Century's Ebb

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

Tag Archives: Celebrity

Dos Passos on Fitzgerald and the Press (1941)

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.

Like Kittens in the Limelight

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.”