Century's Ebb

A blog on the life and work of John Dos Passos (1896-1970)

A Writer “Insatiably Interested” in Life

From the Publishers’ Foreword to Century’s Ebb (July 1975):

In the fifties it had occurred to Dos Passos that the word “novels” did not describe adequately that extraordinary series of books for which he is best known. […] He chose the phrase Contemporary Chronicles to govern them all. [….]

Although his life may appear long and relatively quiet in retrospect, perhaps more than any other major American writer of his generation except Hemingway he felt impelled to put his body where his pen was, to write of events in which he participated or saw at first hand. He was a man of action without the appearance of it. In the First World War he joined the Norton-Harjes ambulance unit, serving at Verdun and later in Italy. He came to Boston to protest the conviction and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti and was in Harlan County during the coal mine troubles. He reported the Spanish Civil War and, in the Second World War, went to the Pacific to write for Life magazine. He loved the places where he lived, particularly Virginia and Cape Cod, but he never could stay long; he was a compulsive, adventurous traveler.

Yet he never forgot his friends. They were everywhere, from all stages of his life. All of them have spoken of his sometimes awkward eagerness, his gentleness, constancy and enthusiasm, no matter what literary and political labels were being attached to him. He was not self-regarding any more than he was theoretical or dogmatic. He was not a good hater, except in the abstract. He kept his friends by going to see them and writing them letters.

It is this quality, combined with his power as a writer, that has given the Chronicles their sense of immediacy. Dos Passos was insatiably interested. Matters animal, vegetable, mineral and the latest scientific data – he wanted them all and used them continuously. For a writer and man of action, writing is the supreme action. Thus the Chronicles are a continuous engagement with time, as decade by decade it rolled by Dos Passos’ camera eye and his recording ear. Each book is of its period, but each is colored by a unifying sympathy for those who suffer misfortune in a world that has inflicted misery in the name of progress.

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