Dos Passos: A Reassessment
Jean-Paul Sartre once called John Dos Passos [1896–1970] “the greatest novelist of the century,” a judgment which he did not hold alone. Yet now, though Dos Passos has continued to write, few seem willing to rate him so highly.
His biographer, John Wrenn, states the problem as a question: “What happened to John Dos Passos?” It is only one of many remarkable facts about Dos Passos that the man whom Sartre and others honored so highly has all but dropped from sight. To those who remember him, it is most often as a kind of literary curiosity. Few visit his Virginia residence, although he has shown himself to be a willing correspondent and interview subject. Relatively few scholarly articles are written about him. Even the popular press seems to have forgotten the man who was once so controversial a subject. It is important, I believe, to examine Dos Passos’ career more closely. For, as Wrenn argues, ‘If sufficient light can be brought to bear on the problem, ‘What’s happened to Dos Passos?’—then some light may be reflected by implication upon the more general problem: that of the artist in twentieth-century America.”
Granville Hicks, one of the fairest of his critics, approaches the problem this way:
He has been student and reporter and often poet of change. And he has been the victim of change, too. Twenty years ago he was as romantic a rebel as American letters had since the death of John Reed. Today this pioneer fellow traveler defends the profit motive, quarrels not merely with Communism but also with the New Deal. . . .
Hicks thus establishes the stereotype of the radical turned reactionary which has followed Dos Passos since the late thirties. It is partly true; how true we shall examine later.
It is fairly obvious that Dos Passos underwent some political change of heart in the late thirties, but he was by no means alone. There was a general movement toward the right, partly as a result of the Stalinist persecutions and the Hitler-Stalin pact. Many on the literary left re-examined their position in those years. Max Eastman and Whittaker Chambers, both former Communists, were to move as far right as did Dos Passos, who had never joined the party. Archibald MacLeish began to find his heroes in the business world. Even Edmund Wilson and Malcolm Cowley lost some of their revolutionary zeal and began to disaffiliate from popular fronts, and Lionel Trilling wrote a novel about the phenomenon. There was in the literary world a great ferment.
Yet somehow Dos Passos, only one of many writers whose politics changed, suffered most at the hands of his friends on the left. Perhaps it was because he was such a politically oriented writer, and his new political orientation was unpalatable to critics who had not moved so far right as he. In Arthur Mizener’s words, “It would probably have been useless to protest against the irrelevant and damaging judgments of the forties; the subject of Dos Passos’ work made an immediate political response almost certain.”
When Edmund Wilson reviewed State of the Nation in 1944, Hicks tells us, he remarked that the world had moved away from Dos Passos and that his imagination was not involved with his material as it had been when he was at his best. Hicks then continued the theme in a later assessment:
Today  . . . he seems dissociated from the kind of reality he has chosen to deal with. Perhaps it is not merely metaphorical to talk about traumatic experiences; perhaps he is the victim of the successive shocks he has undergone. If the shocks had driven him in upon himself, they might have deepened his work, but he has remained committed, as few American novelists have been, to . . . the impersonal, the historic event. Everything has depended on his maintaining a vital relationship to the outer world and a break in that relationship was bound to result not only in political confusion but also in a decline of literary mastery.
There is some insight in Hicks’ remarks, and we shall take up later the problem of the shocks he refers to. But I believe he is wrong about the cause of Dos Passos’ artistic decline—a problem which will be dealt with later also. And there is the implication, found in so much of the criticism of Dos Passos’ later work, that a writer cannot work from the “wrong” political position. Conservative critics like Jeffrey Hart are just as guilty of this error and argue for the superiority of his later work. There is in much of this argument a blind partisanship which does great harm to Dos Passos.
The first novel of this conservative period was Adventures of a Young Man (1939), in which a young American Communist is disillusioned by the party’s manipulation of the Loyalists in Spain and finally assassinated for his failure to accept party discipline. The critics, some of whom had been Communists, were outraged. “The critical responses to Adventures of a Young Man were colored as much by politics as by aesthetics. Malcolm Cowley called it Dos Passos’ weakest book in nearly twenty years, a verdict which he admitted might have been influenced by his disagreement with Dos Passos’ ideas.”
