Century's Ebb

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

Two Biographies of John Dos Passos

Reviewing Townsend Ludington’s John Dos Passos: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1981, Donald Pizer wrote that while it affords many fresh insights into Dos Passos’ experience and character, the critical comment on his actual works is comparatively tame, not straying far from earlier conventional views. In broad terms the same defect can be attributed to Virginia Carr’s 1984 biography, Dos Passos: A Life, so that in the final analysis we have two biographies which are excellent on their own terms, but nonetheless somewhat underwhelming about Dos Passos’ literary output itself.

In an interesting comparative review of the two biographies, John L. Murphy agrees with Pizer:

“Neither biographer gives much notice to the actual works. Ludington’s masterful comparison of the real event that DP reported on vs. its transformation as the “Body of an American” section in USA that covered the selection of one of four bodies for the WWI representative of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier remains an anomaly. He tends to cite a few reviews of each work after a brief paragraph or two summarizing each DP book as it was issued. Carr adds more context and often quotes a far greater range of positive and negative reviews for each work, but she rarely offers her own judgment of the work at hand.”

The rest of the review (which I strongly recommend) can be found at the link below.

~John L. Murphy, “Two biographies of John Dos Passos compared,” May 25, 2008

In 1985, John Chamberlain also compared these two biographies, in the Fall issue of The Intercollegiate Review, and concluded with these words:

“An earlier Dos Passos study, Melvin Landsberg’s Dos Passos’ Path to U.S.A. [Colorado Univeristy Press, 1972] spoke eloquently of Dos’ “provocative moral vision,” which portrays “the evil of abusing men for private or political ends.”  This moral vision infuses both the Carr and Ludington works. The books are very much worth reading by a generation that is in danger of forgetting that Dos Passos is just as much a part of modern American literature as Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, who get superior billing in the schools.”

Other reviews:

Barbara Foley on Townsend Ludington, in The International Fiction Review 8.2 (1981)

Kenneth S. Lynn on Virginia Carr, “His Torments shaped his Politics,” The New York Times, September 23, 1984

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2 responses to “Two Biographies of John Dos Passos

  1. Fionnchú April 14, 2011 at 22:10

    Richard, thanks for the credit; I enjoyed the chance to read both Carr and Ludington back-to-back, as the subtleties of their approaches as well as the many natural similarities both emerged more vividly. So glad to find a blog that’s centered on Dos Passos; I looked years ago in vain for such. I still found both bios rather workaday when paying attention to the actual novels as opposed to the endless political and political debates, but for those who wish to scrutinize DP’s evolution, they remain invaluable. I hope that “Century’s Ebb contributes to further DP study and revival.

    Also, to redress the often common assumption among I assume leftist-leaning literary critics who comprise the mainstream, both biographers take pains to show the consistency of his warnings about totalitarian and top-down models of thought and coercion, which after his Spanish Civil War experience and his witnessing of the fate of José Robles solidified, given already the harangues he’d suffered at apologists for Stalin such as Hemingway. George Packer, a fine critic of such far-left posturings in later decades, reviewed Stephen Koch’s “The Breaking Point” in the New Yorker in 2005. I still haven’t read Koch’s account of this fallout, I confess. I take this blog’s emergence as a gentle reminder, duly noted, to do so soon.

  2. jay makento August 30, 2013 at 18:42

    an engaging exposition of the IWW sections of U.S.A. and what was at stake in their battle with corporate capitalism (according to Dos) appears in Frederick Feied’s ebullient ‘No Pie In the Sky’. A summary of Dos Passos’
    world view in succinct fashion. Recommended

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