Century's Ebb

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

Tag Archives: Criticism

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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The Durability of the U.S.A. Trilogy

The 42nd Parallel, Nineteen Nineteen and The Big Money, published as a trilogy in 1938 and given a durable publishing home in the Library of America in Dos Passos’ centenary year, 1996, are an experiment in modernist literature – a fictional-historical-biographical chronicle of the United States in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Over the last 70-odd years U.S.A. has been both acclaimed and disparaged for its experimental literary methods, noted for its energy and vitality even in the midst of the despair which pervades it, and condemned for a variety of reasons: for being unreadable, fatally outdated in its slang and full of clichés, overly colored by the author’s leftward political inclination at the time he wrote it (for some, it was not pink enough), embarrassingly imbued with the prejudices of the author’s era and class, for having characters who “lack inwardness,” and much more.

Others have been lavish with their praise. Norman Mailer, for example, described it as “the single greatest novel any of us have written, yes, in this country in the last one hundred years” … “No novel I read while in college stimulated me more, astounded me more and showed me what a thrilling inner life was there for anyone gifted enough to be a major American novelist.”

Opinions, and above all temperaments, remain divided over U.S.A. As its inclusion in the Library of America attests, it has become an enduring classic but, as the 1900-1930 period it covers recedes into history, so it is natural that this immense book should require the reader of today to have to make an increasing effort to understand its rich web of satire, allusion, and memory.

But the effort has its rewards.  Once you get into it, it is a funny, vivid, sad, crazy, and emotional rollercoaster of a read.

In addition, the detective-like work of Dos Passos scholars and biographers since his death in 1970 has revealed how intimately and intricately U.S.A. draws on his own life experiences and vulnerabilities.

“U.S.A.,” which tells an alternative, submerged history of the first three decades of the American century, has become one of the great neglected achievements of literary modernism, with its nervy, jarring formal juxtapositions—newspaper headlines, popular songs, autobiographical fragments, short biographies of the famous—punctuating deceptively flat sagas of ordinary fictional types on the margins of great events, driven by the blind force of history across blighted human landscapes.

~George Packer in The New Yorker, October 31, 2005