John Dos Passos

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John Dos Passos
John dos Passos.jpg
Born John Roderigo Dos Passos
January 14, 1896
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Died September 28, 1970 (aged 74)
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Occupation Novelist, playwright, poet, journalist, painter, translator
Nationality American
Literary movement Modernism
Lost Generation
Notable works USA Trilogy
Notable awards Antonio Feltrinelli Prize

John Roderigo Dos Passos (/dɒsˈpæsəs, -sɒs/;[1][2] January 14, 1896 – September 28, 1970) was an American novelist and artist active in the first half of the twentieth century. Born in Chicago, Illinois, he graduated from Harvard College in 1916. He was well-traveled, visiting Europe and the Middle East, where he learned about literature, art, and architecture. During World War I, he was an ambulance driver for American volunteer groups in Paris and Italy before joining the United States Army Medical Corps.

In 1920 his first novel, One Man's Initiation: 1917, was published, and in 1925 his novel, Manhattan Transfer, became a commercial success. In 1928, he went to the Soviet Union to study socialism, and later became a leading participant in the 1935 First American Writers Congress sponsored by the communist-leaning League of American Writers. He was in Spain in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The murder of his friend José Robles soured his attitude toward communism, and led to severing his relationship with fellow writer Ernest Hemingway.

Dos Passos is best known for his U.S.A. trilogy, which consists of the novels The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936). In 1998, the Modern Library ranked the U.S.A. Trilogy 23rd on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

By the 1950s, his political views had changed dramatically, and he had become more conservative. In the 1960s, he campaigned for presidential candidates Barry Goldwater and Richard M. Nixon.

An artist as well as a novelist, Dos Passos created his own cover art for his books, was influenced by modernism in 1920s Paris, and painted. He died on September 28, 1970, in Baltimore, Maryland. Spence's Point, his Virginia estate, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1971.

Early life[edit]

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Dos Passos was the out-of-wedlock (or natural) son of John Randolph Dos Passos (1844–1917), a lawyer of half Madeiran Portuguese descent, and Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison of Petersburg, Virginia. His father was married and had a son several years older than John. John traveled as a child extensively with his mother, who was an invalid and preferred Europe.

Although John's father married his mother after the death of his first wife in 1910, he refused to acknowledge John for another two years, until he was 16.[3] John Randolph Dos Passos was an authority on trusts and a staunch supporter of the powerful industrial conglomerates for which his son would express criticism in his fictional works of the 1920s and 1930s.[4]

After he and his mother returned, John Dos Passos received a good education at the Choate School (now Choate Rosemary Hall), a private prep school in Wallingford, Connecticut, in 1907 under the name John Roderigo Madison. He tried to adapt to its American culture. His parents later arranged for him to travel with a private tutor on a six-month tour of France, England, Italy, Greece, and the Middle East to study the masters of classical art, architecture, and literature.

In 1912, Dos Passos enrolled in Harvard College, where he became friends with classmate E.E. Cummings. He said there was a "foreignness" about Dos Passos, and "no one at Harvard looked less like an American."[5]

Following his graduation in 1916, Dos Passos traveled to Spain to study art and architecture. In July 1917, with World War I raging in Europe, Dos Passos volunteered for the S.S.U. 60 of the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, along with friends E.E. Cummings and Robert Hillyer. Later, he also worked as a volunteer ambulance driver with the American Red Cross in north-central Italy.

By the late summer of 1918, Dos Passos had completed a draft of his first novel. At the same time, he had to report for duty with the U.S. Army Medical Corps at Camp Crane in Pennsylvania. On Armistice Day, he was stationed in Paris, where the U.S. Army Overseas Education Commission allowed him to study anthropology at the Sorbonne. Three Soldiers, his novel drawn from these experiences, features a character who has virtually the same military career and stays in Paris after the war.

Literary career[edit]

Considered one of the Lost Generation writers, Dos Passos published his first novel in 1920, One Man's Initiation: 1917. It was followed by an antiwar novel, Three Soldiers, which brought him considerable recognition. His 1925 novel about life in New York City, titled Manhattan Transfer, was a commercial success; he had introduced experimental stream-of-consciousness techniques. These ideas also coalesced into the U.S.A. Trilogy, of which the first book appeared in 1930.

