "meant to have rhythm—it's not the same rhythm as so-called metrical verse; but it's a perfectly definite and sometimes quite regular cadence." Line division and line placement in the poems usually help create rhythm or pace; in many places, the division that exists is expected and borders on the uninventive. At other times, however,… line arrangement works to create effective montage, a device Dos Passos used throughout his work…. [Even] recurring similes (a favorite figure of speech in these early poems) cannot deaden the pace of this juxtaposition, the technique that gives Dos Passos' poetry and prose (as in the Newsreel sections of U.S.A. and Midcentury) their brisk tempo.
Important as these principles of musicality, the image, and juxtaposition were to Dos Passos' developing aesthetic, one of the essential points of his early credo was the concept of objectivity of presentation. The writer was to aim for the illusion of distance. His role was that of objective conveyor and, although he might use subjective elements in his presentation—indeed, his choices of subjects and details were in themselves subjective—he was to avoid obtrusiveness. Method, more than attitude, was to be objective. Dos Passos' poems follow this directive perhaps too well: nearly all the poems are montages of external details—chandeliers, bells, soldiers, donkeys, children. The people appearing in the poems are also vividly described but always from an external perspective: Dos Passos uses colors and other graphic details but seldom tells his reasons for being drawn to the subjects of the poems. The first person is almost never used, unless it occurs in pastoral poems as a narrative convention. The cumulative effect of A Pushcart at the Curb is, then, relatively impersonal: a reader knows more about Tivoli and camel travel than about John Dos Passos. (pp. 7-8)
The few exceptions to these objective presentations are all the more striking for their rarity. Several poems picture the young poet as a classic Prufrock figure—unfulfilled, searching, held back from various kinds of satisfaction because of fear, thinking his life futile. At times the focus for his anguish is a woman (usually slender, dark, shadowy); elsewhere, as in "Ode to Ennui," his malaise is undefined. More frequently, in the somewhat later poems, loneliness itself is the cause of his despair…. What some of the strongest of his poems in A Pushcart at the Curb seem to suggest is that Dos Passos did carry feelings of frustration and inadequacy into maturity. An isolato for many reasons, he continually tried to overcome his hesitancy about personal relationships. (pp. 8-9)
Much of the "plot" of both One Man's Initiation: 1917 and Three Soldiers concerns the dichotomy between Dos Passos' optimistic acceptance of his fellow soldiers and his later awareness of their sometimes disappointing actions under stress.
A greater part of his excitement about the war, however, seems to have been the accessibility of real experience as subject matter for his writing. (p. 10)
It comes as no surprise that Dos Passos' first two published novels are war novels, written "imagistically" and centered on the searching young protagonists, Martin Howe and John Andrews. What makes the books better than some of his self-conscious technical pronouncements of these years might have indicated is that his emotional energy permeates them and commits him to writing powerfully about experiences and newly developed feelings. Even though he still felt somewhat trapped by what he viewed as the "bell-glass" atmosphere of Harvard and Boston society, his novels convince the reader that war is more than a rhetorical problem or a social one, that the lives of men are valuable, and that Dos Passos' purpose as writer is to present enough of the bones of the experience so that we ourselves can add on the flesh. In One Man's Initiation, for example, there is little attention to political events preceding and surrounding the war. Dos Passos' interest, and focus, falls on a few soldiers faced with their first encounter with death—of both physical bodies and cultural ones. The experience of the novel is accordingly immediate and concrete, rather than abstract and philosophical.
What makes the two novels a logical part of the artistic progression Dos Passos' writing career evinces is that the methods he uses in them are very similar to the methods he was then employing in his poetry. Instead of choosing a dramatic structure of rising action-climax-falling action, Dos Passos sets one scene against another, events separated in time become related thematically as they are presented in a nonchronological montage. (p. 11)
Like his poetry, the prose of One Man's Initiation is marked by factual detail presented concretely and by a painter's reliance on color…. [Contrasting] glimpses of bravado and nervousness take the story quickly from the early tone of comfortable pastiche to the stolid irony of the body of the novel. Throughout One Man's Initiation, or First Encounter as it was later and intermittently titled, Dos Passos sets the unrelieved horror of physical war against the propagandist version of that war, with snatches of popular songs serving as punctuation. These opposing views of war form the bases for the novel: scenes set in graphic montage to duplicate the effect the sights of war have on Martin Howe's awareness.