James T. Farrell reviewed it from a very different perspective. He called the unfavorable criticism “a warning to writers not to stray off the reservation of the Stalinist controlled League of American Writers to which more than one of the critics belong.” Dos Passos, of course, did not heed the warning, and lost his place as the darling of the Left to Hemingway.
Somewhere between the bitter disappointment of Cowley and Wilson and the angry oversimplification of Farrell lies the truth about Dos Passos. Farrell was right about the motives of some critics; some of them even admitted to political bias. Yet they were also right in pointing to a decline of his artistry. Something had happened to Dos Passos. Too many of the later novels are treated “in the narrowly didactic fashion that makes us feel, in much of Dos Passos’ later fiction, that we are not confronting life itself but incidents invented to demonstrate a lecture.”
The reason he lectures may not be, as Hicks suggested, that he has got too far from the material, but that he is too close to it. Dos Passos said in 1947 that writers should be willing to starve in garrets again. The statement suggests an artistic isolation from mainstream life; “If his comment of 1947 sounded a bit wistful, it may have been because of his awareness that he had lost his own essential isolation—or, in his metaphor, his spiritual hunger—not because he had not heeded it faithfully, but because he had satisfied it a decade earlier: he had thereby lost his artistic genius.” Dos Passos had, in his earlier career, a strong sense of alienation and mission in his attacks on the Establishment. He was the young romantic, battling great odds, taking risks in his support of radical causes. And, as Robert Gorham Davis has said, “As long as his quest preserved its spirit, the infusion of nostalgia and hope into politics made art possible. When romance faded, only bitter partisanship remained.” Although Dos Passos argues that he always fights power wherever it is established, it is undeniable that his later convictions put him more on the side of established opinion and robbed him of a sense of isolation and rebellion which permeated his early work.
Grant then that Dos Passos’ late politics were bound to set the majority of critics against him. Grant that he had lost some of the passion of his youth, and his necessary sense of isolation as an artist. And grant that there is less power and substance in most of his later novels. But we are still operating with the stereotype of the two writers—one radical, one conservative—and it is this stereotype which has hindered efforts toward a fuller understanding of his success and failure.
Were there really two Dos Passos? I think not—not in the way commonly believed. There is a consistency in his position that should surprise those who too easily accepted the cliché. This consistency is based on his fear of power. Hicks acknowledged that “Nothing is deeper in the man than his fear of power.” And Davis speaks of his “stubborn individualism and distrust of authority which leads him to regard each new institutional development as a final threat to popular government.”
Dos Passos argues that he has consistently opposed all threats to freedom and has simply seen the enemies of freedom change. He says in The Theme Is Freedom:
The knot which our society must untie is the problem of controlling the power over men’s lives of these stratified corporations, which, whether their top management calls itself capitalist or socialist, are so admirably adapted by the pull of centralization to despotic rule.
In the early part of the century, the power lay in the hands of the capitalists; now, he feels, it is in the hands of the same groups—Communists, labor unions, and liberals in general—who helped fight Big Business.
Like Thorstein Veblen, “Fighting Bob” La Follette, and the other lonely men whom he honors in U.S.A. for their “constitutional inability to say yes” to the dominant doctrines of the American mind, John Dos Passos has never been afraid to be different. In the era of laissez-faire capitalism his fictional spokesmen drank champagne toasts to “Revolution, to Anarchy, to the Socialist State”; with the dawn of the welfare economy they switched to the individualistic insistence that “if we want to straighten out the people we’ve got to start with number one.”
The process which produced this change was, as Hicks suggested, a series of shocks. If Dos Passos has been consistent philosophically, then he has seen a dramatic change in the form of the groups he believes can best promote his philosophy. In 1932 he voted for a Communist for president; in 1964 he voted for Barry Goldwater; in between, a series of shocks changed his allegiance.
