Century’s Ebb is written in the mixture of modes that Dos Passos originated in his bold trilogy U.S.A. (1930-38), then modified in each of his subsequent works. Two of these are straight novels—Most Likely to Succeed (1954) and The Great Days (1958)—but the others include factual reporting, editorials, obituaries and prose poems in various dosages. Each book presents a particular phase or period of American life; for example, The Grand Design (1949) deals with government agencies during World War II. At some time in the 1950’s, Dos Passos decided that the right name for the series was Contemporary Chronicles, and he rearranged it in chronological order of subject matter. Thus, Chosen Country (1951), an autobiographical romance about the Pignatelli (read ‘Dos Passos’) family, became the first chronicle, since it opens in the years before the Civil War. Midcentury (1961) was to be the 12th chronicle in order of subject matter, and in order of writing as well.
There followed some years devoted to historical studies and reportorial assignments, but in 1968 he wrote to his friend Bill White, ‘I’m all tied up with a last (?) contemporary chronicle.’ The statement is from an illuminating collection of Dos Passos’s letters and diaries edited by Townsend Ludington and called, somewhat confusingly, The Fourteenth Chronicle. The same book contains a letter of June 25, 1970, addressed to Dos Passos’s Harvard classmate Harold Weston. It says, ‘I’m putting the finishing touches on a last forlorn Chronicle of Despair. The rank criminal idiocy of the younger generation in this country is more than I can swallow.’
During those last years there were many things that Dos Passos couldn’t swallow. The first of them was Communism, which he