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Best known for his sociopolitical novels of pre-world war ii America, Dos Passos was a master novelist and chronicler of twentieth-century American life. He is considered a writer of the Lost Generation, a loose grouping of creative Americans who lived abroad following world war i and wrote largely about the disillusionment with modern life brought on by the experiences of war.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Eager Entry into World War I
Dos Passos was born in Chicago to John Roderigo Dos Passos, a wealthy Portuguese immigrant, and Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison; the two did not wed until their son was fourteen. Dos Passos spent most of his youth traveling in Europe and the United States with his mother. At the age of fifteen, Dos Passos was accepted at Harvard and began classes the following year. As an undergraduate he edited the Harvard Monthly and wrote poetry that was later published in Eight Harvard Poets (1917) along with poems by E. E. Cummings and Robert Hillyer. He traveled to Spain upon graduating in 1916 and, eager to participate in world war I, he volunteered for service the following year as an ambulance driver in France. in doing so he joined a host of other volunteers—including Cummings, Hillyer, and Ernest Hemingway—who would all later gain recognition as writers. Dos Passos recorded his wartime experiences in the novel One Man’s Initiation—1917 (1920), an impressionist work that had begun as a collaboration with Hillyer, though the published novel includes only the chapters written by Dos Passos.
In late 1917, Dos Passos trans ferred to the American Red Cross Ambulance Corps in Italy, where he was dismissed in 1918 for his antiwar sentiments. Returning to France, he joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps, in which he served until his enlistment expired in 1919. At that time Dos Passos was already at work on his next novel, Three Soldiers (1921), which raised him to prominence as a writer and became the first important war novel of World War I. Clearly a condemnation of the social and political mechanisms behind the war, Three Soldiers quickly drew critical attention for its frank portrayal of the war’s destructive influence on its three protagonists. Despite its romantic tone, the novel marks Dos Passos’s departure from his early, impressionistic style and aesthete philosophy to one of anger and rebellion against what he perceived as the power of industrial capitalism to crush individual freedom.
Leftist Political Views
Dos Passos traveled throughout Europe and the United States during the 1920s. He also grew increasingly active in leftist political causes and explored various artistic movements. He incorporated such influences as cubism and expressionism into his own works. Dos Passos was both prolific and diverse, publishing novels, dramas, poetry, travel books, and essays. In the late 1920s he joined the New Playwrights Theatre, an experimental left-wing theater group. His dramas—The Garbage Man (1926), Airways, Inc. (1928), and Fortune Heights (1933)—contain strong political themes protesting against the ill effects of American capital ism and democracy. He also wrote for the New Masses,a radical periodical he helped found in 1926. His disillusionment over the injustices against the individual in a capitalist society culminated in 1927 when he covered the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, immigrants and anarchists who, Dos Passos firmly believed, had been wrong fully accused of murder. He was arrested and jailed after taking part in demonstrations on behalf of the accused men; in his pamphlet Facing the Chair: Story of the Americanization of Two Foreignborn Workmen (1927), he attempted to present evidence of the men’s innocence. The eventual execution of Sacco and Vanzetti embittered Dos Passos and strengthened his distrust of the government.
The Great Depression
Beginning with the stock market crash of 1929, an event known as Black Tuesday, many countries around the world suffered a large economic depression. This hardship, known as The Great Depression, lasted until World War II. Families in the United States struggled to make ends meet and many people lost their jobs and homes. In response to this crisis, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a series of programs known as the New Deal, which aimed to provide relief to those suffering and reform business practices. It was during this time that Dos Passos com posed his most famous works.
Disillusionment with the Left
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Dos Passos continued his involvement with the Left, contributing essays to the New Masses, the New Republic, and Common Sense. Although he never publicly claimed allegiance to the Communist party, his writings and activities, including a visit to the Soviet Union in 1928 and to the coal fields in Harlan, Kentucky in 1931 to assess miners’ working conditions, aligned him with communism. His novels during this time, including Manhattan Transfer (1925), The 42nd Parallel(1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936), portray the failure of the American Dream, but, as critics note, do not overtly support any political program or party. (The American Dream is the belief that anyone in the United States who works hard enough can achieve success, often defined in material terms).