There were several incidents—a riot in Madison Square Garden was most prominent—which showed him the Communists were ruthlessly bent on ruling or ruining the coalitions they joined. The Spanish Civil War demonstrated even more dramatically, with the assassination of an anarchist who was a close friend, that the Communists were to be feared as much as the Fascists they fought. Then, with the seeds of doubt sown, he began to re-examine Roosevelt’s third term in office from the point of view of its permissiveness toward union corruption and its collection of power. He saw that the little man was still enslaved by organizations, although the organizations may have been dedicated originally to his betterment.
Perhaps the greatest shock of all was his work on U.S.A. Critics who have written about Dos Passos’ journey to Spain during the Civil War, and who point to his shocking discovery while there of how ruthlessly the Communists were undercutting their supposed allies within the popular front as the operative cause of his disillusionment with radicalism, miss the point; the central experience in Dos Passos’ political education was the titanic labor of creating U.S.A. The trilogy changed the man who wrote it, imbuing in him a new respect for “the ground we stand on,” a new awareness of historical continuity, a new appreciation of the complexities of human motivation. History was not escapable after all, nor was it as simple as it had seemed.
But understanding Dos Passos’ personal consistency cannot, by itself, make us understand his success or failure as a writer. In fact, we must make a distinction between Dos Passos the writer and Dos Passos the citizen-historian, a role which Wrenn feels he has assumed.
If the perspective of Dos Passos’ novels seems warped, that of the man is constant and whole. But it is still the perspective of the citizen rather than of the isolated artist. To many readers trained in the liberalism of the 1930s, Dos Passos’ perspective as a citizen is also warped. But it would be fairer and truer to say that theirs is, if they have not been so ready as he to refocus as continuing problems and the institutions which reflect them constantly change and take new forms.
Even Dos Passos seems to have accepted this new role. Although he continues to write novels, he seems more interested in the nonfiction works, particularly in his historical-political books, which include significantly a young person’s biography of Jefferson. It is Jefferson above all Americans who appeals to Dos Passos, and it is his own Jeffersonian liberalism that keeps him on the alert against the abuse of power from any source. Like Jefferson, Dos Passos is, in Maxwell Geismar’s words, “the archetype of the rational writer within our traditions, the conscious, moral, progressive writer, the embodiment, not of the destructive, but of all our civilizational aspirations.”
He has never abandoned the Jeffersonian ideal of maximum freedom in a decentralized nation, and he warns us that “we must never forget that we are heirs to one of the grandest and most nearly realized world views in all history.” As Marshall McLuhan observed, “Iniquity inside or outside the U.S.A. is always a failure to live up to the Jeffersonian dream.”
It is the dream of the little man, the small farmer and worker who wants to be free from centralization and tyranny, whether it come from business or labor, the right or the left. It is represented by what are surely his most sympathetic characters throughout his fiction, early and late. They are the real keys to Dos Passos’ sympathies and the best evidence for his consistency. We may find them in most of his books, but the most profitable comparison can be made between U.S.A., published as a trilogy in 1937, and Midcentury, published in 1961.
A comparison between these two novels, one from the early and one from his late period, will, I believe, reveal several things. First, of course, we can see in his treatment of characters his consistent philosophical position. Second, we can, with Midcentury, discredit the notion that Dos Passos’ later period produced no good novels. Third, and most important, we can see, in the technical similarities of these two books and through a comparison to his more conventional and less convincing novels, the real key to Dos Passos’ success and failure as a novelist.
The characters of Fainey McCreary (Mac) in U.S.A. and Blackie Bowman of Midcentury are similar in many respects. Both are Wobblies—members of the International Workers of the World, devoted to the syndicalist purpose of “building the new world in the shell of the old.” Both are sympathetic to socialism and anarchy, seeing in them a kinship with their own syndicalism. Both are Irish itinerant laborers, harvest hands, and sailors. Both are tempted—by women and prosperity—to leave the labor movement and settle down. Both distrust Communists from past experience, though they have joined with them in popular fronts and free speech fights. “They are of the race that is used and exploited, and get nothing from the game but hard knocks and prison fare and occasional sprees.”