Even as the would-be soldiers drink and gamble to allay their fears, these fears surface in their conversation. Dos Passos shows fear in both the abstract and the specific…. (p. 12)
[Each] chapter adds another episode to Martin Howe's awakening horror, whether it be the destruction of the picturesque abbey, the slow deaths of the ambulance patients, or the depravity of the soldiers. Each scene is presented graphically, so that separate images stand clear at first and then gradually coalesce into more intense significance. (p. 13)
What is most noticeable about this carefully modulated intensification of horror is that Martin Howe's understanding of the true nature of wounding and death parallels his realizations about other romantic ideals. His concept of the woman he might love differs wildly from the French prostitutes who surround him. His beliefs about the realities of war are also quickly shattered, and the tone of physical outrage and hostility becomes correspondingly dulled and resigned. The image Dos Passos used to represent all the glory of an enlightened culture—that of the abbey—is eventually shelled; its destruction, however, is described with quasi-dreamlike resignation…. Similarly described is a macabre crucifixion scene, in which Christ's crown of thorns is replaced with a crown of barbed wire and the physical imagery culminates in the shapeless, sacked bodies of the dead. Instead of pathos or sensationalism, the sight of those unnamed, uncounted dead provokes the narrator to that same ultracontrolled description, focusing on the procession of the "little carts" rather than on the bodies that are their contents.
The progression in the novel to its unrelievedly bitter end—with many of Howe's friends dead or dying and his observing the aftermath of another futile battle—follows effectively from the image clusters placed early in the book. One Man's Initiation also has its share of polemic—chance conversations, ironic interchanges, outright diatribe—but even this rhetoric is frequently saved by Dos Passos' graphic use of the language. The propaganda first described as "living, growing flypaper to catch and gum the wings of every human soul" becomes personified in the ideology of the berserk soldier who believes that "to stop the war you must kill everybody, kill everybody."
Such vignettes as this of the mad soldier loosely connected by Howe's presence and central consciousness and by the repetition of images and language create the structure of the book. Relatively free from personal antagonists, Howe moves through the war, often less aware than one might wish of the unending ironies surrounding him. His "initiation" appears to accrue from the gradual accumulation of vivid physical images—colors, flowers, sounds, wounds, fires. Only toward the end of the novel does Dos Passos show Howe trying clumsily to sort through the prevailing attitudes and philosophies about the war…. [But events] have proved even the most pessimistic of views too affirmative, and the brisk episodic structure of the book brings the denouement home effectively. (pp. 13-15)
[The theme of an early play, The Garbage Man,] is the familiar early one that breaking with familial and other traditions is desirable; the characters Jane and Tom manage to break out of stultifying family "connections" and finally reap romantic and material "rewards." The play's method is the charged, recurring image and quasi-surreal event pattern—heightened by outright fantasy—similar to that of One Man's Initiation: 1917 and Streets of Night. There is also some use of the long-line incantatory rhythm that Dos Passos would use in the Biography sections of U.S.A. The most noticeable device is his reliance on jazz and dance routines. (p. 73)
The Garbage Man included many elements of musical comedy and was one of the New Playwrights Theatre's more interesting productions, despite its jejune philosophy and vapid characters.