A social revolutionary, Dos Passos came to see the United States as two nations, one rich and one poor. He wrote admiringly about the Industrial Workers of the World, and the injustice in the criminal convictions of Sacco and Vanzetti. He joined with other notable figures in the United States and Europe in a failed campaign to overturn their death sentences. In 1928, Dos Passos spent several months in Russia studying socialism. He was a leading participant in the April 1935 First Americans Writers Congress sponsored by the Communist-leaning League of American Writers, but he eventually balked at the idea of the control that Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, would have on creative writers in the United States.

In 1936—1937, Dos Passos served on The American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, commonly known as the "Dewey Commission," with other notable figures such as Sidney Hook, Reinhold Niebuhr, Norman Thomas, Edmund Wilson, and chairman John Dewey. It had been set up following the first of the Moscow "Show Trials" in 1936, part of the massive purges of party leaders and intellectuals in this period.[6]

The following year, he wrote the screenplay for the film The Devil is a Woman, starring Marlene Dietrich and directed by Josef von Sternberg, exiles from Nazi Germany. It was adapted from the 1898 novel La Femme et le pantin by Pierre Louÿs.

In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Dos Passos returned to Spain with writer Ernest Hemingway, whom he had met in Paris in the 1920s. His views on the Communist movement had already begun to change. Dos Passos broke with Hemingway and Herbert Matthews over what he considered their cavalier attitude towards the war, and their willingness to lend their names to deceptive Stalinist propaganda efforts, including the cover-up of the Soviet responsibility in the murder of José Robles, Dos Passos' friend and translator of his works into Spanish. (In later years, Hemingway would give Dos Passos the derogatory moniker of "the pilot fish" in his memoir of 1920s Paris, A Moveable Feast.)

Of communism, Dos Passos would later write: "I have come to think, especially since my trip to Spain, that civil liberties must be protected at every stage. In Spain I am sure that the introduction of GPU methods by the Communists did as much harm as their tank men, pilots and experienced military men did good. The trouble with an all powerful secret police in the hands of fanatics, or of anybody, is that once it gets started there's no stopping it until it has corrupted the whole body politic. I am afraid that's what's happening in Russia."[7]

Dos Passos had attended the 1932 Democratic National Convention and subsequently wrote an article for The New Republic in which he harshly criticized the selection of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the party's nominee. In the mid-1930s he wrote a series of scathing articles about Communist political theory. In his novel The Big Money, he features a character who is an idealist Communist gradually worn down and destroyed by groupthink in the party. As a result of socialism gaining popularity in Europe in response to the rise of Fascism, there was a sharp decline in international sales of his books.[citation needed]

Between 1942 and 1945, Dos Passos worked as a journalist and war correspondent covering World War II.

In 1947, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Tragedy struck the same year when an automobile accident killed his wife of 18 years, Katharine Smith, and cost him the sight in one eye. The couple had no children. Dos Passos married Elizabeth Hamlyn Holdridge (1909–1998) in 1949, by whom he had one daughter, Lucy Hamlin Dos Passos (b. 1950).

His politics, which had always undermined his work, moved to the right, and Dos Passos came to have a qualified, and temporary, sympathy for the goals of Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s.[8] However, his longtime friend, journalist John Chamberlain, believed that "Dos always remained a libertarian."[9]

In the 1950s, Dos Passos also contributed to publications such as the history magazine American Heritage, for which he wrote essays on Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Sade, Aaron Burr, and Robert Morris,[10] the libertarian journal The Freeman and the conservative magazine, National Review.[11]

In the same decade, he published the influential study, The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson (1954), about which fellow ex-radical Max Eastman wrote: "I think John Dos Passos has done a great service to his country and the free world by lending his talents to this task. He has revived the heart and mind of Jefferson, not by psycho-analytical lucubrations or soulful gush, but in the main by telling story after story of those whose lives and thoughts impinged upon his. And Jefferson's mind and heart are so livingly related to our problems today that the result seems hardly to be history."[12]

Recognition for his significant contribution to literature would come thirty years later in Europe when, in 1967, he was invited to Rome, to accept the prestigious Antonio Feltrinelli Prize for international distinction in literature. Although Dos Passos' partisans have contended that his later work was ignored because of his changing politics, many critics agree that the quality of his novels declined following U.S.A.

