John Dos Passos
By Antonio Ramblés
In his day, American author John Dos Passos was as celebrated an author as his contemporaries Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce, and in 1936 his photo appeared on the cover of Time magazine. More than forty years after his death, he has become comparatively obscure despite his towering artistic achievements.
Between 1920 and 1970, Dos Passos wrote forty-two novels, as well as numerous poems and essays. He is perhaps most widely known for a chapter from his masterwork U.S.A. Trilogy titled “Body of an American,” a powerful anti-war piece inspired by the burial at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Armistice Day, 1921.
An annual literary award which bears his name recognizes American writers whose work displays the characteristics of his writing which make it so distinctive. They are, namely, an intense and original exploration of specifically American themes, an experimental approach to form, and interest in a wide range of human experiences.
Truly a Renaissance man, Dos Passos studied art and architecture, and created more than four hundred pieces of art which include jackets and illustrations for many of his books. His visual art was first exhibited at New York’s National Arts Club in 1922, and a later exhibition toured the U.S. in 2001. Between 1925 and 1927, he not only wrote plays, but created posters and set designs for the New Playwrights Theatre in New York City. If writers draw from their own lives for subject matter, then Dos Passos had already gathered a lifetime of experience by the time he wrote his first novel at age twenty-seven.
Born in Chicago, he was the illegitimate son of an attorney who represented industrial trusts and conglomerates. His father married his mother after the death of his first wife when John was fourteen, but did not recognize the boy as his son until two years later. As a fortunate consequence, Dos Passos was able to attend prep school, and to travel through Europe and the Middle East with a private tutor for six months. He graduated from Harvard in 1916.
During World War I, he served as an ambulance driver with the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps in both Paris and Italy, along with friends E.E. Cummings and Robert Hillyer. Other writers who similarly volunteered included Louis Bromfield, Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, and Somerset Maugham. When the U.S. finally entered World War I, Dos Passos joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps.
A social revolutionary, he came to see the United States as two nations, one rich and one poor. His writing is highly sympathetic to labor’s attempts to organize. He was a political activist who joined Upton Sinclair, Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay and other notables in a campaign to overturn the 1921 murder convictions of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.
He went to Russia in 1928 to study socialism firsthand. He later became a leading participant in the left-leaning First American Writers’ Congress, but in 1936 broke with Stalinists to serve on The American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky in response to the Moscow “Show Trials.”
In 1937, he went to Spain during its civil war, where he became disillusioned with Communism when Russian Army Intelligence murdered his Spanish translator and good friend. He soon broke with Ernest Hemingway over the latter’s cavalier attitude toward war and willingness to lend his name to Stalinist propaganda in Spain. Dos Passos later worked as a journalist and war correspondent during World War II.
In 1920 he published his first novel, One Man’s Initiation: 1917, and in that same year his second novel, Three Soldiers, which brought his first critical acclaim. His 1925 novel Manhattan Transfer was his first big commercial success. It introduced experimental stream-of-consciousness techniques which would appear widely in his later works. These include most notably his U.S.A. Trilogy, first separately published as The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919, (1932), and The Big Money (1936).
The Trilogy covers the development of American society from beginning of the 20th century through the 1930’s. Set in both urban and rural settings throughout the U.S. and in wartime Europe, it follows a dozen characters whose lives are for the most part separate, but which occasionally cross paths. Trilogy is ranked 23rd on the Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Dos Passos is truly an American original whose work inimitably documents his times in intimate portraits that infuse history with an unparalleled sense of personal experience.