Several years later, between 1927 and 1928, Dos Passos wrote a play that, politically, did belong on the stage of the New Playwrights Theatre. Airways, Inc. is not only his best play; it may also be, as Edmund Wilson suggested, some of his best writing. Proletarian in sympathy and experimental in technique, the play foreshadows U.S.A. in its inclusion of events both past and present, act and motivation, and a wide panoply of American characters and cultural problems. In Airways, Inc. we see the almost innocent progress of an exploitative culture to its demise, as human values are exchanged for quick profits. The theme is not new, but Dos Passos' presentation of it is fresh and effective. (pp. 74-5)
Airways, Inc. is not a play about the varieties of belief so much as it is a condemnation of capitalism. The play was originally titled Suburb, a designation that suggested some urban-suburban difference. Place, however, was not the issue for Dos Passos: The Garbage Man is set largely in New York; Fortune Heights, in a tiny crossroads community. Dos Passos had seen that the same kind of thinking existed everywhere. What he gained by choosing the title Airways, Inc. was an emphasis on the power of business, the profit motivation, coupled with suggestions of the glamour of flying (viz., Charles Lindbergh as national hero) and of flight as an archetypal image of freedom, a commodity none of these characters has enough of. Dos Passos succeeded in locating the blame for American greed squarely where he thought it should lie, with business…. (p. 76)
The theme of buying—merchandise, property, business—runs throughout the play, always to the dissatisfaction of the purchaser. Dos Passos shows the ways human considerations are buried under the pressures of finance, whether high or low; money is the pivot for action throughout Airways, Inc. (p. 77)
Considering Airways, Inc. as a New Playwrights production, intent on some kind of political statement, one of its strongest achievements is that Dos Passos himself does little of the recriminating. The characters, in their quick-paced interaction, give us the analysis and the implied solution for the problems of prejudice, fear, isolationism, but the plot of the play keeps the reader from feeling that he is being subjected to a political treatise. (pp. 79-80)
The main weakness of the play is Dos Passos' turn to violence when he runs out of uses for his characters…. Dos Passos may have been influenced by his interest in melodrama, but his reliance on the macabre seems inappropriate for this particular play. Airways, Inc. does not pretend to be a comedy; unlike The Garbage Man and Fortune Heights, it draws its power from its tragic qualities—consistent tone, the threat of impending disaster, human resolution in the face of conflict that determines the action of the central characters, and an inimical and dangerous culture….
By the time of Fortune Heights … Dos Passos' bitterness about "romance" and "success" was clear. The relationships that exist in that play are hardly "love songs"; they are more often sexual conveniences, with little concern for the other person's needs or desires. Impermanence is the mode and suggests that one person's dissatisfaction with another stems at least partly from an inability to separate fact from fantasy. (p. 80)
Success is as far from the capabilities of the characters as love is, and all the quick juxtapositions of comic and stock characters used in Fortune Heights cannot alleviate the impression of disaster. (p. 81)
Fortune Heights attempted less to create any new myth than to debunk all the old American attitudes…. [From] the beginning of the play Dos Passos shows us only lost opportunity. (pp. 81-2)
Fortune Heights is an uneven and unlikely mixture of propaganda and vaudeville. The play closes with a series of scenes in which farmers and laborers unite to try to prevent Owen's eviction from his filling station. Dos Passos' "solution" in 1933 to social crises is the action of common men, inarticulate in their rationale but moved by simple, genuinely humanitarian impulses…. [The] concluding theme, the "search" for the U.S.A., to find answers to the broken promises and the battered dreams, propels the play to an ending inconclusive in political philosophy. For, finally, cooperation does not work…. (pp. 82-3)
The chief strength of Fortune Heights is Dos Passos' ability to build ironies, especially during the first two acts, through his use of titles for the forty-one separate scenes. Moving much like a vaudeville program, one vignette followed rapidly by the next, Fortune Heights develops an expansive structure. Signaled by the captionlike titles, the viewer can accept any kind of action, whether in direct sequence or oblique. (p. 83)
Dos Passos' last play succeeded in the scenes that show characters in … poignant realizations, but its melodramatic reliance on foreclosures and evictions, love affairs, robberies and murders as well as its use of a mock-comic speed and tone left its viewers baffled. Because of Dos Passos' technical innovation, the play certainly cannot be judged as part of the "realistic" theatrical tradition, for all the realism of its Depression experience. Fortune Heights stands as an imperfect fusion of Dos Passos' interest in experimental theater and the use of American theatrical forms and his desire that drama express meaningful social ideas, a vestige of the New Playwrights era more interesting for its influence on his later fiction than for its own efficacy as theater. (p. 84)
Because the twentieth century has been a period of immense technical innovation in all the arts, it has become natural to study literature as structure, style, epistemological construct. What is in some ways most surprising when Dos Passos' work—fiction as well as nonfiction—is studied from those perspectives is that his style throughout his career did remain relatively constant. At some points, most graphically in Manhattan Transfer and the U.S.A. trilogy, he used his basic techniques more flamboyantly, in more dramatic patterns, but his writing was based on four tactics that seldom varied.
