John Dos Passos: Modernist Recorder of the American Scene



John Dos Passos, born in 1896, was one of a remarkable group of Americans who came of literary age during the decade after World War I. The group included Scott Fitzgerald, born the same year, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, e.e. cummings, Malcolm Cowley, and Edmund Wilson, all of whom had close contact with Dos Passos at one time or another during his life, which ended in 1970.

One hundred years after his birth, Dos Passos is an anomaly: his fictions of the 1920's and 1930's, Three Soldiers (1921), Manhattan Transfer (1925), and the trilogy U.S.A. (1930—1936, 1937) are acknowledged to be important works in American literary history. He is regularly anthologized; but rarely is he eulogized, a far cry from his situation in 1936, when he was featured on the cover of the August 10th issue of Time magazine to mark the publication of The Big Money, the third volume of U.S.A. Two years later Jean-Paul Sartre acclaimed him "the greatest living writer of our time." By then, however, his literary reputation had already begun to decline because of the fierce political struggles which marked the 1930's. Dos Passos—always swimming in political currents whether along the left or the right bank—had in 1937 moved more publicly than before away from the far left after discovering that his close friend Jose Robles had been secretly executed in Spain, where he had returned to fight against Franco's rebels after leaving his teaching position at Johns Hopkins University. Dos Passos was lied to by leaders of the Republican government, and from what he learned he soon became convinced that Communists had been the instigators of Robles's death. One result of this episode was a bitter split with his close friend Hemingway. By 1939, with the publication of his partly autobiographical novel The Adventures of a Young Man, he was anathema to the likes of the Neiv Masses, where its reviewer, Samuel Sillen, wrote that the book was "almost inconceivably rotten," "a crude piece of Trotskyist agit-prop" that suffered from "sloppy writing, hollow characters, machine-made dialogue, [and] editorial rubber stamps." Malcolm Cowley, sympathetic with the Communists, criticized Dos Passos as severely as had Sillen, although with less vitriol. He blamed disillusionment for the flatness of the work and thought Dos Passos might become utterly cynical.

Dos Passos, principled, but in the eyes of his former friend Hemingway, foolish for writing against the liberal grain of the critics, continued his journey right, turning out historical portraits that lauded—simplistically, many historians would argue—America's Founding Fathers; blueprints for a Jeffersonian system of government, which meant in modern terms a conservative, agrarian program; and occasional fictions—"contemporary chronicles," he termed them, that viewed the nation through conservative lenses. By 1964 he was an ardent Goldwater Republican and behaved, a dismayed Edmund Wilson wrote him, like a kid in front of the Beatles. In 1970 he praised Richard Nixon's incursion into Cambodia as "the first rational military step taken in the whole [Vietnam] war"; but by then he was merely a sad footnote to the past in the eyes of the New Left, who received his scorn for their "rank criminal idiocy" and for "allowing] themselves to be led by their elders into this hysteria about Cambodia." He died on Sept. 28, 1970, a writer more honored abroad than in his own country, except in the opinions of William Buckley's National Review and others from that end of the political spectrum.

Yet no one loved the United States more than he. Because of a largely European upbringing until the age of 11, he had seen himself as "a man without a country" during his youth and early adulthood. Even in the first half of the 1930's, writing in an autobiographical Camera Eye toward the end of U.S.A., he characterized himself as "an unidentified stranger/ destination unknown/ hat pulled down over the has he any? face." The Spanish debacle of 1937 led him toward his true home, his Chosen Country as he called the United States in his 1951 novel by that name.

Today Dos Passes is at the least an intriguing figure: the author of the first significant anti-war novel to emerge from World War I, Three Soldiers, as well as of high modernist fiction, Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A., and of American political writing at its most vibrant, U.S.A. He is an intriguing figure also because to the end of his days, long after the years of his best writing, he was intensely involved with the United States, a kind of wide-eyed observer peering in at the society, and from the perspective of 1996, he stands far closer to the center of the nation's cultural and political currents than he did in the 1960's and 1970's. Unlike others among his American literary and artistic contemporaries who during their expatriate days were for the most part only superficially assimilating European culture, Dos Passos was steeped in it. It played on his mind constantly and influenced his literary response to modern American culture. As he traveled and lived abroad for substantial lengths of time, he grasped at America because he hoped to find a sense of place—a sense of self, eventually—which Europe never could provide him. Numerous writers of the 1920's looked back at America from Europe and wrote more eloquently about it than if they had never left their native land. Dos Passos's experience was somewhat different: his early years abroad made him an outsider to the United States, and he spent his adult life trying to explain his native land. America, that is, was his response to Europe, An illegitimate child born in Chicago in 1896, he lived in Brussels and then London for the most part until entering Choate Preparatory School in Wallingford, Connecticut, in 1907. By the spring of 1911 he had enough credits to graduate but was only 15, so with a "tutor" he spent much of the next academic year traveling throughout Europe and the Near East, then enrolled at Harvard in September 1912. Such experiences enabled him to feel at ease with European culture, but he still needed intellectual maturity. Harvard provided some of that. Dos Passos was a voracious reader, devouring almost everything he could get his hands on, and he wrote constantly.

