Century's Ebb

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

Dos Passos and Walt Whitman

By the time he came to write Century’s Ebb, John Dos Passos was ready to acknowledge to a far greater extent than ever before, and in a prominent way, his lifelong debt to and enthusiasm for Walt Whitman. But he was also wanting to enlist Whitman to his side in his grumpy old man’s complaint against what he saw as the spoilt youth of his day. Century’s Ebb contains not only direct quotes from Whitman (particularly from Democractic Vistas), but also features a miniature biography and indeed, right at the beginning of the book, an opening poem in the form of questions posed to Whitman:

You, Walt Whitman

who rose out of fish-shape Paumanok

to go crying, like the spotted hawk,

your barbaric yawp over the roofs,

to utter “the password primeval,”

and strike up for a new world;

what would you say, Walt, here, now, today,

of these States that you loved,

Walt Whitman, what would you say?

The biography concludes with these words:

Is your “fervid and tremendous Idea

lost in “solid things”… “science, ships, politics, cities, factories,” in these years of “unprecedented material advancement”?

Are we indeed men worthy of the name, Walt Whitman, in these “years of the modern, years of the unperformed”?

Dos Passos is no doubt a little petulant here, wanting to have confirmed his own feelings of despair at the way modern, 1960s America has turned out (he had let friends know that he felt young people in the sixties did not know how easy they had things compared with his own lot in 1917).  This was still a Dos Passos looking for answers, however, rather than providing them. I believe that his petulance was not born of animosity, but rather of fear and impatience that people might not perceive the extent to which the power of modernity would overwhelm his old-time America – an America based, perhaps, on Whitmanesque principles, but certainly on Jeffersonian ones.

Lois Hughson (1973) and Robert P. Weeks (1980) both made significant points about Dos Passos’ debt to Whitman, identifying the personal and the political elements in it. Weeks pointed out that Dos Passos’ debt to Whitman was “one of the largest and most openly acknowledged in [American] literary history” (Weeks 1980: 431).  Dos Passos repeatedly drew on Walt Whitman, quoting him, borrowing his ideas, imitating him and saluting him most famously in Camera Eye 46 in The Big Money, in the parenthesis “I too Walt Whitman,” with which Dos Passos achieved a three-fold evocation of the poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, number 86 in Leaves of Grass:

– First Dos Passos suggests that he, like Whitman, is both a searcher and a questioner – “I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me.”

– Secondly, he acknowledges,  at the same time as he recalls the final chapter of Nineteen Nineteen, “The Body of An American,” that he too “had receiv’d identity by my Body;  That I was, I knew was of my body—and what I should be, I knew I should be of my body.”

– Thirdly, he holds out the hope of a better future through the more fruitful use of the American past, evoking Whitman’s call across the generations (“I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;  I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.”) and embedding the parenthesis (I too Walt Whitman) in the slightly ironical, hopeful yet perhaps nostalgically unhopeful, rhetorical question, “what leverage might pry the owners loose from power and […] bring back our storybook democracy?”

As Hughson notes, “Dos  Passos’ ideas about political action and the exercise of power have an important source, not in an historian or political theorist or even in another novelist, but in a poet, Walt Whitman” (Hughson 1973: 179).

References:

Hughson, Lois. “In Search of the True America: Dos Passos’ Debt to Whitman in U.S.A.” Modern Fiction Studies 19.2 (Summer 1973): 179-192

Weeks, Robert P. “The Novel as Poem: Whitman’s Legacy to Dos Passos” Modern Fiction Studies 26.3 (Autumn 1980): 431-446

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