1. Dos Passos was a character-oriented writer. Regardless of what he was writing, he searched for a person on whom to focus. In his reporting of the United States during World War II, in his coverage of Harlan County, of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, of unemployment in Detroit—his approach to history was consistent. Instead of a study of restrictive Puritanism, he describes Roger Williams as its antithesis; instead of a point-by-point discussion of the Declaration of Independence, he gives us Thomas Jefferson—in three volumes; instead of a political or military analysis of World War I, it becomes, in vivid outline, Mr. Wilson's War, an account laced with individuals who not only represent the common American: they are common Americans. Even the books that might well have become treatises in political science—The Prospect Before Us and The Theme Is Freedom—are built on portraits of individual people. More and more in his writing, Dos Passos illustrated the centrality of his notion that the primary duty of any governmental system was "growing great people." In parallel fashion, the primary duty of the writer was to capture those people—both great and not so great—as the only sure means of reaching the reader in terms he would be able to understand.
2. This extension of the modernist emphasis on the use of the concrete, the actual, as a way toward the universal occurred because of Dos Passos' conviction that people, characters, were the most important elements in any culture. (pp. 144-45)
3. Because Dos Passos was at heart a skeptical modern no matter how much he wanted to become an eighteenth-century rationalist, he realized that no cause-and-effect arrangement of these details and characters from life would be convincing. Montage, collage, or less sensational forms of juxtaposition thus became his structural basis, and from the days of Manhattan Transfer and the U.S.A. trilogy forward, nearly everything he wrote was arranged on a variation of that principle. At its simplest, it became the flashback to his life with Grace in The Great Days; at its most complex, it was the four-part pattern of U.S.A. or Midcentury; at its most didactic, it was the interlock of "message" poetry with narrative in the District of Columbia books; at its loosest, it was the vignette placed against vignette throughout The Ground We Stand On and Tour of Duty. Like a true camera (rather than the introspective Camera Eye of U.S.A.), Dos Passos' narrative method asks the reader to focus and absorb; then to break (often whimsically, without explanation); then to focus and absorb once again—and leaves the reader with the primary responsibility of assimilating all the information from those various shots into some kind of cogent whole. (pp. 145-46)
4. … Dos Passos' choices in language often depended on the characteristic modernist belief that a person could be best described by using his own vernacular. From his book and chapter titles to his descriptions of people to his invectives against the media (first newspapers, then radio, finally—and most violently—television) for its abuses of language, Dos Passos worked from the idiom out. (p. 146)
Dos Passos' unquestioning belief that a person's colloquial speech was representative of that person also led to a reliance, narratively, on dialogue. His structuring of narrative segments around scenes depends partly on the success of the dialogue of characters in interaction; when that dialogue works, he can avoid supplemental description.
Besides relying on idiomatic dialogue, Dos Passos also built a basic narrative style out of the vernacular. The language of the U.S.A. narratives came to dominate much of his prose, a workmanlike composite of relatively plain American English, whose sentences were more likely to be groups of prepositional phrases than elegantly balanced or periodic constructions. The casualness of American speech had a pervasive influence on what had begun—in the days of The Harvard Monthly—as a fairly elaborate syntax.
