The story

John Dos Passos

John Dos Passos, the illegitimate son of a prominent American attorney, John Randolph Dos Passos Jr., was born in Chicago in 1896. His mother was Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison. Alan Wald has argued: "Dos Passos spent his early years traveling semi-clandestinely about the United States and abroad with his mother. It was to these unusual circumstances of his birth and childhood that he would later attribute his lifelong sense of rootlessness."

Eventually the family settled in Virginia. His father paid for his education and he was sent to The Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut in 1907. He also traveled with a private tutor on a six-month tour of France, England, Italy, Greece, and the Middle East to study classical art, architecture, and literature.

John Randolph Dos Passos Jr., married Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison in 1910. It was another two years before he acknowledge him until two years later. In 1912 he attended Harvard University. Dos Passos was keen to take part in the First World War and in July 1917 he joined the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. Over the next few months he worked as a driver in France and Italy.

Afterwards drew upon these experiences in his novels, One Man's Initiation (1920) and Three Soldiers (1921). This established the "pre-dominant anti-war and semi-anarchist themes of his radical period." In 1922 Dos Passos published a collection of essays, Rosinante to the Road Again, and a volume of poems, A Pushcart at the Curb. However, his literary reputation was established with his well-received novel Manhattan Transfer (1925).

As well as writing plays such as The Garbage Man (1926), Airways (1928) and Fortune Heights (1934), Dos Passos contributed articles for left-wing journals such as the New Masses, that was under the control of the American Communist Party.

In 1927 he joined with other artists such as Upton Sinclair, Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ben Shahn, Floyd Dell in the campaign against the proposed execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. This included the writing of Facing the Chair: Sacco and Vanzetti (1927).

Dos Passos traveled to Harland County with a Communist-initiated delegation to investigate the condition of striking miners. While in Kentucky he was arrested and charged with "criminal syndicalism". In the 1932 Presidential Election he publicly endorsed William Z. Foster, the American Communist Party candidate.

The 1930s saw the publication of his USA trilogy: The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936). Dos Passos developed the experimental literary device where the narratives intersect and continue from one novel to the next. The USA trilogy also included what became known as newsreels (impressionistic collections of slogans, popular song lyrics, newspaper headlines and extracts from political speeches).

Dos Passos was active in the campaign against the growth of fascism in Europe. He joined other literary figures such as Dashiell Hammett, Clifford Odets, Lillian Hellman and Ernest Hemingway in supporting the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. He went to Madrid where he met Marion Merriman. Later she recalled: " I was fascinated by Dos Passes, whom I had always thought was a better writer than Hemingway. John Dos Passes was, without question, a seasoned writer of the prose of war. But as a man, he didn't impress me. I thought he was wishy-washy. I couldn't make out everything he was saying, but his message was clear - for whatever reasons, he wanted out of there, out of Hemingway's room, out of bomb-shaken Madrid."

Dos Passos was disillusioned by what he saw in Spain and in 1938 he commented: "I have come to think, especially since my trip to Spain, that civil liberties must be protected at every stage. In Spain I am sure that the introduction of GPU methods by the Communists did as much harm as their tank men, pilots and experienced military men did good. The trouble with an all powerful secret police in the hands of fanatics, or of anybody, is that once it gets started there's no stopping it until it has corrupted the whole body politic. I am afraid that's what's happening in Russia."

His new political views were reflected in his novels, The Adventures of a Young Man (1939) and Number One (1943). He now moved steadily to the right, becoming an associate of The National Review and the Young Americans for Freedom. He also campaigned for Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.

Other books by Dos Passos include the novels, The Grand Design (1949), Chosen Country (1951) and Midcentury (1961), a biography, The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson (1954) and an autobiography, The Best of Times: An Informal Memoir (1966).

John Dos Passos died in Baltimore, Maryland, on 28th September, 1970.

On June 3rd 1919 a bomb exploded outside the Washington house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. In the previous months various people had received bombs through the mail, one of them blowing off the two hands of the unfortunate housemaid who undid the package. No one, and least of all the federal detectives ever seems to have discovered who committed these outrages or why they were committed. But their result was to put a scare into every public official in the country, and particularly into Attorney General Palmer.

No one knew where the lightning would strike next. The signing of peace had left the carefully stirred up hatred of the war years unsatisfied. It was easy for people who knew what they were doing to turn the terrors of government officials and the unanalyzed feeling of distrust of foreigners of the average man into a great crusade of hate against reds, radicals, dissenters of all sorts. The Department of Justice, backed by the press, frenziedly acclaimed by the man on the street, invented an immanent revolution.

Why were these men held as murderers and highwaymen and not as anarchists and advocates of the working people? Among a people that does not recognize or rather does not admit the force and danger of ideas it is impossible to prosecute the holder of unpopular ideas directly. Also there is a smoldering tradition of freedom that makes those who do it feel guilty. After all everyone learnt the Declaration of Independence and "Give me Liberty or Give me Death" in school, and however perfunctory the words have become they have left a faint infantile impression on the minds of most of us. Hence the characteristic American weapon of the frameup. If two Italians are spreading anarchist propaganda, you hold them for murder.

