U.S.A

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

U.S.A


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

U.S.A
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.