John Dos Passos, 1896-1970: Modernist Recorder of the American Scene

By Ludington, Townsend | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

John Dos Passos, 1896-1970: Modernist Recorder of the American Scene


Ludington, Townsend, The Virginia Quarterly Review


John Dos Passos, born in 1896, was one of a remarkable group of Americans who came of literary age during the decade after World War I. The group included Scott Fitzgerald, born the same year, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, e. e. cummings, Malcolm Cowley, and Edmund Wilson, all of whom had close contact with Dos Passos at one time or another during his life, which ended in 1970.

One hundred years after his birth, Dos Passos is an anomaly: his fictions of the 1920's and 1930's, Three Soldiers (1921), Manhattan Transfer (1925), and the trilogy U.S.A. (1930-1936, 1937) are acknowledged to be important works in American literary history. He is regularly anthologized; but rarely is he eulogized, a far cry from his situation in 1936, when he was featured on the cover of the August lOth issue of Time magazine to mark the publication of The Big Money, the third volume of U.S.A. Two years later Jean-Paul Sartre acclaimed him "the greatest living writer of our time."

By then, however, his literary reputation had already begun to decline because of the fierce political struggles which marked the 1930's. Dos Passos-always swimming in political currents whether along the left or the right bank-had in 1937 moved more publicly than before away from the far left after discovering that his close friend Jose Robles had been secretly executed in Spain, where he had returned to fight against Franco's rebels after leaving his teaching position at Johns Hopkins University. Dos Passos was lied to by leaders of the Republican government, and from what he learned he soon became convinced that Communists had been the instigators of Robles's death. One result of this episode was a bitter split with his close friend Hemingway. By 1939, with the publication of his partly autobiographical novel The Adventures of a Young Man, he was anathema to the likes of the New Masses, where its reviewer, Samuel Sillen, wrote that the book was "almost inconceivably rotten," "a crude piece of Trotskyist agit-prop" that suffered from "sloppy writing, hollow characters, machine-made dialogue, [and] editorial rubber stamps." Malcolm Cowley, sympathetic with the Communists, criticized Dos Passos as severely as had Sillen, although with less vitriol. He blamed disillusionment for the flatness of the work and thought Dos Passos might become utterly cynical.

Dos Passos, principled, but in the eyes of his former friend Hemingway, foolish for writing against the liberal grain of the critics, continued his journey right, turning out historical portraits that lauded-simplistically, many historians would argue-America's Founding Fathers; blueprints for a Jeffersonian system of government, which meant in modern terms a conservative, agrarian program; and occasional fictions-"contemporary chronicles," he termed them, that viewed the nation through conservative lenses. By 1964 he was an ardent Goldwater Republican and behaved, a dismayed Edmund Wilson wrote him, like a kid in front of the Beatles. In 1970 he praised Richard Nixon's incursion into Cambodia as "the first rational military step taken in the whole [Vietnam] war"; but by then he was merely a sad footnote to the past in the eyes of the New Left, who received his scorn for their "rank criminal idiocy" and for "allow[ing] themselves to be led by their elders into this hysteria about Cambodia." He died on Sept. 28, 1970, a writer more honored abroad than in his own country, except in the opinions of William Buckley's National Review and others from that end of the political spectrum.

Yet no one loved the United States more than he. Because of a largely European upbringing until the age of 11, he had seen himself as "a man without a country" during his youth and early adulthood. Even in the first half of the 1930's, writing in an autobiographical Camera Eye toward the end of U.S.A., he characterized himself as "an unidentified stranger/ destination unknown/ hat pulled down over the has he any? …

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