The reputation of the American novelist John Roderigo Dos Passos (1896-1970) is based chiefly on his early work, especially the trilogy "U.S.A."
John Dos Passos was born in Chicago on Jan. 14, 1896, the illegitimate son of a noted New York lawyer, John Randolph Dos Passos, and a wealthy Virginian, Lucy Addison Sprigg. His father did not acknowledge paternity until a year before his death, when the young Dos Passos was 20. As a boy, Dos Passos lived principally on the Virginia farm of his mother's family, and he also traveled frequently with his mother to Mexico, Belgium, and England.
Dos Passos attended Choate School under the name John Roderigo Madison. He graduated from Harvard in 1916, meanwhile publishing stories, verse, and reviews in the Harvard Monthly.
In 1917 Dos Passos was in Spain, studying Spanish culture. During World War I he enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Unit and served in Spain and Italy. In 1918 he became a private in the U.S. Medical Corps, serving in France. Demobilized in 1919, he remained in Europe to finish two novels: One Man's Initiation—1917 (1920) and Three Soldiers (1921). During the 1920s Dos Passos worked as a newspaper correspondent and traveled extensively but, as an increasingly successful author, he lived chiefly in New York.
One Man's Initiation—1917, based on Dos Passos' experiences as an ambulance corpsman, is poignantly antiwar. It also foreshadows a more pervasive theme of his work: contemporary technological society's crippling effects on its inhabitants.
Dos Passos' first significant novel, Three Soldiers, is a bitterly ironic commentary on the professed ideals for which World War I was fought and, more deeply, on the "values" by which modern, mechanized man lives. Dos Passos sees the real enemy as the army itself, which by exacerbating the ordinary weaknesses and inner conflicts of its members causes irreparable harm. His three major characters are entirely broken by army life. Three Soldiers is part of an anti-World War I literary tradition that includes works by Ernest Hemingway, Robert Graves, E. E. Cummings, William Faulkner, and Erich Maria Remarque.
Manhattan Transfer (1925) is Dos Passos' first major experimental novel. Set in New York, it is a panoramic view of the frustrations and defeats of contemporary urban life. Frequently shifting focus among its marginally related characters, the novel details an oppressive picture of human calamity and defeat; fires, accidents, brawls, crimes, and suicides abound, and unhappiness is pervasive. The novel is uneven; it is contrived in its plotting and confusing in its use of time but interesting and especially noteworthy for its development of formal devices that would be better employed in U.S.A.
Dos Passos' 1920s output also included a volume of free verse, A Pushcart at the Curb (1922); two impressionistic travel books, Rosinante to the Road Again (1922) and Orient Express (1927); a novel, Streets of Night (1923); two plays; and a tract in defense of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, Facing the Chair (1927).
Politics and Reportage
The political implications of Dos Passos' early writings are clearly socialist, and in 1926 he helped found the New Masses, a Marxist political and cultural journal, to which he contributed until the early 1930s. In 1927 he was jailed in Boston for picketing on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti. In 1928 he visited the Soviet Union. Returning to the United States in 1929, he married Katherine F. Smith.
As a political reporter for the New Republic and other journals during the early 1930s, Dos Passos covered labor flareups, political conventions, the Depression, and the New Deal. His fundamental distrust of organized society extended to organizations as well, and despite his sympathy with many Communist causes he was always a maverick rather than a party radical. In 1934 an overt rift developed between Dos Passos and the Communist movement, and it marked the beginning of a long shift to the right in his political sympathies.
After a one-man show of his sketches in 1937, Dos Passos went to Spain to help Hemingway and Joris Ivens make a film documentary of the Spanish Civil War, The Spanish Earth. Dos Passos and Hemingway, who had earlier survived an auto accident together, were good friends until Dos Passos' sympathies with the anarchist faction estranged Hemingway, who was partial to the main Loyalist forces.
In 1940 Dos Passos became active in behalf of political refugees, and during World War II did a good deal of war writing, principally for Harper's and Life magazines, for whom he later covered the postwar Nuremberg trials.