I have come to think, especially since my trip to Spain, that civil liberties must be protected at every stage. I am afraid that's what's happening in Russia.

As we drove into Madrid, the first thing we saw was the big bullring - the Moorish architecture, arch upon arch, dusky brown with beautiful coloring in the tiles, the columns. It was magnificent, I thought. Entering Madrid was like entering any big city's industrial section. We drove through a ring of factories, then into the nicer part of the city.

'Even under bombardment, Madrid is marvelous!' I said to Bob. The wide tree-lined boulevards and modern buildings had an air of dignity that even blocks of bombed-out ruins could not dispel.

But the scene changed, quickly. As we walked down a broad boulevard, we heard the crack of rifle fire. Then the tempo picked up. 'That's machine gun fire,' Bob said. The machine-guns rattled in the distance, perhaps a few blocks away, I couldn't be sure. Then we heard the boom of artillery and the reality of Madrid at war returned deeply to me. The artillery shell landed some distance away, collapsing part of a building, which fell into a rubble of dust. We dashed down the street, staying close to the buildings. The horror of war was driven home to me. I was terrified.

I was shaking badly when we entered the Hotel Florida and went directly up the stairs to Hemingway's room. Bob steadied me, then knocked on the door.

'Hello, I'm Merriman,' Bob said as Hemingway, looking intense but friendly, opened the door.

'I know,' Hemingway said. Bob introduced me, and the writer greeted me warmly.

Then Hemingway and Bob fell into conversation about the war and the broadcast they planned. They were joined by John Dos Passos, Josephine Herbst, and a scattering of American volunteers and correspondents who sipped Hemingway's scotch and compared notes and stories. I slipped into an old chair, still quite shaken by the action outside.

I studied Bob and Hemingway. They got along. Each talked for a moment, then listened to the other. How different they were, I thought, Bob at twenty-eight, Hemingway at least a good ten years older. Hemingway seemed complex. He was big and bluff and macho. He didn't appear to be a braggart but he got across the message, through an air of self-assurance, that he could handle what he took on.

Bob was taller than Hemingway by several inches. They looked at each other through the same kind of round glasses, Bob's frames of tortoise shell, Hemingway's of steel.

Hemingway was animated, gesturing as he asked questions, scratching his scalp through thick dark hair, perplexed, then scowling, then, something setting him off, laughing from deep down. He wore a sweater, buttoned high on his chest, and a dark tie, loosened at the neck.

Bob was clean shaven. Hemingway needed a shave. He didn't appear to be growing a beard, he just seemed to need a shave, the scrubble roughing his cheeks and chin. He looked like he had had a hard night. He had a knot on his forehead, probably suffered in some roustabout skirmish.

Hemingway sipped a scotch, as did Bob. Someone offered me a drink, and I thought I'd never been as happy in my life to get a drink of whiskey. Even in the relatively safe room I remained frightened. The sheer madness of the war would not leave my mind.

As Bob and Hemingway talked, the contrast between them struck me time and again. Bob was an intellectual, and he looked like one. Hemingway was an intellectual, but he looked more like an adventurer. Bob looked like an observer. Hemingway looked like a man of action.

I was fascinated by Dos Passes, whom I had always thought was a better writer than Hemingway. I couldn't make out everything he was saying, but his message was clear - for whatever reasons, he wanted out of there, out of Hemingway's room, out of bomb-shaken Madrid.

I was scared too, with good reason. But somehow Dos Passes acted more than scared. I guessed it was his uncertainty, his facial expressions, his general attitude that this was a lost cause, given the superior strength of the Franco forces. Dos Passes criticized the Spanish Republic, for which Americans were fighting and dying.

Hemingway, on the other hand, let you know by his presence and through his writing exactly where he stood. Hemingway had told the world of the murder in Madrid, including the murder of children by fascist bombing. He had told about 'the noises kids make when they are hit. There is a sort of foretaste of that when the child sees the planes coming and yells "Aviacion!" Then, too, some kids are very quiet when they are hit - until you move them.'

John Dos Passos Coggin was born in Annapolis, MD and currently lives in Northern Virginia. He has been a writer and environmental advocate for more than ten years.

He writes nonfiction and fiction. He has published many articles on film, music, books, politics, and public policy. In 2012, he published his first book, Walkin’ Lawton, an authorized biography of Florida governor and U.S. senator Lawton Chiles.

His environmental career began in 2003, when he interned for the Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources. Afterward he worked for League of Conservation Voters, the Environmental Finance Center at University of Maryland, David Gardiner and Associates, Astrum Solar, and Richmond Region Energy Alliance. He also worked as a clean energy communications contractor at U.S. Dept. of Energy. He currently works as a freelance writer and editor.

He is the maternal grandson of renowned American author John Dos Passos. With his family, he curates the John Dos Passos literary estate. He is committed to renewing the Dos Passos legacy for the 21st century.

Community Reviews

John Roderigo Dos Passos was an American novelist and artist.

