Dos Passos, John

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DOS PASSOS, JOHN

John Roderigo Dos Passos (January 14, 1896–September 28, 1970) was a prominent leftist and one of the great writers of the Depression era. The illegitimate son of a Portuguese immigrant, Dos Passos graduated from Harvard University in 1916 and volunteered as an ambulance driver in France and Italy during World War I. In the 1920s, Dos Passos established himself as a writer of some talent with works such as Manhattan Transfer (1925). Yet he is best known for his epic 1930s trilogy, U.S.A., widely hailed by contemporaries as the great American novel. The trilogy consists of The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). An ambitious 1,200-page attempt to depict "the slice of a continent" and "the speech of the people," U.S.A. blends the experimental modernism of the 1920s with the social novel of the 1930s. The novel consists of four different types of writing: biographical portraits of important Americans, "newsreels" quoting the headlines and popular culture of the time, "camera eye" sections of free-form prose poetry (often autobiographical in nature), and a series of interlocking narratives of a dozen fictional characters who appear rootless and directionless while trying to make their way through modern America. When combined, these sections form an elegy on the decline of American democracy in the first decades of the twentieth century and offer a sharply critical view of the dominance of "big money" in the contemporary United States.

U.S.A. won the respect of literary critics, and it also achieved political significance in the 1930s as the Popular Front coalition of Communists and liberals adopted it as essential reading. Dos Passos, however, had professed left-wing ideas prior to the Great Depression; in fact, it was the execution of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927 that radicalized him. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Dos Passos was close to the Communist Party. He helped found the Communist literary magazine New Masses, and he famously denounced the Socialist Party as "near beer." In 1931, along with a number of other writers, Dos Passos traveled to Harlan County in Kentucky to publicize the unjust working conditions of striking miners. Dos Passos also helped organize American support for the antifascist side in the Spanish civil war. He traveled to Spain in 1937, where he learned of the brutality of Stalinist Communists who secretly used ruthless tactics against their antifascist allies. After hearing of the murder of a friend by Spanish Communists, Dos Passos drifted away from the left in the late 1930s.

After Dos Passos publicly criticized the Communists, the New Masses suddenly declared Ernest Hemingway a better writer than Dos Passos. After the 1930s, Dos Passos turned toward conservative politics, associating himself with the National Review and writing a right-wing counter-trilogy to U.S.A. Dos Passos's literary reputation suffered as his right-wing turn discredited his work among liberals and his new conservative friends had little liking for his earlier leftist work. Thus, after the 1930s, too many forgot that Dos Passos's U.S.A. is one of a select number of works worthy of the title "great American novel."

See Also: LITERATURE; SPANISH CIVIL WAR.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. 1997.

Ludington, Townsend. John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey. 1980.

Rosen, Robert C. John Dos Passos: Politics and the Writer. 1981.

Daniel Geary