John Dos Passos, Blaise Cendrars, and the "Other" Modernism

Article excerpt

The interwar French avant-garde long considered John Dos Passos as an eminent literary figure. Dos Passos's influence on French writers and editors, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Claude-Edmond Magny, is now, of course, a critical commonplace. Sartre, in his 1938 article on U.S.A., considered Dos Passos to be "the greatest writer of our time" (80). Magny, in her preface to the 1949 French edition of The 42nd Parallel, praised Dos Passos as an innovative portrayer of "la condition humaine" (Stolzfus 218). Critics have also recognized the influence of avant-garde painters on Dos Passos and extensively documented his various biographical associations with France.(1)

But the influence of the French writer Blaise Cendrars on Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer has not been adequately treated. The present scholarship on the Dos Passos-Cendrars link is severely piecemeal, and it often lacks the needed historical contexts. Many of Dos Passos's most important interwar influences--French (Cendrars), Italian (Ungaretti), and Belgian (Verhaeren)--have been overlooked in Dos Passos criticism. Historically, American critics have tended to neglect transatlantic twentieth-century influences, even those as important as Cendrars, and the valuable work of the many French poet-theorists (e.g., Soupault, Aragon, Desnos, Breton, Jacob) active during the 1900-1930 period.

The large body of American criticism assigns Dos Passos's main aesthetic influences to Joyce, Eisenstein, Eliot, and Whitman. Discussing the form of Manhattan Transfer, Iain Colley's Dos Passos and the Fiction of Despair is representative in attributing "Dos Passos's borrowings" to what Colley calls the "true experimentalists": Stein, Joyce, Carl Sandburg, Dreiser, Hemingway, and John Reed (60). Revealingly, Colley, contravening Dos Passos's own statements on literary works particularly suggestive in determining the form of Manhattan Transfer, provides, like most other British and American critics, the traditional Anglophone list. Dos Passos, however, in a letter to Melvin Landsberg (Sep. 23, 1957), has cited (with the exception of Stephen Crane) only foreign authors as possible influences on Manhattan Transfer: Baroja, Verhaeren, Zola, Flaubert, and Blaise Cendrars (243-244).(2)

In light of this current critical dearth, Cendrars's role in Dos Passos studies merits special attention. An overlooked origin of Dos Passos's interwar fiction is Cendrars's early poetry (1912-1926). "Poetry," as Dos Passos recounts in The Best Times, "was more important than submarines or war guilt or brave little Belgium or the big board on the New York Stock Exchange" (24). But it was less the poetry of Eliot, Pound, and other Anglophone modernists than the experiments of Cendrars and the French avant-garde that pushed Dos Passos to try poetry as fiction. Dos Passos in 1926 wrote an article on Cendrars, "Homer of the Trans-Siberian" (1926), published that same year in the Saturday Review of Literature. Dos Passos's translations of Cendrars's Panama (1913), Transsiberien (1913), and selections from Documentaires (1923) and Feuilles de Route (1924) between the first and second volumes of U.S.A. attest to his continued, engaged interest in Cendrars's poetry.

Dos Passos, of course, began his writing career as a poet, publishing Eight Harvard Poets in 1917 and A Pushcart at the Curb in 1922, both of which contain a wide assortment of imagist and free-form poems. While there is, as Linda Wagner argues in The Modern American Novel, "ample proof" that Dos Passos "was a staunch admirer of Ezra Pound" (28), this is only part of the formative influence story. At the end of her "modernist-imagist" argument, Wagner asserts:

Much of [modernistic writing] stemmed from the basically

poetic technique of concentrating meaning and emotion in an

image.... This new intuition, this relatively new way of

apprehending, encouraged writers to accept the device of the image

or scene as a means of making their perceptions fresh, clear, and

immediate. …