He received a first-class education at The Choate School, in Connecticut, in 1907, under the name John Roderigo Madison. Later, he traveled with his tutor on a tour through France, England, Italy, Greece and the Middle East to study classical art, architecture and literature.

In 1912 he attended Harvard University and, after graduating in John Roderigo Dos Passos was an American novelist and artist.

He received a first-class education at The Choate School, in Connecticut, in 1907, under the name John Roderigo Madison. Later, he traveled with his tutor on a tour through France, England, Italy, Greece and the Middle East to study classical art, architecture and literature.

In 1912 he attended Harvard University and, after graduating in 1916, he traveled to Spain to continue his studies. In 1917 he volunteered for the S.S.U. 60 of the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, along with E.E. Cummings and Robert Hillyer.

By the late summer of 1918, he had completed a draft of his first novel and, at the same time, he had to report for duty in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, in Pennsylvania.
When the war was over, he stayed in Paris, where the U.S. Army Overseas Education Commission allowed him to study anthropology at the Sorbonne.

Considered one of the Lost Generation writers, Dos Passos published his first novel in 1920, titled One Man's Initiation: 1917, followed by an antiwar story, Three Soldiers, which brought him considerable recognition. His 1925 novel about life in New York City, titled Manhattan Transfer was a success.

In 1937 he returned to Spain with Hemingway, but the views he had on the Communist movement had already begun to change, which sentenced the end of his friendship with Hemingway and Herbert Matthews.

In 1930 he published the first book of the U.S.A. trilogy, considered one of the most important of his works.

Only thirty years later would John Dos Passos be recognized for his significant contribution in the literary field when, in 1967, he was invited to Rome to accept the prestigious Antonio Feltrinelli Prize.

Between 1942 and 1945, Dos Passos worked as a journalist covering World War II and, in 1947, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Tragedy struck when an automobile accident killed his wife, Katharine Smith, and cost him the sight in one eye. He remarried to Elizabeth Hamlyn Holdridge in 1949, with whom he had an only daughter, Lucy Dos Passos, born in 1950.

Over his long and successful carreer, Dos Passos wrote forty-two novels, as well as poems, essays and plays, and created more than four hundred pieces of art.

The John Dos Passos Prize is a literary award given annually by the Department of English and Modern Languages at Longwood University. The prize seeks to recognize "American creative writers who have produced a substantial body of significant publication that displays characteristics of John Dos Passos' writing: an intense and original exploration of specifically American themes, an experimental approach to form, and an interest in a wide range of human experiences."

As an artist, Dos Passos created his own cover art for his books, influenced by modernism in 1920s Paris. He died in Baltimore, Maryland. Spence's Point, his Virginia estate, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1971. . more

Dos Passos, John, 1896-1970

A look at the life and works of John Dos Passos , one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

John Dos Passos was born in 1896 in Chicago, the love child of a widow and an important corporation lawyer, whose estranged Catholic wife had rejected divorce. His mother took her son abroad to Belgium, where they remained until 1901. He was then looked after by his father who adopted him as a stepson. He attended Harvard University from August 1917 until summer 1918, when he was sent back to the States because of his anti-militarist views. He was an ambulance driver in the war, first in France, then in Italy but was sent back to the USA, again for his anti-militarist views. The war confirmed his radicalism and antimilitarism and led him to attend several anarchist meetings in New York in 1917, one of which was addressed by Emma Goldman. John felt very close to the revolutionary union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) – nicknamed the Wobblies.

In 1922 Dos Passos published a collection of essays, ‘Rosinante to the Road Again‘, about his travels in Spain in 1916. This fine book, often overlooked, attempts to tackle the character of the Spanish people and the libertarian currents within Spanish society are touched upon several times. Speaking of the novelist Pio Baroja, close to the anarchist movement, he seems in many ways to be talking about his own subsequent career. “The anarchism of Pío Baroja is of another sort. He says in one of his books that the only part a man of the middle classes can play in the reorganization of society is destructive. He has not undergone the discipline, which can only come from common slavery in the industrial machine, necessary for a builder. His slavery has been an isolated slavery which has unfitted him forever from becoming truly part of a community. He can use the vast power of knowledge which training has given him only in one way. His great mission is to put the acid test to existing institutions, and to strip the veils off them. I don’t want to imply that Baroja writes with his social conscience. He is too much of a novelist for that, too deeply interested in people as such. But it is certain that a profound sense of the evil of existing institutions lies behind every page he has written, and that occasionally, only occasionally, he allows himself to hope that something better may come out of the turmoil of our age of transition.” Whilst he was travelling through Spain he met another young Spaniard with radical ideas, Jose Robles, a student at Madrid University whom he maintained a lifelong friendship with.

When the Communist Party was first set up in America, he saw it as a continuation of the IWW, which had by now been battered down by the American state. However, as he later remarked in 1935, he started having misgivings about the Soviet Union with the suppression of the Kronstadt Revolt, the banning of the Social Revolutionaries, the abolition of the factory committees, the massacres of Bela Kun in the Crimea, the New Economic Policy, etc.

