Century's Ebb

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

The Sense of Place

In all his work, whether it was a miniature biography or reportage for Life, Dos Passos displayed an interest in where people came from, in their sense of place and belonging, and in how their origins shaped their lives. Perhaps this reflected the uncertainties he had faced in his own early life, his own sense of displacement, the fact that, as he said in Camera Eye 18 of The 42nd Parallel,  he ‘wished he was home but hadn’t any home.’ No piece of his writing is more magical in this respect than his tribute to localism in “The Baker of Almorox,” a small village he visited on his first, defining trip to Spain in 1916:

“As [the baker] talked in his slow deferential way, a little conscious of his volubility before strangers, there began to grow in my mind a picture of his view of the world.

First came his family, the wife whose body lay beside his at night, who bore him children, the old withered parents who sat in the sun at his door, his memories of them when they had had strong rounded limbs like his, and of their parents sitting old and withered in the sun. Then his work, the heat of his ovens, the smell of bread cooking, the faces of neighbors who came to buy; and, outside, in the dim penumbra of things half real, of travellers’ tales, lay Madrid, where the king lived and where politicians wrote in the newspapers,—and Francia—and all that was not Almorox…. In him I seemed to see the generations wax and wane, like the years, strung on the thread of labor, of unending sweat and strain of muscles against the earth. It was all so mellow, so strangely aloof from the modern world of feverish change, this life of the peasants of Almorox. Everywhere roots striking into the infinite past. For before the Revolution, before the Moors, before the Romans, before the dark furtive traders, the Phœnicians, they were much the same, these Iberian village communities. Far away things changed, cities were founded, hard roads built, armies marched and fought and passed away; but in Almorox the foundations of life remained unchanged up to the present. New names and new languages had come. The Virgin had taken over the festivals and rituals of the old earth goddesses, and the deep mystical fervor of devotion. But always remained the love for the place, the strong anarchistic reliance on the individual man, the walking, consciously or not, of the way beaten by generations of men who had tilled and loved and lain in the cherishing sun with no feeling of a reality outside of themselves, outside of the bare encompassing hills of their commune, except the God which was the synthesis of their souls and of their lives.”

~John Dos Passos, excerpt from ‘The Baker of Almorox,’ Chapter 3 of Rosinante to the Road Again (1922)

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