A blog on the life and work of John Dos Passos (1896-1970)
Why I am Interested in John Dos Passos
By Richard Wall
I am interested in John Dos Passos because he was an artist-observer, an outsider looking in on the world and its ways, because he was an American of Portuguese descent, an illegitimate child, and often a foreigner in his own country. These ontological uncertainties made him a restless spirit. He partially cured the restlessness by traveling, going back on the road, taking another trip. That fix was good enough, until the need arose again: even as he neared the end of his life, he told an interviewer that he still had “a good deal of unfinished traveling.”
His whole life can be seen as a long journey of self-discovery. His career as a writer was uncommonly autobiographical, in terms both real and fictional. The real was in his travel writing and reporting such as in Journeys between Wars (1938) and In All Countries (1934), and in his World War Two reportage from the Pacific for Life magazine. The fictional was in the lives and opinions of his several alter egos, from John Andrews in his early anti-war novel Three Soldiers (1921) to Jay Pignatelli in the later works Chosen Country (1951) and Century’s Ebb (1975).
Dos Passos’ literary odyssey was a search for his own identity, conducted in a state of perpetual emotional rebellion against personal and political injustice, laced with an insatiable curiosity and zest for life, and animated by “a unifying sympathy for those who suffer misfortune in a world that has inflicted misery in the name of progress.”
The autobiographical focus of all Dos Passos’ creative output (he was a painter as well as a writer), is, in my opinion, one reason why he is so interested in depicting the process and meaning of others’ lives in his miniature biographies of people he found significant (either to admire or to vilify). He combined these, in just about every one of his novels, with fictionalized portraits of himself and some of his closest friends. Those lives of others give him terms of comparison with his own and with each other: he uses them to offer sometimes satirical, sometimes affectionate, but always thought-provoking judgments on how human agency, persistence and achievement have a lasting impact on the lives of all men and women: hence his interest in pioneers of invention such as the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Robert H. Goddard (rocket scientist), and George Eastman (of Kodak fame).
Dos Passos was of course also vitally interested in political figures of his day, many of whom (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, Robert LaFollette, for example) feature in the list of miniature biographies. But his primary interest was in the paths their lives took, and in the social and historical effects of those lives, not in supporting or ultimately even condemning them too much for their politics, and still less for any flaws in their characters.
Because of his enthusiasm for the underdog in the burgeoning material-industrial world of the late 1920s, when he was writing at the height of his powers, it was easy for early readers and critics of the U.S.A. trilogy to jump to the conclusion that he was politically on and of the Left. Like many of his contemporaries, he was indeed interested in ways of improving the human condition, of dealing with the worst excesses of corrupt political and judicial systems, and of helping the underdog in his struggle in life. But actual politics was not really his thing at all: Dos Passos was never one for dogma, never one to follow the party line and obey party discipline in the defense or promotion of a predefined utopian cause. He was always a questioner, and always willing to see the little-noticed reverse side of any situation, especially those over which there appeared to be an overwhelming consensus in public opinion. Here is his article on the aftermath of World War Two in Germany, published in Life magazine in January 1946:
A tour of the beaten-up cities of Europe six months after victory is a mighty sobering experience for anyone. Europeans, friend and foe alike, look you accusingly in the face and tell you how bitterly they are disappointed in you as an American. They cite the evolution of the word “liberation.” Before the Normandy landings it meant to be freed from the tyranny of the Nazis. Now it stands in the minds of the civilians for one thing, looting.
You try to explain to these Europeans that they expected too much. They answer that they had a right to, that after the last war America was the hope of the world. They talk about the Hoover relief, the work of the Quakers, the speeches of Woodrow Wilson. They don’t blame us for the fading of that hope. But they blame us now.
~John Dos Passos, “Americans are losing the victory in Europe,” Life Magazine, January 7, 1946
For too long modern liberal critics condemned Dos Passos as a turncoat, for apparently moving from Left to Right politically. Rather than being (unjustifiably) claimed by either Left or Right, he deserves to be better appreciated as an artist, a literary craftsman, a fearlessly honest reporter, a human being and finally, despite the late lapses, as a true libertarian spirit. Often better appreciated outside America than within, he was at heart a romantic anarchist who wanted, as all artists do, to leave his mark on the world. As a young man in France at the end of the First World War he described his artistic and life’s ambitions in a letter to a friend:
“Don’t worry about not having an aim. I felt the same way when I first went to college. It took me a good three years to get rid of family-bred inhibitions before I realized exactly what I wanted to do. When I think how far I am from doing it I become terrified. Then too I suffer from a multiplicity of desires. I want to swallow the oyster of the world. I want to peel the rind of the orange. I want to drink the cup to the dregs – no – I want to swallow it and still have it to look at. I want to peel off the rind in patterns of my own making. I want to paint with the dregs pictures of gods and demons on the great white curtains of eternity.”
~John Dos Passos to Rumsey Marvin, December 29, 1918
The writings in the volume from which this quotation is taken, Travel Books and Other Writings 1916-1941, particularly the letters he wrote in wartime – reveal Dos Passos’ zest for life and experience, the breadth and depth of his reading, his acute powers of observation, and his impatience with horse manure of any kind, official or otherwise. They also testify to his life-long opposition to tyrannies, oppression, concentrations and abuses of power, and the corruption of the language – in short, they show his dedication to liberty, and to what was necessary to preserve liberty in the increasingly bureaucratic, mechanized, and propagandistic world which emerged from the mindless, never-ending tragedy which was the First World War.
I rediscovered John Dos Passos, whose U.S.A. I first read many years ago, when after September 2001 I became interested in the 1890 to 1920 period in the history of the United States. This was a time which witnessed the emergence of the modern industrial American state and the first expansionary moves of the American empire into lands beyond the Pacific frontier, particularly the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. Dos Passos’ early life and education, and his first efforts at writing, all took place against the backdrop of those transformative years. So it is unsurprising that his most famous and durable work, the U.S.A. trilogy, should have focused on the events and personalities of those years, and that he should have treated them with both satire and intensely committed emotional interest, in a very lived, experiential manner. This offers a way into a historical understanding of the times which is far more than just political or sociological analysis: it is civilizational literature, and it is an exciting rollercoaster of a ride.
April 13, 2011
John Roderigo Dos Passos. Born Chicago, January 14, 1896. American Writer and Artist. Author of U.S.A. (1938). Died Baltimore, September 28, 1970. For a short Biography, go to this link: Part 1. For Dos Passos’ lifelong interest in localism, roots, and the sense of place, go here: Dos Passos and The Sense of Place
Selected Further Reading:
Carr, Virginia. 2004 (1984). Dos Passos: A Life. Chicago: Northwestern University Press
Christensen, Peter Glenn. 1982. “Dos Passos’ Use of Biography in U.S.A.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 18.3 (1982): 201-211 (subscription link)
Gelfant, Blanche H. 1961. “The Search for Identity in the Novels of John Dos Passos,” Papers of the Modern Language Association 76.1 (March 1961): 133-149 (JStor link)
Ludington, Townsend. 1998 (1980). John Dos Passos: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers Inc.
Ludington, Townsend. 1996. “John Dos Passos, Modernist Recorder of the American Scene.” Virginia Quarterly Review 72.4 (Autumn 1996): 565-580
Smith, James Steel. 1958. “The Novelist of Discomfort: A Reconsideration of John Dos Passos,” College English 19.8 (May 1958): 332-338 (JStor link)