Dos Passos first established a literary reputation with his well-received novel ‘Manhattan Transfer’ (1925). Here, he first started using the collage techniques he perfected with his later trilogy USA. Interior monologues jostle with snatches from songs and excerpts from newspaper articles. Manhattan Transfer is not so much about the central characters like Jimmy Herf, who are somehow incidental, than about New York itself and its predominant characteristics of corruption, alienation, conformity and materialism. It was a brilliant novel, only to be excelled by his forthcoming trilogy. He also wrote powerful plays like ‘The Garbage Man’ , ‘Airways’ and ‘Fortune Heights‘. Dos Passos also wrote for the left wing press, such as for the paper ‘the New Masses‘.

John became involved, with other intellectuals, writers and artists in the campaign in 1927 around the Italian-American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, charged with murder in a robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts. On the basis of circumstantial and often conflicting evidence, they were found guilty of being accomplices in a robbery and murder. From this he went on to wrote the pamphlet ‘Facing the Chair’ which argued their case that year. As he said later: “I had great sympathy for the Anarchist movement at the time”. He was also to say that “In Boston the work of the Defence Committee was hampered by continual patient efforts of the American C.P. to take charge of the agitation.” The fact that Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death and executed was a sign of the utter moral corruption of U.S. Society and he later spewed out his anger against their execution in his trilogy USA. He was one of those arrested in the demonstrations on the day of the executions.

He began writing the first novel of the USA trilogy in 1927-The 42nd Parallel. One of the main characters is a member of the IWW, Fenian McCreary, who we last read of in Mexico mixing with local anarchists (McCreary was based on the real-life Wobbly Gladwyn Bland, a tall muscular migrant worker, whom Dos Passos had met on a stay in Mexico). It is interspersed with biographies like that of Edison, and “newsreels”, extracts from speeches and snatches from popular song. It evoked the turmoil of the United States in the early twentieth century and all of its conflicts. It is the most uplifting of the three novels of USA, and a radical optimism pervades it. However one senses the breaking of a revolutionary wave by its end, with the bowing out of McCreary, who does not re-appear in the subsequent novels.

Dos Passos followed it with two more outstanding novels, ‘1919’ and ‘The Big Money‘. In 1938 they were be published together in a trilogy, U.S.A., which received widespread acclaim. Again the techniques first developed in Manhattan Transfer were employed. However, by now Dos Passos was moving away from a radical position, and his doubts about the Communist Party began to accrue. The last straw for him were the events that unfolded with the Spanish Civil War. Dos Passos supported the Republic against the forces of Franco and visited Spain to lend his support, as did Ernest Hemingway and others. He discovered that his old friend Jose Robles, who had taken the side of the Republic had “disappeared” executed by the secret police under the control of the Soviets and their agents in Spain. He was disgusted by the behaviour of Hemingway, who gullibly swallowed all the lies that his Communist friends dished out. He was revolted by the repression that began against the anarchists and the independent Marxist party, the POUM.

Whereas before the Communists had written favourably of Dos Passos, they now began to attack him in their press. They began to sing the praises of Hemingway, a lesser writer, who had a far poorer grasp of politics than Dos Passos. Hemingway acted like a performing seal by his attendance at the Writers Congress, a Communist front, and his dutiful serving on sixteen C.P. controlled committees. The novelist Mike Gold (who incidentally had started out as a committed anarchist in New York before later joining the Party) lambasted Dos Passos in the Communist Party paper The Daily Worker, revising his early opinions of Dos Passos’ works. He had earlier praised Dos Passos, he claimed, because he was “going somewhere” and because “we recognized in him a powerful if bewildered talent”. Now, re-reading the trilogy Gold in classic hatchet-man style felt that it was imbued with disgust for the world and the human race.

Dos Passos’s trajectory moved further and further to the right, as he developed a politics based on Jeffersonian democracy, and gave up all hope of any real social change driven by the masses. It sounds pat and glib to say that his rightward turn resulted in a weakening of style, but that is the case, accepted by many, as his novels became more and more clichéd starting with ‘The Adventures of a Young Man’ (1939) and ‘Number One’ (1943) and ending with the tawdry ‘MidCentury’ and ‘Century’s Ebb’ by which time Dos Passos had embraced the right of the Republican Party.

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Shacks put up by the Bonus Army on the Anacostia flats burning after the battle with the military, with the Capitol in the background. Taken by a Signal Corps photographer, July 28, 1932. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
As banks failed, unemployment worsened, and desperation deepened during the early years of the Great Depression, marches and protests became commonplace. John Dos Passos covered several of them for The New Republic, and his 1934 collection In All Countries gathers some of the accounts as “Views of Washington.” In these impressionistic sketches, he describes the Hunger March outside the Capitol in December 1931, political machinations in the halls of power during the winter and spring, and the “Bonus Army” phenomenon the following summer.

