Century's Ebb

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

Tag Archives: Literature

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.


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).


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

The Political Significance of Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers

Three Soldiers, published in 1921, was the first major anti-war novel of the twentieth century. It was bitterly attacked by partisans of the war party and as enthusiastically supported and greeted by opponents of war and veterans of the First World War, who knew what Dos Passos was writing about. As H L Mencken would later write,  “At one blast [Three Soldiers] disposed of oceans of romance and blather. It changed the whole tone of American opinion about the war; it even changed the recollections of actual veterans of the war. They saw, no doubt, substantially what Dos Passos saw, but it took his bold realism to disentangle their recollections from the prevailing buncombe and sentimentality.”

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

The Height of Fame – Biography Part 3

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.

Chosen Country – Biography Part 2

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.

Father and Son – Biography Part 1

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.