From the Future to the Past: The Disillusionment of John Dos Passos

By Trombold, John | Studies in American Fiction, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

From the Future to the Past: The Disillusionment of John Dos Passos


Trombold, John, Studies in American Fiction


The dramatic change in John Dos Passos's outlook between his writing of the U.S.A. trilogy, the last novel of which he finished in early 1936, and his subsequent writing of Adventures of A Young Man in 1938 is at the crux of his identity as a novelist and political thinker. Critics have long recognized this moment as the most significant turning point in Dos Passos's literary and political life.(1) This essay explores Dos Passos's political reversal in light of his concurrent reformulation of the relative imaginative power of the past and the future. Although critics have recognized the importance of Dos Passos's change in political direction, his simultaneous disavowal of revolutionary futurism and embrace of a nostalgic historicism deserves more attention.

Dos Passos's political views were fully integrated with his aesthetic position throughout his literary career. The death of Dos Passos's poet friend Jose Robles and Dos Passos's subsequent discovery of the Spanish Communists' attempt to conceal the Spaniard's execution precipitated Dos Passos's break with the political left and caused him to set a new intellectual course as a strongly nationalist historical researcher and as a novelist with a much more traditional narrative form. He turned away from Europe--counseling against U.S. involvement in the Spanish Civil War in 1937--and also recoiled from the modernity that had heretofore been a galvanizing influence on his art. Whereas Italian futurism, Russian futurism, and Russian constructivism, along with the poetic techniques of simultaneism, had previously provided Dos Passos with his artistic tools, later a more conventional narrative order appealed to him.

In a 1935 letter from John Dos Passos to his friend the novelist Robert Cantwell, Dos Passos rejected the application of "formulas of past events" to current events: "That's the great danger of sectarian opinions, they always accept the formulas of past events as useful for the measurement of future events and they never are, if you have high standards of accuracy."(2) A salient moment in Dos Passos's 1941 essay "The Use of the Past" in The Ground We Stand On, however, argues the opposite: knowledge of the past is a source of human salvation.

   In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men's
   reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch
   like a lifeline across the scary present and get us past that idiot
   delusion of the exceptional Now that blocks good thinking.(3)

What caused this remarkable change? As Dos Passos later recalled, he had witnessed from the inside "the greatest hopes and greatest disillusions lived by [his] generation."(4) Dos Passos's disillusionment is plain in Adventures of A Young Man, which registers Dos Passos's break with the political positions of his youth.(5) The novel abandons the simultaneist modes of writing--learned from the French poet Blaise Cendrars, whose work Dos Passos translated in Panama--that were central to the technique of U.S.A.(6) Following the same trajectory away from avant-garde invention, Dos Passos's later works on historical subjects, such as The Living Thought of Thomas Paine, The Ground We Stand On, The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson, and The Men Who Made the Nation, show the author's later sustained devotion in name to a national revolutionary tradition but in spirit to the ideas of history and historical continuity--the very weight of history at which revolutionaries and futurists typically bristle. Dos Passos's early work wants to break the bonds of history and the authority "history" represents; his late work flies to an idea of history as haven.

In 1917 Dos Passos wrote in his diary, "We are in the position of the great Russian revolutionists who struggled and died in despair and sordidness--we have no chance of success, but we must struggle--I don't know why--I hardly believe in it--yet" (FC, 180). …

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