Officially calling itself the Bonus Expeditionary Force, the Bonus Army was composed primarily of World War I veterans and their families. In 1924 Congress had passed a bill to compensate combat veterans, most of whom received certificates redeemable upon their deaths or in 1945, whichever came first. By 1932, unemployed veterans could no longer wait for their “Tombstone Bonus,” and Walter W. Waters, a former Army sergeant in Portland, Oregon, led a group of men who hopped freight trains to the nation’s capital. By the time they reached Washington in May, word of the protest had spread and tens of thousands of supporters camped in Anacostia Flats and other areas in the northeast quadrant of the city.

Dos Passos reports on events and the politics leading up to that summer, but he filed his final piece before the shocking finale. After legislation to release the bonuses to veterans failed in the Senate, upwards of twenty thousand marchers stayed in the city—and Hoover first called out the police to have them removed and then, as things started to get violent, he brought in the army, led by General Douglas MacArthur. Paul Dickson and Thomas Allen describe the July 28 confrontation for Smithsonian Magazine:

As historian David M. Kennedy concludes, the event “marked the lowest ebb of Hoover’s political fortunes. . . . He was already a beaten man.” The episode was the final blow for the incumbent president’s reelection campaign, and it undoubtedly contributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s landslide victory in November, in which Hoover carried only six states.

W ashington has a drowsy look in the early December sunlight. The Greco-Roman porticoes loom among the bare trees, as vaguely portentous as phrases about democracy in the mouth of a southern senator. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

On History

President Kennedy, who now so prematurely and tragically belongs to history, not only made history himself but wrote it with depth and eloquence. His heightened perceptions of it pervaded his actions and his public papers. Astonishingly in so busy a man, he could even find time in the White House to keep up his intellectual interests, to read good books, and to write prefaces and occasional pieces. Last year he was kind enough, at our request, to furnish an introduction to a sixteen-volume set of books that we created, The American Heritage New Illustrated History of the United States , recently published by the Dell Publishing Company. It would have been easy enough to muster a few bland platitudes, and dash them off, as so many people do in such circumstances, but that was not his way. Instead he sent us this moving essay. It compresses into brief compass much of the philosophy that animates the historical profession. We are proud to reprint it here.

—Oliver Jensen, Editor, American Heritage Magazine

There is little that is more important for an American citizen to know than the history and traditions of his country. Without such knowledge, he stands uncertain and defenseless before the world, knowing neither where he has come from nor where he is going. With such knowledge, he is no longer alone but draws a strength far greater than his own from the cumulative experience of the past and a cumulative vision of the future.

Knowledge of our history is, first of all, a pleasure for its own sake. The American past is a record of stirring achievement in the face of stubborn difficulty. It is a record filled with figures larger than life, with high drama and hard decision, with valor and with tragedy, with incidents both poignant and picturesque, and with the excitement and hope involved in the conquest of a wilderness and the settlement of a continent. For the true historian—and for the true student of history—history is an end in itself. It fulfills a deep human need for understanding, and the satisfaction it provides requires no further justification.

Yet, though no further justification is required for the study of history, it would not be correct to say that history serves no further use than the satisfaction of the historian. History, after all, is the memory of a nation. Just as memory enables the individual to learn, to choose goals and stick to them, to avoid making the same mistake twice—in short, to grow—so history is the means by which a nation establishes its sense of identity and purpose. The future arises out of the past, and a country’s history is a statement of the values and hopes which, having forged what has gone before, will now forecast what is to come.

As means of knowledge, history becomes a means of judgment. It offers an understanding of both the variety and unity of a nation whose motto is E Pluribus Unum —out of many, one. It reminds us of the diverse abundance of our people, coming from all races and all parts of the world, of our fields and mountain ranges, deserts and great rivers, our green farmlands and the thousand voices of our cities. No revolution in communication or transportation can destroy the fact that this continent is, as Walt Whitman said, “a nation of nations.” Yet it also reminds us that, in spite of the diversity of ethnic origin, of geographic locale, of occupation, of social status, of religious creed, of political commitment, Americans are united by an ancient and encompassing faith in progress, justice, and freedom.

Our history thus tests our policy: Our past judges our present. Of all the disciplines, the study of the folly and achievements of man is best calculated to foster the critical sense of what is permanent and meaningful amid the mass of superficial and transient questions which make up the day-to-day clamor. The history of our nation tells us that every action taken against the freedoms of conscience and expression, against equality before the law and equality of opportunity, against the ordinary men and women of the country is an action taken against the American tradition. And it tells us that every action taken for a larger freedom and a more equal and spacious society is one more step toward realization of what Herbert Croly once called “the promise of American life.”

