John Donne: The Critical Heritage

By Barry Maine | Go to book overview
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Introduction

John Dos Passos wrote more than forty books during his lifetime, including poetry, plays, travel books, political tracts, histories, and biographies. He is better known, though, for his novels, and best of all for the documentary-style fiction he wrote during the twenties and thirties. I have limited the documentation of his critical reception to the novels he is best known for, and to those others which are representative of a period in his career or of a change in political or stylistic direction. Though it is certainly true that no American writer has been more subjected to political judgment than Dos Passos has, the history of the critical response shows that what made him the most promising American writer of the thirties and a much less respected writer later on had as much to do with his art as with his politics, if indeed the two can be separated. As Joseph Epstein observed, in a retrospective on Dos Passos’s career:

What is crucial to the judgment of political novels is not only the extent to which a novelist’s politics are intrinsic to his work, but the extent to which in his work he is incapable of transcending them—for to that extent, if one does not share these politics, one is scarcely likely to bear to read the work. 1

On the other hand, as the record shows, reviewers are often equally incapable of transcending their politics; thus the critical reception of a political writer such as Dos Passos is likely to become a complex affair. We delude ourselves, moreover, if we believe that we exist outside a historical process that plays a role in determining which literary texts we will include in the canon. A critical reception never stops developing, and neither does historical consciousness ever fully reveal itself in openly stated principles or propositions. It reveals itself more in the kinds of questions about literature that readers and critics ask than in the answers they give, and it exists, to borrow a term from Hans Robert Jauss, as a ‘horizon of expectation’, beyond which the reading public by and large is unable to see and unwilling to go. 2 ‘A literary work’, Jauss reminds us, ‘is not an object which stands by itself and which offers the same face to each reader in each period…. The historical life of a literary work is unthinkable without the active participation of its audience.’ 3 In other words, the reading and

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