Following the completion of the U.S.A. trilogy (which is comprised of his novels The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money), Dos Passos journeyed to Spain in 1937 with Hemingway to report on events of the Spanish Civil War between Marxist-backed Republican and Fascist-backed Falangist groups. There he became disillusioned with the Left when he learned that his friend Jose Robles, a Republican supporter, had been executed by Republican forces, allegedly under Communist orders. When Hemingway refused to question the integrity of the Republican cause, Dos Passos broke off his friendship with him and severed ties with Europe. He returned to the United States with a new-found devotion to his homeland.
Defending the Individual
His dissatisfaction with leftist political groups is evident in his next novel, Adventures of a Young Man (1939), which delineates an idealistic protagonist who goes to Spain to fight for his vision of individual freedom only to be killed under the order of the political group he had supported. The other two novels, which with Adventures of a Young Man form the District of Columbia trilogy, are Number One (1943) and The Grand Design (1949). In these, Dos Passos continues to depict corruption that results from power and the devastating effects exercised by institutions and governments over the individual. The Grand Design, generally considered the best work of the trilogy, satirizes Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies as an impractical failure of centralized government. However, District of Columbia was poorly received, partly because the novels no longer evinced support for leftist causes and also because the narratives were regarded as straightforward and one-dimensional, unlike Dos Passos’s accomplishment in U.S.A. His nonfiction also markedly shifted from radical-Left beliefs toward those of the conservative Right, generating consternation among many of his former supporters. Nevertheless, Dos Passos maintained that he had not betrayed his former beliefs.
Devotion to Jeffersonian Democracy
From the 1940s through the rest of his life, Dos Passos lived mainly at Spence’s Point, Virginia, on a farm he had inherited from his father, and in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He developed the reputation of a country squire who was now devoted to the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy and the study of American history and order. In his well-received historical works—which include The Ground We Stand On (1941), The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson (1954), and Mr. Wilson’s War (1962)—Dos Passos examines United States history from the roots of American government, with its traditions of self-government and individual freedom, to the era of World War I, when industrial capitalism strongly influenced the government.
Changing Attitudes Shape Later Fiction Dos
Passos’s later fiction also reveals his changing attitudes. His earlier fiction, noted for its highly objective view point, was replaced by novels evincing personal narratives closely linked to Dos Passos’s own life. Several critics maintain that this shift resulted after Dos Passos lost his wife, Katy, in an automobile accident in 1947. Chosen Country (1951), a nostalgic novel—or “chronicle” as Dos Passos had begun calling his fictions—offers a sentimental portrait of Lulie, a character based on Katy, and Jay Pignatelli, Dos Passos’s own double. His most significant late novel, however, was Midcentury (1961), a despairing account of the corruptions of labor unions. In this novel Dos Passos returned to a cross-section narrative reminiscent of U.S.A., and he used the juxtapositions of fiction, biography, news stories, and authorial reflections, to broadly delineate American society. The work was praised for displaying artistic sophistication that many critics had found lacking in Dos Passos’s fiction since U.S.A.
A Last Forlorn Chronicle of Despair
Dos Passos continued to write histories, memoirs, travel essays, and journalistic works through his later years. At the time of his death at age seventy-four, he was at work on the novel Century’s Ebb: The Thirteenth Chronicle that was published posthumously in 1975. Intended as a record of American lives from the time of the Spanish Civil War to the lunar landing, and described by Dos Passos as his ”last forlorn Chronicle of Despair,” the work offers both negative views of American society and an underlying sense of hope in the nation s potential for good.
Works in Literary Context
Dos Passos s reputation rests primarily on his Depression-era works with sociological and political themes. He was influenced by James Joyce, Walt Whitman, Theodore Dreiser, T. S. Eliot, Pfo Baroja, Gustave Flaubert, Sergei Eisenstein, Thorstein Veblen, and Randolph Bourne.
Failure of the American Dream
Dos Passos’s central concerns, which included such social injustices as the exploitation of the working class, the loss of individual freedom, and the harmful emphasis upon materialism in American society, were delineated in Manhattan Transfer and the novels of the U.S.A. trilogy. In these and other works, Dos Passos presents characters pursuing the American Dream. Because most of these characters are corrupted by their pursuit of material success, the author s moral implications are evident.