A knowledge of history is more than a means of judgment: It is also a means of sympathy—a means of relating our own experience with the experience of other peoples and lands struggling for national fulfillment. We may sometimes forget, for example, that the United States began as an underdeveloped nation which seized its independence by carrying out a successful revolution against a colonial empire. We may forget that, in the first years of the new republic, George Washington laid down the principle of no “permanent alliances” and enjoined the United States to a course of neutralism in the face of the great-power conflicts then dividing the civilized world. We may forget that, in the first stages of our economic development, our national growth was stimulated to a considerable degree by “foreign aid”—that is, investment from abroad—and by public investment and direction on the part of our state and local as well as our national government. We may forget that our own process of economic change was often accompanied by the issue of wildcat paper money, by the repudiation of bonds, by disorder, fraud, and violence. If we recall the facts of our own past, we may better understand the problems and predicaments of contemporary “new nations” laboring for national development in circumstances far less favorable than our own—and we will, in consequence, become less liable to the self-righteousness which is both unworthy of our own traditions and a bane of international relations.

A knowledge of history is, in addition, a means of strength. “In times of change and danger,” John Dos Passos wrote just before World War II, “when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a life line across the scary present.” Dos Passos called his book The Ground We Stand On —and the title concisely defines the role of the past in preparing us for the crisis of the present and the challenge of the future. When Americans fight for individual liberty, they have Thomas Jefferson and James Madison beside them when they strive for social justice, they strive alongside Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt when they work for peace and a world community, they work with Woodrow Wilson when they fight and die in wars to make men free, they fight and die with Abraham Lincoln. Historic continuity with the past, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “is not a duty it is only a necessity.”

A knowledge of history is, above all, a means of responsibility—of responsibility to the past and of responsibility to the future. of responsibility to those who came before us and struggled and sacrificed to pass on to us our precious inheritance of freedom. and of responsibility to those who will come after us and to whom we must pass on that inheritance with what new strength and substance it is within our power to add. “Fellow citizens,” Abraham Lincoln said, “we cannot escape history. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.” American history is not something dead and over. It is always alive, always growing, always unfinished—and every American today has his own contribution to make to the great fabric of tradition and hope which binds all Americans, dead and living and yet to be born, in a common faith and a common destiny.

A Brief History…

They were a young couple, both from wealthy families, who lived in Paris and spent summers on the French Riviera in the 1920s. They were sort of the anchors for the “Lost Generation” as Gertrude Stein called them all. The Murphys had money, although living in France was very cheap in American dollars after World War I (unlike now). Some of the reasons why so many young Americans moved to Paris then included Prohibition, the perception that America was crass and materialistic (Sinclair Lewis wrote Babbitt in 1922.), and the ability to live very cheaply. In Cole Porter’s song “You’re the Top”, whose words have changed over the years as fashions changed, one of his examples of something “top” was “The Coolidge dollar.”

Aside from a wealthy patron and “bartender” for the other expatriates, Murphy became an excellent painter. His style was his own with a sort of cubist method of depicting machinery like “Watch,” painted in 1925 .

One of his paintings, now lost, was the size of a billboard and dominated the exhibition since it was too large for the room in which it was to be exhibited. It was titled Boatdeck and was 18 feet high. One of their friends during the summers they spent at Cap D’Antibe on the French Riviera was Pablo Picasso, who painted Sara Murphy as “the Woman in White.” There has been speculation that they had an affair but most knowledgeable people doubted it because she was not one to do that although she was very beautiful and sensual. He later painted over two figures in another painting from the period.

There are two other figures painted over in this painting , thought to be images of Sara and Picasso. Xrays have shown them in recent years and it was known that this was part of a series. Perhaps his advances were rejected or deflected, for they remained friends, and he modified the painting.

This photo, of Gerald and Picasso, is thought to be the model for the painting above. The other two figures were to be Venus (Sara) and Eros or Cupid. The latter may have been another image of Picasso, the lover.

The Murphys were friends of Cole Porter and his wife Linda Gerald had befriended Cole at Yale when both were undergraduates and interested in art. Cole was bisexual but Gerald has no history of any homosexual encounters although sexual identity was quite loose in those circles at the time.

The recent movie of Cole Porter’s life got me interested in the Murphys since they are prominent throughout the movie and were friends of Porter’s until his death. They had three children, two boys who died in their teens, and a daughter who lived until 1998 and wrote a biography of her parents. After the boys died, one of tuberculosis after a long illness, the other, suddenly of meningitis from a mastoid infection, Gerald never painted another picture.

For anyone who has read the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, these people are of great interest. For example, Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night uses the Murphys as models for the couple in the story. Sara hated the novel because the events that occur in the novel had nothing to do with the Murphys’ lives. Hemingway is said to have modeled his couple in The Snows of Kilimanjaro on the Murphys. In both cases, the rather unflattering (Hemingway), or overly familiar portrait of her (Fitzgerald) seems to have been the result of her rejection of sexual advances by each author.

They were a major part of the art scene in Paris in the 1920s and knew everyone. I have walked Paris seeking out the scenes from that era and my next trip will include some pilgrimmages to the Murphys’ haunts.

How John Dos Passos Left the Left

The greatest 'Lost Generation' novelist feared abusive power and came increasingly to see it on the left he'd loved.

