John Dos Passos Remembered

American author John Dos Passos gained famed in the early 20th century for his pioneering, iconic descriptions of the modern societal divide. “All right we are two nations,” he declared in his U.S.A. trilogy. Today, these words have been repurposed to describe the ramifications of the Zimmerman trial. The time is ripe to rediscover Dos Passos’ intellectual life, in all its cycles.

In a few months, the Dos Passos family will meet this challenge by launching the first official website for John Dos Passos—complete with a timeline, photos, video, audio, paintings, and quotes. Every effort will be made to accommodate scholars and artists seeking resources. A blog will provide updates on relevant conferences, films, and books.

Dos Passos loved multimedia as art form; the internet is an ideal forum for learning about his life. Many know one or two facets of his life. The website will provide the full picture. Dos Passos leaves a legacy that gains in reflection.

John Roderigo Dos Passos (b.1896, d.1970) was a writer, painter, and political activist. He wrote over forty books, including plays, poetry, novels, biographies, histories, and memoirs. He crafted over four hundred drawings, watercolors, and other artworks. Dos Passos considered himself foremost a writer of contemporary chronicles. He chose the moniker because he was happiest working at the edge of fiction and nonfiction.

'U.S.A.’ by John Dos Passos. 1312 pp. Library of America
‘U.S.A.’ by John Dos Passos. 1312 pp. Library of America

Both genres benefited from his mastery of observation—his “camera eye”— and his sense of historical context. Dos Passos sought to ground fiction in historic detail and working-class, realistic dialogue. He invented a multimedia format of newsreels, songs, biographies, and autobiography to convey the frenzy of 20th century America’s industrialism and urbanism. His most memorable fiction—Three Soldiers (1920), Manhattan Transfer (1925), U.S.A. (1938) –- possesses the authority of history and the allure of myth. Likewise, he sought to vitalize nonfiction history and reportage with the colors, sounds, and smells documented on his journeys across the globe.

In nearly all his works, Dos Passos portrayed the struggle between individuals and systems. “I have tried to look at it from the point of view of the ordinary man, the ordinary woman,” he told The Paris Review, “struggling to retain some dignity and to make a decent life in these vast organizations.” If America were to reclaim its storybook democracy, Dos Passos believed, it had to honor its populist roots.

(R. H. Hoffmann)

Wherever he found the pace and power of modern society to be stifling to individual expression, Dos Passos satirized the institutions at fault. Governments, militaries, labor unions, corporations, universities—all were occasional targets of his satire. Having reported on World War I, World War II, and the Spanish Civil War, he knew the costs of authoritarianism. He watched Europe, his boyhood home, be reduced from a world-class civilization to a rubble heap. He saw firsthand the Battle of Verdun, which killed almost one million people.

But it was his love of people, in all their beguiling diversity, that animated even his darkest satire. “I wonder if any of you have ever noticed,” Dos Passos said, “that it is those who find most pleasure and amusement in their fellow man and have most hope in his goodness, who get the reputation of being his most carping critics.”

In his travel books, Dos Passos was at his merriest, learning new languages, making new friends, and tasting new foods and drinks. He knew Paris and Greenwich Village as well as any American writer in the 1920s and 1930s, but they were mere launching pads for adventure—not ends in themselves. Dos Passos preferred traveling the world on foot, where he could observe from a pure vantage point. He traveled the Syrian Desert from Baghdad to Damascus by camel caravan, shortly after recovering from malaria. He hiked the Pyrenees and the Caucasus Mountains. He wandered England, Belgium, Spain, France, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Armenia, Iraq, Iran, and Morocco. He explored Portugal, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, and Easter Island and wrote books about them.

During World War II, he reported on the war in the Pacific, visiting Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, the Marianas, the Caroline Islands, the Philippines, New Caledonia, New Guinea, and Australia. He crisscrossed the United States, too, in search of culture. He walked the length of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. He walked from Stamford, Connecticut up the Housatonic River to the Massachusetts state line. He explored the prairies of Wyoming and Alaska. He studied its cities: New York City, Boston, Baltimore, New Orleans, Chicago, and San Antonio.

Time and tragedy never diminished his capacity for wonder. “I want to swallow the oyster of the world,” Dos Passos once wrote. “I want to peel the rind of the orange. I want to drink the cup to the dregs—no—I want to swallow it and still have it to look at. I want to peel off the rind in patterns of my own making. I want to paint with the dregs pictures of gods and demons on the great white curtains of eternity.”