In his novels, Dos Passos often presents multiple types of writing juxtaposed with each other so that the difference and similarities between them produced new layers of meaning in his work. This technique is similar to the collage form used by many modernist painters, including Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris. It is also similar to the technique of intercutting in film in which the director cuts between several scenes in order enhance the excitement of the action or to underscores parallels between different plot lines. Dos Passos’s writing was influenced both by modern art and film. For example, in Manhattan Transfer Dos Passos juxtaposes prose poems with popular songs and various images. This creates a literary collage that presents a unique, modern cross section of New York City.
Dos Passos’s writing influenced numerous authors, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Alfred Doblin, Camilo Jose Cela, Norman Mailer, Don DeLillo, and E. L. Doctorow.
Works in Critical Context
While Dos Passos produced an extensive body of work, critical attention has focused predominantly upon Manhattan Transfer and the U.S.A. trilogy. These strongly political works, rooted in the left-wing revolutionary philosophy Dos Passos held during the 1920s and 1930s, were widely praised. In 1938, Jean-Paul Sartre lauded Dos Passos as ”the greatest writer of our time”; however, Dos Passos did not achieve such recognition for his later writings.
Much of the critical condemnation of Dos Passos’s later works was based upon the perception that he had abandoned his political and social beliefs and had failed to maintain the artistic and innovative standards that Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A. had established. Critics also fault much of Dos Passos’s later fiction for his characters’ lack of psychological depth, though others maintain that Dos Passos’s strength was in writing collective novels in which he delineated a wide range of character types, and that he deliberately did not explore the inner lives of his characters. While several commentators have admonished Dos Passos for portraying an overly grim and pessimistic vision of American society, many assert that he still held an intrinsic belief in the good of the individual.
Although Dos Passos’ reputation declined in the 1940s and 1950s, scholars in more recent years have reaffirmed the artistic merit of his innovative methods and consider him a significant voice in twentieth-century literature. Dos Passos is now recognized as a major chronicler of American life and as an important literary innovator for his imaginative experiments in narrative.
The U.S.A. Trilogy
Reviews of his earlier works reflect the expectations that Dos Passos raised in the literary world. Sinclair Lewis heralded Manhattan Transfer a work that anticipates the U.S.A. trilogy, as ”a novel of the very first importance; a book which the idle reader can devour yet which the literary analyst must take as possibly inaugurating, at long last, the vast and blazing dawn we have awaited.” Mary Ross wrote of 1919: ”Mr. Dos Passos’s writing … has a directness, independence and poignancy of thought and emotion that seems to me unexcelled in current fiction . . . 1919 will disturb or offend some of its readers.” After the completion of the U.S.A. trilogy, Theodore Spencer declared: ”He writes from a wise and comprehending point of view; his construction is firm; his narrative is swift, realistic, and interesting.” However, Alfred Kazin noted that while U.S.A. became an epic, it is a history of defeat. . . . It is one of the saddest books ever written by an American.” Even so, Kazin added, ”what Waldo Frank said of Mencken is particularly relevant to Dos Passos: he brings energy to despair.”
- Carr, Virginia Spencer. Dos Passos: A Life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984.
- Belkind, Allen, ed. Dos Passos, the Critics, and the Writer’s Intention. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
- Brantley, John D. The Fiction of John Dos Passos. The Hague: Mouton, 1968.
- Clark, Michael. Dos Passos’s Early Tiction, 1912-1938. Selinsgrove, Penn.: Susquehanna University Press, 1987.
- Colley, Iain. Dos Passos and the Fiction of Despair. London: Macmillan, 1978.
- Cowley, Malcolm. Exile’s Return.NewYork: Viking, 1951.
- Freudenberg, Anne and Elizabeth Fake. John Dos Passos: Writer and Artist 1896-1970A Guide to the Exhibition at the University of Virginia Library. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Library, 1975.
- Landsberg, Melvin. Dos Passos’ Path to U.S.A.: A Political Biography 1912-1936. Boulder, Colo.: Colorado Associated University Press, 1972.
- Ludington, Townsend. John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey. New York: Dutton, 1980.
- Maine, Barry. Dos Passos, the Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1988.
- Pizer, Donald. Dos Passos’s U.S.A: A Critical Study. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1988.
- Rohrkemper, John. John Dos Passos, A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.
- Rosen, Robert C. John Dos Passos, Politics and the Writer. Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.
- Wrenn, John H. John Dos Passos. New York: Twayne, 1961.
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