In contrast to Dos Passos' plain-speaking narrative, which was appropriate for so much of his journalism and fiction, he also worked easily in his prose-poem voice. First apparent in the U.S.A. Biography and Camera Eye sections, the use of specific poetic techniques within ostensible prose was a contrasting method for expressing views the idiomatic speech could not convey. Visual space, incremental rhythms, conscious repetition, significant line divisions, assonantal language patterns—Dos Passos knew well how to use these devices but so long as he was writing as an average American, the use of these techniques would seem inappropriate. By being able to move—through his fabric of juxtaposed elements—to a section of such contrasting language, Dos Passos could signal the reader that this was the authorial voice. Because it was used sparingly and because, in both early writing and late, it often conveyed the more didactic kinds of expression, readers learned to read Dos Passos' prose-poem sections as important statements of theme. This was as true in the U.S.A. Biography sections as it was in the prefaces to the District of Columbia novels and Midcentury.
So pervasive were these techniques that Dos Passos used them no matter what he was writing. Even the last few books about places—Portugal, Brazil, Easter Island—are written with the same devices and style: focus on character rather than event; attention to physical detail; reliance on juxtaposition of segments; use of vernacular. The qualities of the early Rosinante to the Road Again, as well as One Man's Initiation: 1917, remain, although Dos Passos has become content with re-creating the randomness of real life instead of trying to impose a construct on events. (pp. 146-47)
Dos Passos' later books of travel share more than technical mannerisms with his late fiction and history. It is increasingly clear that for Dos Passos these books of place should also convey his moral principles, and his choice of characters and detail for his rapportage throughout the books about Brazil (1963), Portugal (1969), and Easter Island (1971) is determined as much by the integrity of their lives as by their color. (p. 148)
When Ro Lancaster wrote in The Great Days that the kind of journalism he spent his life writing was "the kind of journalism that's between history and prophecy," he was defining Dos Passos' own mode of narrative. Drawing from the factual bases of history, using a keen sense of prediction and understanding—based largely in people, and alerting readers to the dangers that lay ahead: the astute writer would be more than an entertainer; more, in total, than a craftsman. He would be not just a chronicler; his expertise would also lead him to the crucial art of interpreting. He would give his culture its antennae. That his fate might also be that of a Tiresias or a Cassandra should have been obvious to Dos Passos from the beginning. (p. 150)
Embarrassed as some critics have been about Dos Passos' late insistence that the moral position become explicit rather than implicit in his writing, their attitudes may be more reactionary than his own philosophical positions. For America's contemporary writers—novelists like Norman Mailer in Armies of the Night, for example, and countless poets, from W. S. Merwin and Adrienne Rich to Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov—have turned increasingly to writing that is revolutionary, that does show process rather than mask it. Writers today share with their readers their own experiences, convictions, attitudes, uncertainties; the act of reading Creeley's A Day Book is the act of coming to know Creeley. The same kind of statement could easily be made about Century's Ebb. (p. 172)
The emphasis on stating a moral position, on sharing sentiment, that had been seen in the 1950s as a weakness in Dos Passos' work may have been evidence of his struggling to become more in tune with contemporary thinking. His "contemporary chronicles" really did stay contemporary, not only in themes but also in method. The present demand for a feeling of intimacy in our relationship with a writer, the urge to understand not only the written book but the person responsible for it: Dos Passos was responding to those needs of readers as he wrote some of the District of Columbia material and Chosen Country, Most Likely to Succeed, and The Great Days. The technical problems with these books were chiefly those of a transitional mode of writing, not unlike Hemingway's problems in writing To Have and Have Not. Dos Passos knew he wanted different effects, but his methods in U.S.A. and Manhattan Transfer had been so conspicuous, so many readers had discussed style in commenting on those books, that he naturally decided that to change effect, he should change method. The most obvious tactic seemed to be simplification, in both plot and texture. But Dos Passos' simplification (for all his variety within it) was disappointing. Just as he could never satisfactorily write short stories, so Dos Passos was not at his best working a single story line handled "straight." As a child of the ironic patterns of modern life, Dos Passos wrote best when he could manipulate those countless, unexpected strands of life into some ironic pattern of his own devising.
