By Aaron, Daniel | American Heritage, July-August 1996 | Go to article overview
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Aaron, Daniel, American Heritage

The publication of U. S. A. nearly sixty years ago secured John Dos Passos's place in American literary history. Thereafter his reputation gradually faded, and his rowdy, acrid masterpiece petrified into a "classic." When he died in 1970, the obituaries dutifully mentioned his more than thirty books and harped on his political turnabout from radical leftist to right-wing conservative. One would hardly have gathered from these coroners' reports and later summings-up that the dead writer had once dazzled his literary generation and left his mark on the work of the next - Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, for example, and E. L. Doctorow's playful historical fictions - or that no other novelist of his times had so Ingeniously evoked the scope and variety of the United States.

How did such a man come to write a three-part chronicle about a collection of real and imagined Americans (himself included) whose lives got entangled in the first three decades of the century? Why did he feel compelled to record, however ever obliquely, his own entanglement in this history? And why should those who have never even heard of Dos Passos bother to read U. S. A.? The answers to these questions are embedded in his biography.

It begins with his birth in a Chicago hotel room on January 14, 1896. At the time, he wrote many years later, the union of his parents was "technically irregular," and so it remained until the death of his father's legal wife in 1910 legitimized what had been a furtive relationship and enabled his parents, son, John Roderigo Madison, to assume the surname Dos Passos.

He was then enrolled not very happily in the Choate School after a childhood largely spent shuttling between Brussels and London with his mother and attendant governesses. At Choate his physical awkwardness, stammer, myopia, bookishness, and foreign mannerisms set him apart from his homegrown classmates. To them he was "Frenchy" or "Four-eyes," but aside from subjecting him to a bit of mild hazing, they left the self-described "unsocial friendless little beast" to himself. Things improved for him at college. He remembered the years from 1912 to 1916 as the "best" of his life (despite his scoffing references to Harvard then and later), for it was then that he broke out of his isolation and formed lasting friendships. Even so, the "hell-of-a-fellow" pose he adopted was mostly protective mimicry. He remained fastidious and reserved and never cottoned to the smutty talk and casual fornications of his companions. (Theres a surprising amount of sex in U. S. A., but it's usually joyless and mechanical.)

One year after his graduation in 1917, the death of his father left him feeling less bereft than alone. He had come to know and admire his roving parent "through the turbulence of conflicting currents of love and hate that mark so many men's feeling for their fathers" and to see him as solicitous guide and friend. Indeed, Dos Passos Senior, the lusty self-made corporation lawyer, son of Portuguese immigrant father, was the novelist's direct link to the late-nineteenth-century American world. The father had defended the murderer of the financial buccaneer Jim Fisk in a celebrated triai paid a call on "the great electrician" Edison, and introduced his son to Mark Twain on Fifth Avenue. He had also been a political maverick who switched his allegiance from the Democratic to the Republican party only to accuse its leaders of turning Congress into an oligarchy. He had earned and spent large sums of money and lived in high style.

These were matters the young Dos Passos didn't know much about. What stuck in his mind was his father's enormous appetite for historical fiction and his advice to look at history as if one were a participant, not merely through the lenses of other minds. Dos Passos acted on this suggestion, but it took a world war and its aftermath to teach him how to blend private and mass experience, history and fiction, in what he came to refer to as his "chronicle.

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