A blog on the life and work of John Dos Passos (1896-1970)
Two issues of The New Republic in 1941 included tributes and essays on F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had died of a heart attack at the age of 44 on December 21, 1940. The issue dated December 17, 1941 included one essay by Dos Passos entitled “Fitzgerald and the Press”. This material was later used in Dos Passos’ slightly longer essay “A Note on Fitzgerald” in the Edmund Wilson compilation The Crack-Up (1945). Here, Dos Passos is possibly one of the earliest writers to identify what, at least in part, gives The Great Gatsby its enduring qualities:
It seems hardly necessary to point out that a well written book is a well written book whether it’s written under Louis XIII or Joe Stalin or on the wall of a tomb of an Egyptian Pharaoh. It’s the quality of detaching itself from its period while embodying its period that marks a piece of work as good. I would have no quarrel with any critic who examined Scott Fitzgerald’s work and declared that in his opinion it did not detach itself from its period. My answer would be that my opinion was different. The strange thing about the articles that came out about Fitzgerald’s death was that the writers seemed to feel that they didn’t need to read his books; all they needed for a license to shovel them into the ashcan was to label them as having been written in such and such a period now past. This leads us to the inescapable conclusion that these gentlemen had no other standards than the styles of window-dressing on Fifth Avenue. It means that when they wrote about literature all they were thinking of was the present rating of a book on the exchange, a matter which has almost nothing to do with its eventual value. For a man who was making his living as a critic to write about Scott Fitzgerald without mentioning The Great Gatsby just meant that he didn’t know his business. To write about the life of a man as important to American letters as the author of The Great Gatsby in terms of last summer’s styles in ladies’ hats, showed an incomprehension of what it was all about, that, to anyone who cared for the art of writing, was absolutely appalling. Fortunately there was enough of his last novel already written to still these silly yappings. The celebrity was dead. The novelist remained.
It is tragic that Scott Fitzgerald did not live to finish The Last Tycoon. Even as it stands I have an idea that it will turn out to be one of those literary fragments that from time to time appear in the stream of a culture and profoundly influence the course of future events. His unique achievement, in these beginnings of a great novel, is that here for the first time he has managed to establish that unshakable moral attitude towards the world we live in and towards its temporary standards that is the basic essential of any powerful work of the imagination. A firmly anchored ethical standard is something that American writing has been struggling towards for half a century.
On October 21, 1929, at an elaborate event organized by Henry Ford named “Light’s Golden Jubilee,” the 82 year-old inventor Thomas Alva Edison re-enacted at Dearborn, Michigan his invention of the working incandescent lamp fifty years previously.
In an issue of The New Republic in December of that year, Dos Passos reviewed biographies of Edison and Charles Proteus Steinmetz, and a memoir of “Forty Years with General Electric.” He was scathing about the Dearborn event, which he described as a “charade”, and about the books (“You have to read these books to believe how muddle-headed, ill-written and flatly meaningless they can be”). Far more interesting to Dos Passos was the relationship between the lives and minds of the inventors and their deeper, long-term impact on human society, which he felt to be completely ignored by the authors of the books, by the celebrity subjects themselves and, despite superficial appearances, by those (including President Hoover) who came to Dearborn to pay homage to them.
Dos Passos’ review demonstrates how at the heart of his concerns were not only the impact of the industrial age and its technologies on actual lives, but also the generalized obliviousness of participants and audience alike to the implications of their activities:
“Thomas Edison…is one of the two or three individuals most responsible for the sort of world we live in today. It would be more exact to say that thousands of men of the Ford and the Edison type are its builders. […]
When you think Edison was partially or exclusively connected with putting on the market the stock ticker, the phonograph, the moving picture camera, the loud-speaker and microphone that make radio possible, electric locomotives, vacuum electric lamps, storage batteries, multiple transmission over the telegraph, cement burners, it becomes obvious that there is no aspect of our life not influenced by his work and by the work of men like him. Reading his life, you feel that he never for a moment allowed himself to envisage the importance of the changes in the organization of human life that his inventions were to bring about. And he would have resented it if anyone had suggested to him that his work would destroy homes, wreck morals, and help end the individual toiler’s world he was brought up in.”
Here we have one of the recurring themes of Dos Passos work – the destruction of the original self wrought by the labor and efforts of those who strive and achieve in their field or occupation. This same self-destruction is found in the early deaths of the “celebrities” Rudolph Valentino and Isadora Duncan, the two stars who figure among the biographies in U.S.A. in addition to, of course, Edison (“The Electrical Wizard”) and Steinmetz (“Proteus”), a pair who, in the words of Christensen (1982), are “complicit in their own exploitation.” In other words, whether or not they are aware of what is happening to them (and Dos Passos implies they either are not, or are not willing, to be so aware), their drive to discovery or achievement leads them to destroy the very world from which they originate.