Mac got his education from his Uncle Tim, a hard-drinking socialist printer who told him, “Fainey, you’re a bright boy . . . Read Marx . . . study all you can, remember that you’re a rebel by birth and blood . . . Don’t blame people for things . . . I blame the system . . . And don’t ever sell out to the sons of bitches, son; it’s women’ll make you sell out every time.” So Mac fought the system, convinced that it was the real evil. And finally it was a woman, in Mexico, who settled him down. His part of U.S.A. ends with his running a book shop in Mexico City, very nearly a member of the system.
Blackie Bowman is an extension of Mac. He too fought the great labor battles, went to jail for free speech, tried to rebuild the new system in the shell of the old. He too was tempted toward respectability by women and wealth. He too was educated in syndicalism, socialism, and anarchy—by Earl Gates, a Wobbly leader he met on the bum. “Blackie has been a Wobbly, a reader of Kropotkin, an admirer of Eugene Debs, a fighter in some of the great labor battles early in the century. By evoking [these labor battles], Dos Passos recaptures the spirit of the Fainey McCreary . . . sequences in U.S.A.”
But there is a difference. Fainey still believed it was the system that made life rotten when his story ended. Blackie, who lived longer, knew better. He tells his story from a veteran’s hospital in the fifties as an old man. He has seen labor triumph and become as corrupt as were the capitalists of earlier decades. He has seen Communists cruelly play with the lives and hopes of men like himself in their lust for power. “U.S.A. was informed by the idea that Big Business was the chief threat to individual freedom in America, whereas Midcentury insists that Big Labor is the power which threatens our liberties.” So while Mac says it’s the system, Blackie, who has lived longer, says, “It’s mass organization that turns man into a louse.”
McCreary and Bowman—and the Wobblies, anarchists, and socialists of the first part of this century—are the real key to Dos Passos’ consistency. These groups, despite their differences, were democratic in principle and devoted to insuring maximum personal freedom in the Jeffersonian sense. Thus the young Dos Passos, in U.S.A. and other early works, found them the most suitable heroes, and Mac is probably his most sympathetic early character. But Dos Passos began to see how these well-meaning rebels were being used and destroyed by Communist exploitation, controlled by corrupt unions, and rendered ineffective by a growing federal bureaucracy. Blackie Bowman speaks for him in this passage:
It was the degradation of the Wobblies that was tearing me down. Ever since the old days . . . I’d believed in myself because I was a Wobbly . . . because I was doing my little bit towards . . . helping bring on the revolution, only the right way, the rank and file way, the American way.
And again, in this one:
All my life I’ve been waiting for the Promised Land. We used to call it the Revolution but all that means now is firing squads and jails. . . . Then the organizations began to take over. Opened up the Promised Land to dues paying members only, and then only so long as you keep your trap shut.
Dos Passos is as angry about those who corrupted the revolution as he was earlier about those who would have denied it. He has not, like so many others, assumed that the revolution has come and that it has been fully realized, Here he speaks for himself in a recent article, but the echoes of Mac and Blackie are clear: “It seemed so simple to burn out the caterpillars who were ruining the orchard. The first of May was coming. . . . This was all fifty years ago. Now we know that the first of May will never come. Where the workers conquered they allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by organizations even more oppressive than the old regimes they had overthrown.” This is hardly the statement of an arch-conservative. It is more accurately the statement of a revolutionary who, like Mac and Blackie, has been cheated of his revolution. “How could they overcome the cheaters? Dos Passos cannot say. Socialism? Communism? The New Deal? These are not the answers. So far as one can interpret him, the only valid answers are what the Wobblies knew. . . .” McCreary and Bowman are extensions of Dos Passos himself, and “Presenting Blackie so sympathetically Dos Passos means to show how consistent his own underlying principles have been.”
Midcentury is Dos Passos’ answer to the critics who said he had lost his artistry and his concern for people. In some respects and to some critics it was not entirely successful. To most, it was a revival of the great talent which created U.S.A. As one reviewer put it, “Seldom does a writer retrieve a long-lost reputation at a single stroke, but John Dos Passos has probably done just that with Midcentury, by far his best novel since he completed the U.S.A. trilogy . . . in 1936.” Some reviewers began to question the cliché of the two Dos Passos, with Midcentury. They began to see that U.S.A. was less Marxist and more individualist-oriented than many had at first believed. And they realized that the supposedly cranky conservative they had been told about was still full of revolutionary zeal. Midcentury upset the early categories about Dos Passos.
