Century's Ebb

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

Images of the Fleeting World

Dos Passos’ fiction is often tinged with nostalgic melancholy. Century’s Ebb is perhaps doubly so, in that it was written at the end of his life and, in his own words, was a “last, forlorn chronicle of despair.” Part 4, which is entitled “The Image,” begins with a description of a family motoring vacation, in a sentence typical of Dos Passos’ evocative style, spanning four paragraphs and using his habitual typographical eccentricity to create a prose poem of vision and motion:

Weary of the motor’s purr, speed buzzing in the ears, the traffic’s challenge, the slither on asphalt of rubber, the landscape’s green flicker unrolling along roadsides, the slide past of billboards, the trees pirouetting, the glimpses of revolving rivers, lakes, hills, never quite thoroughly pictured because your eye’s on the highway;

by the time the sun – August is the touring month, the family month – the dogday sun sultry in decline, that glares so hot off brightwork and sheening paint, is three-quarters down the sky,

the vacationers are ready to turn in

to the nearest motel;….

Dos Passos describes the arrival at the motel (“a latterday pueblo, a pueblo for transients, built instead of adobe of stuccoed cinderblock and glass”), and says of the many people present, “We are all hung with cameras.” The thoughtful Dad and Mom “put fresh rolls in their cameras.” They have had “a wonderful day but the pleasure’s too soon gone.” Meditating on the photographs of their kids they have taken that day, they reflect on how “the hours go fast. None of us will ever be quite this way again.”

Then we have Dos Passos at his most melancholy-nostalgic, characteristically evoking the senses of sight, sound, taste and smell, before reflecting on human mortality:

“Images of the fleeting world.

The sunny moment’s fled, the pictures of a wonderful day have faded from the retina, the loved voice no longer sounds in the ear. Who can recapture the fragrance of swamp magnolia? Tomorrow’s here before we had a chance to taste today, and death waits to rub it all out at the end of the road.

The snapshot stays. Click. The camera will peel a casual thin scrim of immortality off the fading scene. That’s why we spend so much on film.

And that’s why

Mr. George Eastman who slung all these cameras round everybody’s neck and used to live in an old big stone house among marvellous flowergardens in the handsomest broad elmshaded street of Rochester, New York,

made such an incredible amount of money.”

Dos Passos’ mini-biography of George Eastman is in here because Eastman was the inventor and entrepreneur who made the mass market in photography possible. But, in an irony which it is characteristic of Dos Passos to note, Eastman himself did not like to be photographed:

“George Eastman remained a lonely unapproachable man. Publicity he dreaded. Whenever possible, he made his donations anonymous. He never talked to reporters. The master of mass photography hardly ever let his own photograph be taken. In the great age of public millionaires he was the least known of them all.”

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