Writing for His Agendas; John Dos Passos and His Novels of American Life

Article excerpt


Fame is, of course, fleeting. History oppresses with examples. Andy Worhol pricked vanity with his sarcastic though perceptive "fifteen minutes" quip. The peaks and valleys associated with being in the public spotlight are well-known to those who have done anything more imaginative than "stay the course." Nowhere is enduring fame more elusive, more transitory than in the arts. As Charles Simic, one of our best poets, has recently written, "Time is cruel to all living things, but what it does to literary reputations is downright mean. Sometimes it takes no more than twenty years for someone thought of as great by his or her contemporaries to be completely forgotten."

Although John Dos Passos is by no means "completely forgotten," his literary reputation has stagnated and shows few signs of a vigorous recovery. There was a flurry of renewed interest in 1996, the centennial of his birth, when the always reliable Library of America published "U.S.A.," his masterpiece. As Norman Mailer, who over the years has kept a close eye on the rankings of his fellow writers, has said, "Dos Passos came nearer than any of us to writing the Great American Novel, and it's entirely possible he succeeded."

The three novels - "The 42nd Parallel" (1930), "1919" (1932), and "The Big Money" (1936) - that Dos Passos republished in 1938 as "U.S.A.," remain his true legacy. Stylistically innovative, historically acute, the trilogy is a wonderfully developed look at our country through the eyes of a keen and compassionate observer of American life. Because he tried to combine the literary naturalism of a Theodore Dreiser with the modernist impulse and experimentation of a Joyce, he should be seen as a major figure in the literary landscape of the last century. As bold as he was technically, however, it is all too apparent that he lacked the genius needed to create memorable characters and scenes.

The three novels included in one of these volumes are within the anti-war tradition - Dos Passos served in the ambulance corps during World War I, as did his contemporaries Ernest Hemingway and e.e. cummings, whose "The Enormous Room," along with Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That" are two of the best non-fiction books written by non-historians about "the war to end all wars" - and are of varying degrees of interest. "Three Soldiers" (1921) continues the concerns Dos Passos had in "One Man's Initiation: 1917" (1920). The waste land, literally and symbolically created by the oxymoronic "Great War," and the disillusionment and displacements it caused are brought into focus by the skill Dos Passos used to shape fiction.

"Manhattan Transfer" (1925) is interesting not only for its bleak evocation of New York City, but also because Dos Passos was able to show how modes of transportation could be matched with characters to reveal class as well as psychology, something that John O'Hara did also. That Jimmy, a central player, walks off on foot at the novel's end is both a Luddite act and a powerful indictment of capitalism.

All the narrative "tricks" Dos Passos used, ranging from vernacular speech to newspaper headlines, from popular songs and cultural references to appearances by historical figures to a jazz-like style should make his work attractive to students of narrative form and to readers interested in historical fiction. However, it is difficult to recall any character, any scene. We should applaud his innovations; we should empathize with his historical conscience, but once we are finished reading, what remains?

John Dos Passos was a very intelligent writer whose talent often seems to have been subservient to his political and social agendas. He witnessed firsthand the violence and sheer brutality of war. He saw the corruption of corporate and industrial capitalism, and the lack of justice among the have-nots. Dehumanization, engendered by greed and by immoral business practices, might well be his central theme. …