It was designed, in subject, theme, and form, to complement the earlier trilogy. “By a similar diversification of narrative techniques, it evokes the period 1945–1960 as effectively as U.S.A. summons forth an earlier era. But Midcentury becomes even more fascinating when it is read in conjunction with the trilogy it so closely resembles—when listened to as if it were the coda to a great American symphony. For in doing so we gain, a unique understanding of what has happened to us as a people in the course of a fantastic century.” Wrenn, too, considers it his best book since U.S.A. and describes his purpose as “to organize the chaotic whole of American life into an artistic pattern.”
It is this pattern which is the most important key to Dos Passos’ success and failure as a novelist—not his politics, which we have seen did not change so much; not his passion, which seems to have been rather persistent; and not simply his age. His major contribution to the novel has been the innovative pattern around which U.S.A. and Midcentury are organized. His other novels, early and late, which were organized on more conventional patterns, were less successful. The reasons will be examined later; first, let us describe and compare the patterns of the two books.
The organization of U.S.A. compares to that of the montage in painting or film. It is composed of several elements which are interspersed throughout a more or less chronological movement. There is first the narrative itself. It deals, in rather conventional form, with a great variety of characters and covers the years from the beginning of the century to the stock market crash. Many of the characters dealt with in their own chapters turn up in relationships to other characters in theirs, thus interconnecting the segments of the narrative rather like a conventional novel. In the narrative, Dos Passos maintains an aloof, ironic position regarding most of his characters.
The Newsreels provide a contrast to the more personal elements like the narrative and the Camera Eye. They are collections of headlines, news stories, popular songs, and the like.
The biographies serve a similar function. The lives of famous contemporary Americans can be compared to the private lives in the narrative, the objective events in the Newsreels and the purely subjective material in the Camera Eyes.
The Camera Eyes are the author himself in a stream of consciousness narrative. Events in them can be compared to events in Dos Passos’ life.
Thus we have a scale of subjectivity-objectivity running from the purely subjective Camera Eyes, through the narrative, to the biographies, and finally to the nearly objective (of course, the songs, headlines, etc. were selected by the author) Newsreels. The effect of this range of subjectivity-objectivity is one of tension. The reader is kept especially alert as he moves from one part to another, in a variety of sequences. He cannot settle on one emotional level of narrative and so must accept them all. Say the reader has identified himself with a character in the narrative. Then, “if the reader has affected some bonds of sympathy with the personages in the previous category, his demanded attention to public utterances, which by definition violates the subtle and personal realities with which he has found common ground, forces him in defense to apply ironic perspectives to his reading.” It is this irony, inherent in the form of both U.S.A. and Midcentury, which raises them above the other, less subtle work of Dos Passos, including both early and late novels, from One Man’s Initiation (1920) to Most Likely to Succeed (1954). Indeed, it is often overlooked that some of Dos Passos’ early work is just as heavily didactic as anything from his conservative period, albeit conveying a different message.
In Midcentury, the Camera Eye is replaced by Investigator’s Notes (the McClellan Committee investigation into union corruption), and the Newsreels by Documentaries more in line with changes in the media. The same powerful irony is inherent in this slightly altered form. The political ground is, of course, somewhat different, as we discussed earlier. Biographies in U.S.A. showed America’s friends and enemies as the younger Dos Passos saw them—heroes Eugene Debs and Thorstein Veblen, villains Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan; those in Midcentury reflect his newer assessment—friends like General Dean and Bob La Follette Jr., enemies like Walter Reuther and actor James Dean. The anti-union thesis is sometimes too strong; but it is no less subtle than the anti-business thesis which motivated much of U.S.A. The point is that this particular form allows a politically oriented writer like Dos Passos to keep some distance from his work.
