A blog on the life and work of John Dos Passos (1896-1970)
Category Archives: Bio
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.
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
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.
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.
George Eastman (1854-1932), founder of the Kodak company, was the subject of one of the miniature biographies in Century’s Ebb. While the biographies in this novel are not as biting and satirical as their more famous counterparts in U.S.A., this one is revealing for Dos Passos’ choice of the quotation from Eastman’s letter to his secretary as he was returning from an African safari he had organized in 1926, after retiring as Chairman of the Board.
As so often with John Dos Passos, he is quoting sentiments which could very well be his own:
“We have traveled four thousand miles with motor car, camel and porter safaris without serious mishap or even discomfort… Whether anyone is justified in killing a lot of wild animals (mostly harmless) just for the pleasure of taking home so-called ‘trophies’ to show his friends and bragging (inferentially at least) of his prowess as a hunter, is of course a matter that is open to the opinions of the onlookers, but from whatever viewpoint it is looked at, from that of the sportsman or that of the sentimentalist, the fact remains that the adventure is now over, and this adventurer with his mind filled with memories of many new things he has seen and experienced, now at the end, as always, is turning his face eagerly homeward, to a place where there is an abundance of pure water, where the great majority of the inhabitants are not hopelessly and unspeakably filthy, where the mosquitoes are not allowed to spread disease, where the roads are smooth and the streets clean, where the four seasons follow each other in glorious sequence, where there is music, art and science, and boundless scope and unlimited opportunity for the development of all that is admirable in man, and above all where he hopes to enjoy the priceless privilege of a few more years of contact with the friends whom he has gathered about him during the course of a long, interesting and eventful life.”
Dos Passos continues:
Six years later, at his home in Rochester, when at the age of seventy-eight (sic) he decided he had lived long enough, he wrote a note in his firm regular hand before he killed himself: “To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?”
From 1927 to 1936 the fortunate combination of his childhood memories, wartime experience, youthful rebellion against authority, social and political activism, frequent traveling, and his ambition to write (as he had written to a friend in 1918) so as to leave his mark “on the great white curtains of eternity,” all came together. On his return from Mexico in March 1927, “he experienced a rare moment of illumination. It seemed to him as if he were soaking up what millions of his countrymen saw and felt, as if now he knew how to sort out and shape the raw materials of all the imaginative arts.” The Sacco and Vanzetti case provided perhaps the final, traumatic push to help him put together what is still his best-known work, the the U.S.A. trilogy, made up of the three novels The 42nd Parallel (published 1930), Nineteen Nineteen (1932), and The Big Money (1936).
In August 1936, at the age of forty and with the publication of The Big Money, Dos Passos was at the height of his fame. He was featured on the cover of TIME. The accompanying article inside the magazine, entitled “Private Historian,” stated that his trilogy was “one of the most ambitious projects that any U. S. novelist has undertaken.” He was celebrated as a novelist both innovative in his methods and exceptional in the broad scope of his literary ambition to paint early twentieth-century America in words, as well as for his earlier works of strongly autobiographical fiction, One Man’s Initiation – 1917, Three Soldiers and Manhattan Transfer. He had also acquired a name for himself among another group of committed readers, who preferred his travel writing and reportage: in Rosinante to the Road Again he described and meditated on his adventures in Spain in 1916-1917, while Orient Express was a chronicle of his Middle Eastern and Balkan travels and encounters.
The accident of Dos Passos’ illegitimate birth, his late arrival in his parents’ lives, the formative years spent in Europe, which made him foreign to his classmates when he did come to boarding school in America, an upbringing which combined the inculcation of social respectability with fierce physical and emotional insecurities, and his early travels in Europe and the Near East, all had lasting effects on his approach and attitude to life and writing.
They endowed the adult John Dos Passos with a special outside observer’s eye, a life-long identification with the underdog, the vagabond, and the dislocated, a yen to travel and explore and understand, and a particular yearning, as the man without a country which he felt he was, to find his spiritual home in America. His was a journey in search of his own identity and his own country – an America to which he belonged as a native son, but where he was also an exile. So he had to discover and ultimately choose America by comparison with the other countries he had lived and grown up in, through love and hate, through seeing, listening and learning, by experience, and above all through his writing.
The chronicle of this journey of self-discovery is told, in part, in his 1951 novel Chosen Country.
He began to write for publication while still at Harvard in 1916. He wrote Three Soldiers, the first major anti-war novel to come out of the Great War, in 1920, after he had himself experienced the war at first hand. Throughout the 1920s he traveled widely – in Europe, the Balkans, Russia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and Central America, and wrote about it in his books of travel writing, Rosinante to the Road Again (1922) and Orient Express (1927). In 1925 he published his experimental novel of New York City, Manhattan Transfer.
John Dos Passos, American novelist, poet, traveler, painter, reporter, writer of narrative histories, ambulanceman in the First World War, war correspondent in the Second, and author of the U.S.A. trilogy, was born out of wedlock in a Chicago hotel on January 14, 1896.
He was the love child of a well-to-do, dynamic, nineteenth-century New York City corporate lawyer of Anglophile tendencies, John Randolph Dos Passos (1844-1917) and Lucy Sprigg Madison (1854-1915), a genteel but independent-minded lady from Virginia. His father was in his early fifties and his mother her early forties at the time he was born.
Any child from a humbler social background born illegitimate at this time would almost certainly have been given up for adoption, but his mother kept her little boy, giving him her family name rather than his father’s, and for the first ten years of his life took him with her on her travels and wanderings in Europe. Later, Dos Passos would describe this as “a hotel childhood.” His distant and somewhat overpowering father would occasionally join them, his second family, on his business trips or for special holidays.
Dos Passos Senior was a self-made man, a big earner and a big spender, with strong Anglophile tendencies and a big appetite for life. Although his own father was of Portuguese origin, a Madeiran who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1830, he was a strong believer in the union of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, the new American empire, and the then coming “American century.” A former Gold Democrat, then personal friend and campaigner for President William McKinley, he came to detest the person and presidency of Theodore Roosevelt for their enthusiastic interventionism on behalf of government. He also had a strong vision of history as both participation and observation: it had to be lived, he would later counsel his son, as if one were a participant, not merely through the lenses of other minds. And, as his son’s life story would show, this was not the only influence he was to have on him.
It was only in 1912, however, when young Jack was 16, after his lately widowed father and his mother had finally been able to marry in 1910, that it was possible for his father to recognize him as his son and for him to take on his proper name as the younger John R. Dos Passos.