Century's Ebb

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

Tag Archives: Melancholy

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.

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The Sense of Place

In all his work, whether it was a miniature biography or reportage for Life, Dos Passos displayed an interest in where people came from, in their sense of place and belonging, and in how their origins shaped their lives. Perhaps this reflected the uncertainties he had faced in his own early life, his own sense of displacement, the fact that, as he said in Camera Eye 18 of The 42nd Parallel,  he ‘wished he was home but hadn’t any home.’ No piece of his writing is more magical in this respect than his tribute to localism in “The Baker of Almorox,” a small village he visited on his first, defining trip to Spain in 1916:

“As [the baker] talked in his slow deferential way, a little conscious of his volubility before strangers, there began to grow in my mind a picture of his view of the world.

First came his family, the wife whose body lay beside his at night, who bore him children, the old withered parents who sat in the sun at his door, his memories of them when they had had strong rounded limbs like his, and of their parents sitting old and withered in the sun. Then his work, the heat of his ovens, the smell of bread cooking, the faces of neighbors who came to buy; and, outside, in the dim penumbra of things half real, of travellers’ tales, lay Madrid, where the king lived and where politicians wrote in the newspapers,—and Francia—and all that was not Almorox…. In him I seemed to see the generations wax and wane, like the years, strung on the thread of labor, of unending sweat and strain of muscles against the earth. It was all so mellow, so strangely aloof from the modern world of feverish change, this life of the peasants of Almorox. Everywhere roots striking into the infinite past. For before the Revolution, before the Moors, before the Romans, before the dark furtive traders, the Phœnicians, they were much the same, these Iberian village communities. Far away things changed, cities were founded, hard roads built, armies marched and fought and passed away; but in Almorox the foundations of life remained unchanged up to the present. New names and new languages had come. The Virgin had taken over the festivals and rituals of the old earth goddesses, and the deep mystical fervor of devotion. But always remained the love for the place, the strong anarchistic reliance on the individual man, the walking, consciously or not, of the way beaten by generations of men who had tilled and loved and lain in the cherishing sun with no feeling of a reality outside of themselves, outside of the bare encompassing hills of their commune, except the God which was the synthesis of their souls and of their lives.”

~John Dos Passos, excerpt from ‘The Baker of Almorox,’ Chapter 3 of Rosinante to the Road Again (1922)