The reputations of the writers who transformed literature during the Jazz Age, the so-called “Lost Generation,” have undergone some interesting up and downs. Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis have largely disappeared from the canon. Dreiser’s sludge-like prose doomed him among readers over the last half century, while Lewis, who achieved fame in the ‘20s, becoming the first American to win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, has seen his reputation sag. None of his indictments of middle-class America have found an audience today. Good luck trying to get a class of college sophomores to read Main Street. His last real success, It Can’t Happen Here (1937), had a brief revival with the election of Donald Trump. But no one reads Babbitt or Elmer Gantry anymore.

Hemingway’s name remains popular, though it is doubtful whether any of his novels are read today, other than The Old Man and the Sea, which is popular, I understand, in seventh- and eighth-grade language arts courses (precisely where it belongs with its faux-biblical prose). During the virus, I picked up The Sun Also Rises, which I’d first read in college and thought a fresh and wonderful book. Now it seemed shallow. Even the dialogue, which I thought so smart, sounded old hat. Lady Brett came off as an adolescent’s dream of what sex could be like with an ever-willing woman. If Hemingway is read today, it’s not for his novels but his short stories, which, at their best in “Hills Like White Elephants” and “Big Two Hearted River,” remain sharp, hard-edged gems.

Scott Fitzgerald fared best of the ‘20s generation. The Great Gatsby, the most popular of his novels, may be The Great American Novel of the 20th century. It captures young readers of every generation.

But what of my personal favorite as a young man, John Dos Passos? Rereading him amid this terrible virus, I believe he holds up best.

During the 1930s, Dos Passos was as popular as any writer of serious fiction in America. He had made his breakthrough after World War I during which he served in the ambulance corps. Two of his novels, Three Solders (1921) and Manhattan Transfer (1925), “changed the whole tone of opinion about the war,” as H.L. Mencken put it. They reflected the attitude, also popular in England at the time, that the war was a worthless conflict imposed by heartless leaders that had wiped out a generation of young men. But unlike Hemingway, Fitzgerald did not romanticize Europe and flee to Paris. In his view, America was all about the rejection of Europe.

Like Lewis and Hemingway, Dos Passos was disgusted by the materialism and money grubbing of the America of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. He supported various left-wing and radical causes and became particularly incensed over the treatment of Sacco and Vanzetti, the two anarchists accused of murdering a guard during a Braintree, Massachusetts, payroll robbery. His epitaph on the case summed up what it meant to radicals and revolutionaries of his generation: “All right we are two nations.”

Following Three Soldiers and Manhattan Transfer, Dos Passos moved deeper into radicalism. He denounced Franklin Roosevelt and voted for the Communist candidate, William Foster, in the 1932 presidential election. He dismissed the New Deal for trying to save a corrupt capitalist system. The depression pushed him further to the left. For a time in the 1930s, he was associated with the communist journal New Masses, though he never joined the Communist Party and wasn’t even much of a fellow traveler. In truth, Dos Passos was an idiosyncratic man of the left.

Out of his anger, Dos Passos produced his greatest and most original work, the trilogy U.S.A., which appeared between 1930 and 1936. U.S.A. is a big sprawling book of around 1,200 pages and his most original and influential work. Building on some of the anti-capitalist themes he first outlined in Manhattan Transfer, Dos Passos set out to paint a broad picture of America in turmoil. He used techniques borrowed from European modernists like James Joyce in a way no American author ever had before to create a new reality. He sprinkled his text with brief biographies of famous and not so famous people: Rudolph Valentino, Thorstein Veblen, Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (a bête noire of his), and Henry Ford, among others. In the “Camera Eye” sections, he created news items from a pastiche of newspaper headlines and stories. The effect was to give the novel an immediacy and sense of dealing with the real world. The technique has been copied since, but no one has done it as well.

U.S.A. was a huge success and appeared just as Dos Passos’ career took a dramatic turn. In July 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out. Dos Passos, like many of his fellow leftist contemporaries, most notably Ernest Hemingway, was drawn into the conflict. He went to Spain to work on a documentary film, “Spanish Earth,” designed to promote the cause of the Republican forces. Disillusion soon set in. One of his friends, José Robles Pazos, was caught up in the fighting among the various leftist factions and murdered by the communist secret police.

Like his contemporary George Orwell, Spain inaugurated Dos Passos’s distrust of communism and its fellow travelers and apologists. His consequent drift to the right was rooted in one of the abiding themes of his career—a deep distrust of power, especially power in the hands of an elite. Fear of unregulated capitalism and fascism now gave way to a conviction that the greatest threat to democracy was communist power. World War II furthered these concerns, with Dos Passos increasingly troubled by the power exercised by FDR during the war.

Dos Passos continued writing fiction and in 1962 published Mid-Century, a follow-up to U.S.A., only now the villains were on the left—especially labor leaders like John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther. Mid-Century lacked the creativity of his trilogy. Instead of the “Camera Eye” and other unusual techniques that seemed fresh in the 1930s, Mid-Century featured long documentary sections interspersed among the text. The book was a success, but the critics accused him of turning his back on his past. Dwight Macdonald, a former admirer and firm man of the left, wrote that Dos Passos had become “a simple Republican, scared to death of Russia and Communism.”