And so the excellence of the last two novels, Midcentury and Century's Ebb. Themes had not changed since the District of Columbia trilogy, but Dos Passos' use of a montage of techniques was never surer…. In addition, in the last novels, through the less disguised use of autobiographical elements, readers feel involved with Dos Passos as person. They are surrounded by the tapestry of the time, a tapestry dominated not only by the larger-than-life saints he had described earlier, but by the equally larger-than-life authorial consciousness. The effect was that writing was taken out of some remote province of "literature" and into the reader's life. Compelling in its intimacy, Dos Passos' late work conveys a sense of the writer that is absent in the early fiction: we are conscious of his intensity, his earnestness, his search—first for America (in the period up to and including U.S.A.), then for hero, and ultimately his search for himself. (pp. 172-74)
Because few American writers have remained more consistently optimistic, productive, inventive, and curious than Dos Passos, his closing image in Century's Ebb seems more than an accidental choice. For Dos Passos, the landing on the moon was more than a technological feat: it was also some kind of mystical full circle from his earliest romantic dream…. In 1917, when he had first worked with that image, no one was predicting a moon landing fifty years later; yet somehow, and from America, the space voyage was launched. Dos Passos' openness to the future, to promise, to the life of the imagination remained his hallmark, and one finds even in his comparatively dour late years, a continuous curiosity. (p. 175)
The essential elements of Dos Passos' art were present early—audacity, subject matter, and an impressionistic craft that defied age. There was also, most importantly, a questioning and rich imagination that understood not only human beings but the patterns of forces with which they had to contend. If some of Dos Passos' last writing is flawed by an overinsistence on opinions readers might not share, we can lament both that overemphasis and those opinions, but, as Joseph Epstein concludes, "It is still possible to recognize a good man behind them." The praise may not, in some final analysis, be so faint as it first seems.
The closing section of Century's Ebb, then, is clearly affirmative. Focusing on the journey to the moon is, for Dos Passos, external image, social image, fact-made-personal—a fusion of accessible information and private sensibility, giving any reader insights into the fiction and maintaining as well the continuum of personal meaning that connects all his writing. A half century of work focused on the search for country, hero, and self…. (pp. 175-76)
Linda W. Wagner, in her Dos Passos: Artist as American (copyright © 1979 by the University of Texas Press), University of Texas Press, 1979, 220 p.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1934
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 reality of the subject, does not apply to its pages. As in Manhattan Transfer Dos Passos deforms the voices of America, the bankrupt speech of anonymous men…. U.S.A. is not a recording of America. And it is not a story about America. Traditional novelistic unities of character and action are abandoned; beginnings and endings of persons and events are fortuitous. There is little progress, little growth, little development of character; there is no real concern with representation, illusion, or empathy. The trilogy is not held together by any chain of events or "storyline"; it must be apprehended spatially and not sequentially. Sequence yields to a structure characterized by the juxtaposition of disconnected and often incompatible word blocks. U.S.A. is a continent and a composition ruled by crisis and collision; it is fragmented, radically incomplete, and as amorphous and incoherent at times as its characters' lives.
The trilogy is a medley of juxtaposed and layered voices. Its meanings are generated by the thematic and structural tensions among its compositional blocks, by the complex and various juxtapositions of Camera Eyes, Newsreels, Narratives, and Biographies. Public and private lives and events constantly intersect; public and private voices collide. Dos Passos records the sound of the collisions, the noise of the public sphere and the silence of the private space during the first thirty crisis-ridden years of this century in America. But as he chronicles he resists the murderous forces of history, the triumph of the world. Neither the composition nor the country disintegrates. The performing voice of the novelist-historian, and his accomplice, the reader, survive the tale told as history and fiction of a world too much with us.