U.S.A. (1937), Dos Passos' masterpiece, is a trilogy made up of The 42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen-Nineteen (1932), and The Big Money (1936). To solve the time problem that flawed Manhattan Transfer, Dos Passos employed three unusual devices: "The Camera Eye," autobiographical episodes rendered in a Joycean stream of consciousness; "Newsreel," a Dada-like pastiche of mass culture, combining fragments of pop songs, newspaper headlines, and political speeches; and short biographies, impressionistic sketches of some of the prominent figures of the 1900-1930 time span—Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst, Thomas A. Edison, Charles Steinmetz, and others. These sections serve as time guides and also as markers separating the narrative chapters that constitute the bulk of the trilogy and are concerned with a cross section of American social types. Among these are Mac McCreary, a poor boy who grows to a class consciousness and revolutionary commitment so strong that he deserts his family to serve the revolution in Mexico; Eleanor Stoddard, a New York interior decorator, whose gentility and estheticism are pitiably empty responses to her sordid childhood; Evaline Hutchins, an aspiring artist with little talent whose boredom with her habit of failure leads her to suicide; J. Ward Morehouse, a self-made millionaire publicist and labor politician and a prototype of the ruthless opportunist; Richard Savage, a Harvard esthete and idealist who ultimately succumbs to the enticements of big business and becomes a Morehouse employee; Mary French, an idealistic union official who becomes disillusioned with the radical movement when her Communist fiancé marries someone of the party's choice; and Charley Anderson, a likable inventor who makes a fortune in the airplane business.
The characters' lives cross briefly and futilely. All are seen in dual perspective: publicly, as they relate to the class struggle between labor and industry; and privately, as they suffer frustration and a gnawing sense of unfulfillment. Though they are closely observed, the characters rarely get beyond social typology, so that the predominant narrative sections, ironically, are less compelling than the "device" sections. However, its scope and daring give U.S.A. distinction, and it had a powerful impact on the social novel in America.
Later Life and Work
In a 1947 auto accident Dos Passos lost an eye and his wife was killed. In 1950 he married Elizabeth H. Holdridge; their daughter was Dos Passos' only child. After 1949 he lived principally on his family farm in Westmoreland, Va. Dos Passos died on Sept. 28, 1970, in Baltimore.
Always prolific, after the war Dos Passos divided his writing between reportage and fiction. His later novels tend toward moodiness and romantic despair. District of Columbia (1952) is a trilogy consisting of Adventures of a Young Man (1939), Number One (1943), and The Grand Design (1949). A chronicle of the Spotswood family, it takes as its theme the destruction of individuals by a complex, mechanistic, industrial society. Critics were generally displeased with the trilogy.
Chosen Country (1951), an autobiographical novel; Most Likely to Succeed (1954), a novel of leftist infighting; and The Great Days (1958), a semiautobiographical novel, add up to little more than an anti-Communist warning to the effect that the end never justifies the means. This is also the substance and weakness of State of the Nation (1944), Tour of Duty (1946), the General Mills-commissioned The Prospect before Us (1950), and The Theme Is Freedom (1956).
Among Dos Passos' other nonfiction titles are The Ground We Stand On (1941), a historical survey of Anglo-American democracy; The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson (1954), a biography; Prospects of a Golden Age (1959), a composite biographical account of early American culture; and The Portugal Story (1969), a historical study.
Further Reading on John Roderigo Dos Passos
Dos Passos' The Best Times (1966) is a fragmentary autobiography, ranging from 1896 to 1936 but focused mainly on the 1920s; it offers an especially interesting account of his literary friendships. John H. Wrenn, John Dos Passos (1962), is a good critical biography. Excellent critical evaluations of Dos Passos may be found in Malcolm Cowley, Exile's Return (1934; new ed. 1951); Joseph Warren Beach, American Fiction, 1920-1940 (1941); Maxwell Geismar, Writers in Crisis: The American Novel between Two Wars (1942); Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (1942; abr. ed. 1956); and Jean-Paul Sartre, Literary and Philosophical Essays (1955).
Additional Biography Sources
Carr, Virginia Spencer, Dos Passos: a life, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984.
Knox, George Albert, Dos Passos and "the revolting playwrights", Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.
Ludington, Townsend, John Dos Passos: a twentieth century odyssey, New York: Dutton, 1980.