Dos Passos continues:
“Henry Ford, less the mechanic and more the organizer, seems equally unconcerned with the results of his work in human terms. The newspaper accounts of the goings-on at Dearborn at the jubilee of the incandescent lamp, the press statements and the kittenish skipping-about in the limelight of all involved, make that appallingly clear. These men are like the sorcerer’s apprentice who loosed the goblins and the wonder-working broomsticks in his master’s shop and then forgot what the formula was to control them by.”
He then adds, apologetically-ironically, “I don’t mean to minimize their achievements, which are among the greatest in history.”
Dos Passos greatly prefers Steinmetz, the underdog and corporate pet who is something of an anomaly to his employers, General Electric, to those like Edison, Ford and Firestone who have “cashed in gigantically on the machine” and “have achieved a power and a success undreamed of by Tamerlane or Caesar.”
This is a signature Dos Passos moment, the conflation of power, money and success, alongside a lament for a collective failure to appreciate those, like the more humble Steinmetz, who do not cash in, but are concerned about “the problem of the readjustment of human values necessary to fit” the inventors’ world – which is the modern industrial world of the machine age.
“America has cashed in gigantically on the machine, has attained in these fifty years since the day when Edison…finally settled on the paper carbon filament for the electric light bulb, a degree of wealth and prosperity absolutely new in history. Steinmetz was not of the temperament to cash in on anything.”
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.”
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
Dos Passos could still, in the late 1940s when he wrote The Grand Design, offer up satire of the most bitter kind to express his anger at the abuses which rulers indulge in in times of war. Here he protests, amongst other things, the way FDR’s Executive Order 9066 was used for the purposes of internment of Japanese-American civilians in 1942. This is his most succinct statement of how America had still not learned “how to put power over the lives of men into the hands of one man and to make him use it wisely.”
“At home we organized bloodbanks and civilian defense and imitated the rest of the world by setting up concentration camps (only we called them relocation centers) and stuffing into them American citizens of Japanese ancestry (Pearl Harbor the date that will live in infamy) without benefit of habeas corpus. . . .
The President of the United States talked the sincere democrat and so did the members of Congress. In the Administration there were devout believers in civil liberty. “Now we’re busy fighting a war; we’ll deploy all four freedoms later on,” they said. . . .
War is a time of Caesars. The President of the United States was a man of great personal courage and supreme confidence in his powers of persuasion. He never spared himself a moment, flew to Brazil and Casablanca, Cairo to negotiate at the level of the leaders; at Teheran the triumvirate without asking anybody’s leave got to meddling with history; without consulting their constituents, revamped geography, divided up the bloody globe and left the freedoms out.
And the American People were supposed to say thank you for the century of the Common Man turned over for relocation behind barbed wire so help him God.
We learned. There were things we learned to do but we have not learned, in spite of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the great debates at Richmond and Philadelphia, how to put power over the lives of men into the hands of one man and to make him use it wisely.
~John Dos Passos, The Grand Design (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 416–18.
“From the mouth of the Ambulance, and from the jaws of Hell (i.e. War…) I cry to you one word apropos of God and man and all things on the teeming earth. Don’t believe the New York Times. […] I vow before Jehovah that half the ills of the country are caused by the fact that all educated and intelligent Americans believe the New York Times as if it were Direct Revelation – or tablets found on a mountain by a reputable Brigham Young.”
~John Dos Passos, from a letter to Rumsey Marvin, June 1917 (Travel Books and Other Writings 1916-1941, page 661)
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)
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).
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
In the life and death of George Eastman there are echoes of two of Dos Passos’ recurring concerns: death and money.
“Death at the end of the road” comes to all, including the writer, aware of his own mortality. But the end of the road also evokes the dramatic death of the fictional character Charley Anderson on a grade crossing at the end of The Big Money and, more significantly perhaps, the tragic death – on the road – of a real-life person close to the author: his first wife, Katie Smith, who was killed in the 1947 car crash in which Dos Passos himself, who was driving, lost the sight of one eye. This autobiographical episode is fictionalized in the Jay Pignatelli narrative in Part 2 of Century’s Ebb.
The eccentric behavior and temperament of millionaires evokes themes from Nineteen Nineteen, which contains the biting portrait of the financier J. P. Morgan, and The Big Money, which shows how a great fortune could be made and lost, and how the temperament and actions of one man (Charley Anderson) could lead, with an almost fatalistic inevitability, to his own destruction.
Significant in all these episodes is the role of the automobile: apart from Katie (the real-life model for Lulie in Chosen Country and Century’s Ebb), both the fictional character Charley Anderson and the real-life Isadora Duncan, another mini-bio subject in The Big Money, meet their end in cars – which are here double-edged: they embody the potential for exhilaration and excitement and speed, yet at the same time symbolize the killing power of the devices of the industrial and machine age.
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.”
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.