The conflict between the destructive chaos of public voices and the private voice that seeks survival in the world is manifested in the collisions of the Newsreel and the Camera Eye sections of U.S.A. The Camera Eye is the last preserve of the sensitive and embattled individual. It is the last remnant of the individual voice—the end product of Martin Howe, John Andrews, and Jimmy Herf—or perhaps the waste product. For the Camera Eye is a residual voice; it is what remains of the intense subjectivity of the early works. (pp. 398-400)
[The] fact that the Camera Eye sections of U.S.A. might compose a partially autobiographical history of Dos Passos from the turn of the century to the early thirties is irrelevant to their use and meaning in the trilogy. Matching the life and text of the author is a critical game we need not play. U.S.A. is not a roman à clef.
The Camera Eye selections in U.S.A. contain both historical and fictional materials. They are representations and not samples of a private voice, and their meaning is not autobiographical. It is the manner more than the matter of the telling that is significant. The conversational expression, the direct address of the reader, the unfamiliar allusions, and the paratactic constructions create a sincere and private presence. It gives the appearance of real or natural speech and seems autobiographical, at times even confessional. It remains, however, essentially fictive discourse—the private voice of a fictive self speaking anonymously from the interior of the text. It is a portrait of a Self more than a self-portrait. And the speaker, as in the first Camera Eye, remains the embattled individual, often the stranger, the exile, "The Man Without A Country," the unknown soldier—always the sensitive observer isolated and buried by the world. (p. 400)
The disembodied voice of the Camera Eye represents the slow dissolution of a coherent, private individual. (p. 401)
The Camera Eye chronicles the disappearance, the gradual bankruptcy of the self. It also resists that disappearance. The private voice of the Camera Eye resists subordination—both syntactically and politically. It is expansive and unpredictable; it rebels against order and form, history and society. Violence (linguistic and political) is done to syntax and organization. The world is deformed; it becomes asyntactical. The beginnings and endings that constitute normal historical and narrative order—the "conspiracy" of history we call "plot"—are resisted. And so finally are the echoes and clichés, the headlines and slogans, the word-debris that buries the individual, the noise that silences him. The private voice of the Camera Eye retreats from and resists the world; it is voice haunted by possible complicity, by the deformations of word-slinging and slogan-mongering; it enlists the reader (also complicitous in his aesthetic detachment) in the struggle to find an authentic private voice—a voice that will successfully combat the public noise. (p. 402)
The Newsreels of U.S.A. operate at several levels of meaning. Most obviously and, perhaps, least significantly, they mark time chronologically. The panoramic, historical aspect of U.S.A. is now a critical given. The Newsreels locate the historical background for the action of the trilogy; they provide its setting; they generate atmosphere; they indicate the passage of time in the world and in the text. It seems also given that the Newsreels may be linked to themes and actions in adjacent narrative, Camera Eye, and biographical passages; they date, comment on, and link the various persons and events in the trilogy. However, even if we could identify the historical source or referent for each of the Newsreel fragments, even if we could "plot" (as "conspiratorial" critics engaged in the "burial" of the text) the chronological progression of the trilogy from Newsreel I to Newsreel LXVIII, we would be no closer to explaining the power of U.S.A., no closer to articulating the significance of the Newsreels. The trilogy must be understood dynamically. Its power and meanings come ultimately from vertical, atemporal, simultaneous events, and not from horizontal, biographical, successive actions. They are not generated by the historical exactness but by the random collisions of voices. The voices in the Newsreels collide with one another and with the rest of the text. These collisions generate grotesque ironies. It is not uncommon in a Newsreel to find juxtaposed celebrations and horrors of America, the dream and the nightmare. Dos Passos resists as he records the noise of history. Random collisions set off random explosions; the novelist is historian and saboteur.