He is able to mix tragedy with comedy, the important with the trivial, on a large scale. The reader’s understanding of either book is necessarily a large one, gathered from thousands of impressions. The form allows Dos Passos to reflect the complexity of America. Without it, he has a tendency to oversimplify his material toward a particular thesis. “So that what appears at first a mere eccentricity turns out to be a symbol of something primary in the author’s philosophy.”
The form of these two books is Dos Passos’ unique contribution to literature. With Midcentury, he seems to have recognized how important it was to him. Without it, he is just another political novelist; with it, he may still deserve Sartre’s praise.
So there are, in a sense, two Dos Passos. One, working in conventional form, is too close to his material, too obvious in his treatment. The other, the technical genius of U.S.A. and Midcentury, is kept at a distance by the form itself, and is thus able to move us with irony and subtlety. There may be a third Dos Passos, too—the citizen-historian who in the long view may care more for the fate of his nation than for his reputation as a writer.
He is still very much with us. No one has written so inclusively of America in this century. No one has changed the shape of prose so much in recent years. His life and work are rich in the influences that made this century in America, and are awaiting the necessary re-evaluation that should establish them in the important place they deserve.
1. “John Dos Passos and ‘1919,’ ” Literary and Philosophical Essays (London, 1955), p. 90. This essay was originally published in 1938.
2. John H. Wrenn, John Dos Passos (New York, 1961), p. 8.
3. Dos Passos very kindly answered a letter of mine and suggested several sources for the kind of material in which I had expressed an interest.
4. Wrenn, p. 8.
5. “The Political Development of John Dos Passos,” Antioch Review, X (March 1950), 85.
6. Introduction to John Dos Passos, District of Columbia (Boston, 1938), p. viii.
7. Hicks, p. 90.
8. Joseph Blotner, The Modern American Political Novel, 1900–1960 (Austin, Texas, 1966), p. 314.
9. The New Republic, XCIX, 163.
10. Herbert Solow, “Substitution at Left Tackle: Hemingway for Dos Passos,” Partisan Review, IV (April 1938), p. 24.
11. Robert Gorham Davis, John Dos Passos (Minneapolis, 1962), p. 33.
12. Wrenn, p. 169.
13. Davis, p. 45.
14. Hicks, p. 80.
15. Davis, p. 45.
16. (New York, 1956), p. 253.
17. Dos Passos, World in a Glass, introd. by Kenneth S. Lynn (Boston, 1966), p. v.
18. Dos Passos, World in a Glass, p. xv.
19. Wrenn, p. 178.
20. Writers in Crisis (Boston, 1942), p. 89.
21. Dos Passos, The Theme is Freedom, p. 159.
22. Herbert Marshall McLuhan, “John Dos Passos: Technique vs. Sensibility,” Modern American Fiction: Essays in Criticism, ed. by A. Walton Litz (New York, 1963), p. 146.
23. Joseph Warren Beach, American Fiction, 1920–1940 (New York, 1960), p. 56.
24. Dos Passos, U.S.A. (Boston, 1937), p. 33.
25. Davis, p. 42.
26. Dos Passos, World in a Glass, p. xiv.
27. Dos Passos, Midcentury (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), p. 61.
28. Dos Passos, Midcentury, p. 76.
29. Dos Passos, Midcentury, p. 61.
30. Dos Passos, “What Makes a Novelist,” National Review, XX (January 16, 1968), 30.
31. Willard Thorp, American Writing in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass., 1960), p. 130.
32. Davis, p. 42.
33. Harry Moore, “Proud Men in an Age of Conformity,” New York Times Book Review (Sunday, February 26, 1961), p. 1.
34. Dos Passos, World in a Glass, p. xi.
35. Wrenn, p. 176.
36. Armand Schwerner, Dos Passos’ U.S.A. and Other Works (New York, 1966), p. 65.
37. Beach, p. 44.
Mr. Richard F. Hill (1941–1999) was at the time of writing an instructor in English at the University of South Florida. He wrote five novels and thirty short stories and won the O. Henry Award in 1974.
Posted: September 16, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.
Did you see this one?
Memoir of a Moral Farmer-Philosopher
Robert C. Cheeks
Volume 44, Number 4 (Fall 2006)