In the 1960s, he actively campaigned for conservative presidential candidates Barry Goldwater and Richard M. Nixon, and became associated with the group Young Americans for Freedom.[13] He continued to write until his death in Baltimore, Maryland in 1970. He is interred in Yeocomico Churchyard Cemetery in Cople Parish, Westmoreland County, Virginia, near where he had made his home.

Over his long career, Dos Passos wrote forty-two novels, as well as numerous poems, essays, and plays, and created more than four hundred pieces of art.

U.S.A. trilogy[edit]

His major work is the U.S.A. trilogy, comprising The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). Dos Passos used experimental techniques in these novels, incorporating newspaper clippings, autobiography, biography, and fictional realism to paint a vast landscape of American culture during the first decades of the 20th century. Though each novel stands on its own, the trilogy is designed to be read as a whole. Dos Passos' political and social reflections in the novel are deeply pessimistic about the political and economic direction of the United States, and few of the characters manage to hold onto their ideals through the First World War.

Artistic career[edit]

Before becoming a leading novelist of his day, John Dos Passos sketched and painted. During the summer of 1922, he studied at Hamilton Easter Field's art colony in Ogunquit, Maine. Many of his books published during the ensuing ten years used jackets and illustrations that Dos Passos created. Influenced by various movements, he merged elements of Impressionism, Expressionism, and Cubism to create his own unique style. And his work evolved with his first exhibition at New York's National Arts Club in 1922 and the following year at Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's Studio Club in New York City.

While Dos Passos never gained recognition as a great artist, he continued to paint throughout his lifetime and his body of work was well respected. His art most often reflected his travels in Spain, Mexico, North Africa, plus the streets and cafés of the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris that he had frequented with good friends Fernand Léger, Ernest Hemingway, Blaise Cendrars, and others.

Between 1925 and 1927, Dos Passos wrote plays as well as created posters and set designs for the New Playwrights Theatre in New York City. In his later years, his attention turned to painting scenes around his residences in Maine and Virginia.

In early 2001, an exhibition titled The Art of John Dos Passos opened at the Queens Borough Library in New York City. It toured to several locations throughout the United States.

Influence[edit]

Dos Passos' pioneering works of nonlinear fiction were a major influence in the field. In particular Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz and Jean-Paul Sartre's Roads To Freedom trilogy show the influence of his methods.[citation needed] In an often cited 1936 essay, Sartre referred to Dos Passos as "the greatest writer of our time."[citation needed]

American writer Mary McCarthy said that The 42nd Parallel was among the chief influences on her own work.[14] In the television documentary, The Odyssey of John Dos Passos (1994), writer Norman Mailer said: “Those three volumes of U.S.A. make up the idea of a 'Great American Novel.'”[citation needed]

Science fiction writers have also been influenced by Dos Passos's works. John Brunner's "non-novel" Stand on Zanzibar (1968), which won the Hugo Award, features his technique of using fictitious newspaper clippings, television announcements, and other "samples" taken from the news and entertainment media of the year 2010. While influenced by Dos Passos's technique, Brunner's work was also inspired by emerging European literary theory on meta-fiction. Joe Haldeman's novel Mindbridge (2014) also uses the collage technique. His short story, "To Howard Hughes: A Modest Proposal" (1974), explored a wealthy man reacting to the threat of war by wielding the power of private atomic reaction.[15]

Dos Passos is referenced in the Fugs' song "A Poem by Charles Bukowski", which criticizes his move to the right.

The 2012 American movie Hemingway & Gellhorn, directed by Philip Kaufman, depicts Dos Passos during the making of a propaganda film, The Spanish Earth, which he co-wrote.

The non-fiction work The Unwinding (2013) by journalist George Packer was inspired by the format and style of the 'U.S.A. trilogy'. He explored a contemporary array of people whose lives express different aspects of American social changes.