Although during his years at Harvard he read among the European greats, read such new work as that by imagist poets, and saw the Russian Ballet and the Armory Show—the 1913 art exhibition that was mostly avant garde and mostly European—his writing during his senior year was hardly on any cutting edge. His poetry drew heavily on very usual imagery. One poem printed in the May 1916 Harvard Monthly begins, "Incessantly the long rain falls, / Slanting on black walls/ Which glisten where a street lamp shines." His prose is of the same sort—clean, but genteel and derivative. He sought a vision and a voice of his own; but he did not yet have experience enough to find them. His ideas, like his style, were borrowed, a bit from the aesthetes of the 1890's, a touch from Henry James, George Santayana, Van Wyck Brooks, and so forth. Hence, he wrote in the spirit of Brooks's 1915 harangue America's Coming-of-Age, where the author attacked the nation for being "a vast Sargasso Sea—a prodigious welter of unconscious life, swept by ground-swells of half-conscious emotion," an unhappy condition that was the result of Americans not comprehending how much they were in the grip of industrialism.

"Has not the world today somehow got itself enslaved by this immense machine, the Industrial system?" Dos Passos asked plaintively in a piece that appeared in the June 1916 issue of the Harvard Monthly. His answer, of course, was "yes." And he continued his derivative criticism in the first piece for which he was paid, "Against American Literature," which appeared in the Oct. 24, 1916 issue of the New Republic. Like the young James commenting on Nathaniel Hawthorne, and like Brooks more recently, Dos Passos bemoaned the lack of depth and variety in American literature—in all its culture, for that matter. The whole thing was "wholesome rice-pudding fare. . ., a rootless product" that had little or none of what the literature and art of other countries had: "the earth-feeling, the jewelled accretions of the imagination of succeeding ages, so rich in old English writing," for instance. "We find ourselves floundering without rudder or compass, in the sea of modern life, vaguely lit by the phosphorescent gleam of our traditional optimism," he declared, drawing almost directly, it seems, out of Brooks's chapter on "The Sargasso Sea."

Dos Passes was primed to return to Europe after graduating from Harvard in June 1916. He wanted to join the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service, but his father told him he could not until he was 21, so the younger Dos Passes traveled to Spain in October to study architecture. There he caught glimpses of the mounting horrors of World War I, but by and large Spain was sheltered from these, and his chief acquisition from his months in Madrid and traveling the countryside was an acute appreciation for the mellowness of Spanish life and the satiric spirit of Spain's writers and artists. Nothing affected him more than Don Quixote, whose scope and spirit certainly influenced what he later sought in U.S.A. On board a train to Cartagena in January 1917 he wrote his friend Rumsey Marvin that he was in the land of Don Quixote. Marvin should "abandon all else," and if he had not already read Cervantes's work, "read it." Dos Passes was admiring the countryside as he wrote, and to add to his pleasure he was reading "a volume of old Spanish romances of the Cid." He drew a sketch of the land and concluded, "Oh, it's so wonderful and strange, the very place for the mad ardors, and pathetic beauty of the Knight of the Doleful Countenance—the red and the blue & the grey—and the windmills perched like rabbits on all the hills and the gnarled olive trees climbing up the slopes." He was just beginning Don Quixote again, he said, this time in Spanish, "for about the 'n'th time," and it was "more joyful than ever." The horrors of war that he had gotten some sense of when passing through France the previous fall made more poignant the history and stark beauty of Spain. "I am mad about Spain," he wrote his friend Dudley Poore as he was about to return to Madrid, "the wonderful mellowness of life, the dignity, the layered ages." His romanticizing ended abruptly when on January 30th he received the news that his father had died in New York City of pneumonia. Stunned, he felt completely alone. As soon as he could he returned to the United States, ending his first exposure to Spain, one of the most affecting episodes in his life.

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