The Newsreels chronicle the voices of the public sphere; they are the most banal, most impersonal, most mechanical registration of persons and events in the trilogy; they are the "nightmare of history," uncolored and uncontrolled by the private voice of the Camera Eye. (p. 403)
In the Camera Eye passage of U.S.A., there is a refusal to abdicate personal control; the embattled individual stands at the center of the world, almost to the exclusion of it; there is an intense—though never transcendent or religious—residual individualism. In the Newsreels, however, the persons exists nearer the periphery of the world. And the subject, the ever-present "I" and "you" of the Camera Eye, recedes. The public voices of the Newsreels are speakerless. They are voices over which men have no control. Individuals are not subordinated—they simply cease to exist…. The world of the Newsreels is a lawless, violent world out of control, a world of personalities or celebrities and not characters, personalities whose lives are only as complete as the information available in the headlines. The speakerless world of the Newsreels is a constantly eroding world, a world without human responsibility or moral content. The dispassionate, technological voices of the Newsreels speak constant destruction and violence; they register the nightmare that is history. And in that nightmare the human scale is reduced; things become the locus and power of values. The individual is "heaped" by the world, slowly buried by its objects and its debris. (pp. 405-06)
In the narrative and biographical passages of U.S.A. the residual voice of the Camera Eye and the speakerless voice of the Newsreel give way to a voice of the "middle-distance," the performing voice of the chronicler-novelist. The performer and his complicitous audience, the reader, remove themselves from and resist the world by deforming it. Irony becomes the rhetorical strategy most useful in that deformation. It records as it deforms the public voice; it locates the disparity between word and thing; it demands the mutual participation and understanding of writer and reader; and it provides their necessary expiation. (p. 407)
In the biographical passages of U.S.A. Dos Passos records the lives and voices of the public space. He chronicles the destruction of America's last heroes—embattled individuals who attempt to hollow out the expanding and consuming public space and preserve an authentic, private voice. And he chronicles and deforms the lives and voices of the survivors, the pseudo-heroes, the word-slingers who contribute to and sustain the public noise—the noise that kills. (pp. 407-08)
The lives and voices of the public space, of the Newsreels and Biographies, penetrate the trilogy. They invade and determine the world and the text in which the narrative characters act and speak. Historical and fictional lives collide…. The world and the text interpenetrate; history and fiction blur. Fictional lives, the habitual voices of average Americans, echo the recognizable historical gestures and voices of the public space. In the narrative passages of U.S.A. Dos Passos chronicles the echoing voices and actions of hollow men. Characters are voiceless and nearly invisible…. They have no depth; their outlines are often broken; and there is no difference between the space of their interior and exterior lives. (pp. 409-10)
U.S.A. is ultimately an "economic novel of the self." That is not to say that it is simply a commentary or record of the American economy. It is a chronicle of inflated and officious sentiments (public voices), of counterfeit verbal transactions (echoes), of the loss of personal value (private space) in pursuit of the Big Money. U.S.A. is the record of the bankruptcy of the self. (p. 411)
Dos Passos refuses to relinquish his voice to the public space. He resists the invasions of history that determine and reduce lives, the public nightmares, the Newsreels. He resists voices that have become public, that demand conformity, that rest in cliché. He refuses to be silenced by the public voice, yet he does not retreat into solipsism. Silence and exile are not viable alternatives. There is only cunning. U.S.A. is a chronicle of word-debris, of language betrayals, of treasonous voices. It is also, however, a subversive performance. Its meanings lie neither in documentation (Newsreels), nor in conviction (Camera Eyes). They lie somewhere in between, in that frontier between history and fiction, in the ironic, performing voice of he author in concert with the reader, in their cunning resistance to the public voice, in our controlled deformation of the text and the world. (p. 415)
Charles Marz, "'U.S.A.': Chronicle and Performance," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1980 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907, U.S.A.), Vol. 26, No. 3, Autumn, 1980, pp. 398-416.