The British documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis says he has been inspired by Dos Passos and tries to incorporate his technique in film: "Why I love Dos Passos is he tells political stories but at the same time he also lets you know what it feels like to live through them. Most journalism does not acknowledge that people live at least as much in their heads as they do in the world."[16]

Dos Passos Prize[edit]

The John Dos Passos Prize is a literary award given annually by the Department of English and Modern Languages at Longwood University. The prize seeks to recognize "American creative writers who have produced a substantial body of significant publication that displays characteristics of John Dos Passos' writing: an intense and original exploration of specifically American themes, an experimental approach to form, and an interest in a wide range of human experiences."

Works[edit]

Literary works[edit]

  • One Man's Initiation: 1917 (1920). Reprinted in 1945, under the title First Encounter
  • Three Soldiers (1921[17])
  • A Pushcart at the Curb (1922)
  • Rosinante to the Road Again (1922)
  • Streets of Night (1923)
  • Manhattan Transfer (1925)
  • Facing the Chair (1927)
  • Orient Express (1927)
  • U.S.A. (1938). Three-volume set includes
  • Tour of Duty (1946)
  • The Ground we Stand On (1949)
  • District of Columbia (1952). Three-volume set includes
  • Chosen Country (1951)
  • Most Likely to Succeed (1954)
  • The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson (1954)
  • "The Theme Is Freedom" (1956)
  • The Men Who Made the Nation (1957)
  • The Great Days (1958)
  • Prospects of a Golden Age (1959)
  • Midcentury (1961)
  • Mr. Wilson's War (1962)
  • Brazil on the Move (1963)
  • The Best Times: An Informal Memoir (1966)
  • The Shackles of Power (1966)
  • World in a Glass - A View of Our Century From the Novels of John Dos Passos (1966)
  • The Portugal Story (1969)
  • Century's Ebb: The Thirteenth Chronicle (1970)
  • Easter Island: Island of Enigmas (1970)
  • Lettres à Germaine Lucas Championnière (2007) - only in French

Other writings[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Dos Passos". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved 2016-01-21. 
  2. ^ "Dos Passos, John". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2016-01-21. 
  3. ^ Carr, Virginia Spencer (1984). Dos Passos: A Life. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. ISBN 978-0-8101-2200-0. pp 114–117. The acknowledgement was never full or warm, nor were relations between the half-brothers Louis and John.
  4. ^ See, e.g., John R. Dos Passo, The Negro Question, 12 Yale Law Journal 467 (1903) (arguing for returning power to states governing African American voting).
  5. ^ The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature, edited by Steven R. Serafin, Alfred Bendixen, A&C Black, 2005, p. 288
  6. ^ Review of Beard, Becker and the Trotsky Inquiry, by Harold Kirker and Burleigh Taylor Wilkins (1961), The Johns Hopkins University Press. American Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Winter, 1961), pp. 516-525
  7. ^ Diggins, John Patrick, "'Organization is Death': John Dos Passos," and "Visions of Order: Dos Passos," in Up From Communism, 1975, Columbia University Press, then Harper & Row, pp. 74-117, and pp. 233-268.
  8. ^ Diggins, pp.233-268.
  9. ^ Chamberlain, John, A Life With the Printed Word, 1982, Regnery, p.113.
  10. ^ Dos Passos, John. "Bio and list of essays by John Dos Passos". AmericanHeritage.com. American Heritage Publishing. 
  11. ^ John P. Diggins, "'Organization is Death': John Dos Passos," and "Visions of Order: Dos Passos," in Up From Communism, 1975, Columbia University Press, then Harper & Row, pp. 74-117, and pp. 233-268.
  12. ^ Dos Passos, The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson, dust jacket, first edition, 1954, Doubleday.
  13. ^ Diggins, Up From Communism.
  14. ^ See, e.g., Jack Cashill, Hoodwinked, Nelson Current, 2005, p.44.
  15. ^ [ Joan GordonJoe Haldeman], Wildside Press LLC, 1980, p. 55
  16. ^ Adams, Tim (9 October 2016). "Adam Curtis continues search for the hidden forces behind a century of chaos". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 2 May 2017. 
  17. ^ http://www.eldritchpress.org/wwone/threes.html

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]