Century's Ebb

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

Tag Archives: Modernism

Death and Money (1)

In the life and death of George Eastman there are echoes of two of Dos Passos’ recurring concerns: death and money.

“Death at the end of the road” comes to all, including the writer, aware of his own mortality. But the end of the road also evokes the dramatic death of the fictional character Charley Anderson on a grade crossing at the end of The Big Money and, more significantly perhaps, the tragic death – on the road –  of a real-life person close to the author: his first wife, Katie Smith, who was killed in the 1947 car crash in which Dos Passos himself, who was driving, lost the sight of one eye. This autobiographical episode is fictionalized in the Jay Pignatelli narrative in Part 2 of Century’s Ebb.

The eccentric behavior and temperament of millionaires evokes themes from Nineteen Nineteen, which contains the biting portrait of the financier J. P. Morgan, and The Big Money, which shows how a great fortune could be made and lost, and how the temperament and actions of one man (Charley Anderson) could lead, with an almost fatalistic inevitability, to his own destruction.

Significant in all these episodes is the role of the automobile: apart from Katie (the real-life model for Lulie in Chosen Country and Century’s Ebb), both the fictional character Charley Anderson and the real-life Isadora Duncan, another mini-bio subject in The Big Money, meet their end in cars – which are here double-edged: they embody the potential for exhilaration and excitement and speed, yet at the same time symbolize the killing power of the devices of the industrial and machine age.

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