Century's Ebb

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

Tag Archives: Americana

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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Images of the Fleeting World

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.”