The man who once had written for the New Masses now became a contributor to Bill Buckley’s National Review. He came to view the American experiment through different eyes, even writing a highly sympathetic history of the Founding Fathers. In 1964, Dos Passos supported Barry Goldwater’s campaign for president. That shocked many of his admirers but was a natural outcome of his drift to the right that had begun in Spain. Both men feared communism and unrestrained power. In the 1920s, that power was in the hands of big business now it was found in big government and what President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.”

Maybe Dos Passos’ journey wasn’t that strange after all.

John P. Rossi is professor emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

John Dos Passos - History

The biographies of U.S.A. are slices of history their broader contexts are alluded to but not spelled out. To appreciate fully the nuances of Dos Passos's language, the significance of his descriptive details, and the force of his sarcasm, a reader needs to know a lot of history.

The teacher probably needs to do some explaining, though he or she should avoid explaining the biographies to death. To appreciate "The Body of an American," students should know something about World War I, which Dos Passos saw and many of his original readers remembered. They should understand such things as the unprecedented carnage of that war (10 million killed and 20 million wounded) the particular brutality of trench warfare the deeper causes of the war (and of U.S. entry into the war) that lay behind the noble rhetoric and the irony of racism at home (alluded to in "The Body of an American") and repression of domestic dissent during and after a war fought, Wilson told Congress, because "the world must be made safe for democracy." "The Bitter Drink" is more difficult than "The Body of an American" because its historical sweep is greater. Perhaps assigning (or even reading aloud) a brief sample of Veblen's writing would help it would at least give students a sense of his approach and style. (See, for example, the title excerpt "The Captain of Industry" in The Portable Veblen , edited by Max Lerner the last paragraph alone might suffice.)

Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

"The Body of an American" is about the waste of war and the public and official cant that surrounds it. These issues should be of interest to students who have friends or relatives facing military service or who are themselves of draft or enlistment age. "The Bitter Drink" is about what it means to be a serious critic of society, to tell the truth and refuse to say "the essential yes." Students soon to begin careers where they may have to compromise their values should find much to discuss.

Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

Since the excerpts included in the anthology represent only about one percent of the U.S.A. trilogy and only one of its four narrative devices (biographies, newsreels, conventional narratives, and the camera eye), teaching these excerpts is very different from teaching U.S.A. Should you find time in the course to read The 42nd Parallel or Nineteen Nineteen or The Big Money , you might discuss with students the relationships among the four narrative devices as well as questions about the nature of fiction and the nature of written history raised by Dos Passos's mixing of real historical figures and fictional characters. If students are reading only "The Body of an American" and/or "The Bitter Drink," you might ask them what role they think such "nonfiction" biography might play in a novel. With "The Body of an American," you might also ask about the effect of Dos Passos's running the opening words together, of his juxtapositions of different kinds of language, and of his Whitmanesque list-making. With "The Bitter Drink," you might discuss how Dos Passos goes about communicating his own attitudes while narrating the life of Veblen.

Original Audience

Though the two excerpts in the text are brief, they should suffice to suggest the radicalism of U.S.A. To students surprised by it, you might explain that such views were not so uncommon during the 1930s (though, for Dos Passos, they came even earlier). At the height of the depression, with no unemployment insurance and meager public relief, over one in four U.S. citizens had no job, and millions more suffered wage cuts and underemployment. People lost all their money in bank failures families were forced out of their homes and apartments many went hungry while milk was dumped into rivers and crops were burned to keep up prices. The economic system seemed irrational, and millions marched in protest, fought evictions, joined unions. This was the context of U.S.A. for its original readers.

Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

Almost any other work of fiction from the 1930s might usefully be compared with the excerpts from U.S.A. Alongside "The Body of an American" you might read Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun (1939) or, for contrast, the tight-lipped antiwar fiction in Hemingway's In Our Time (1925). For a powerful contemporary comparison, you might look at Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July (1976).

Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

1. With "The Body of an American," you might ask students what kinds of contrasts Dos Passos sets up between the news coverage and political declarations (in smaller print) and the story of John Doe. They'll probably point to such contrasts as the nobility of the rhetoric versus the ugly actuality of war, the superficiality of the reporting versus the depth of human suffering, and the impersonality and abstractness of the public language versus the personal detail in those lists of possible facts about John Doe and in the many biographical particulars that suggest all that went into making the adult human being whose unidentifiable remains are being buried.

2. With "The Bitter Drink," you might ask what Dos Passos means by Veblen's "constitutional inability to say yes" and why Dos Passos makes this "essential yes" a refrain. Veblen's ideas are as much implied as spelled out, and you might ask students to summarize as much of them as they can infer from the biography. You might also ask them to draw connections between those ideas and Veblen's life. Dos Passos sets this life very firmly in its historical context, and students might discuss the whole sweep of history brought to life in the biography and what patterns and recurring themes they see. Students might also speculate on whether there is too much of the apology in Dos Passos's description of his hero's "woman trouble."

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Watch the video: John Dos Passos and the USA Trilogy (January 2022).