Chronicler of Conflicts: John Dos Passos
The personal life and literary work of the famous American writer reflect the history of the 20 th century within the USA.
U.S.A. —such is the title of the monumental trilogy conceived by John Dos Passos. The three novels chronicle the conflicting history of the United States of America in the early 20th century. They document the country's rapid development into a political, cultural and technological superpower before, during and after the First World War. They focus on the economic and social tensions inherent in the industrial rise and democratic decline of the American nation1. The separate volumes—that is, The 42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen Nineteen (1932) and The Big Money (1936)—appeared over the course of six years and were first combined into a single book in 1938. To this day, the U.S.A. trilogy is considered not only a milestone in modern American literature, but also the main work of the well-known modernist author.
John Roderigo Dos Passos was born in Chicago on January 14, 1896. Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison (1856-1915), a widow from a wealthy family in Virginia, had gone there to conceal her extramarital pregnancy. John Randolph Dos Passos (1844-1917) was a married lawyer of mixed American-Portuguese descent who had gained considerable influence, reputation and wealth in New York through his successful representation and mediation work for powerful corporations. To escape social ostracism at home, Lucy and her son spent the next ten years abroad, staying mostly in Brussels and London. After her return to the United States of America in 1907, John attended the private Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut.
It was not until three years later that his father was able to take Lucy as his lawful wife and recognize John as his biological son.2
Following an educational journey through Europe and the Middle East, John Dos Passos was admitted to Harvard University in the fall of 1912. Although his father wanted him to study law, he decided to take academic courses in literature and architecture. As a student on campus, he frequented a circle of decadent pacifists, made lifelong friends with Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) and Robert Hillyer (1895-1961), and wrote reviews, poems and short stories for the Harvard Monthly. Shortly after his graduation he set off on a study trip to Spain for several months. Instead of devoting himself wholeheartedly to Iberian art and culture, he was deeply shocked by contemporary reports of the bloody warfare in the trenches of the neighboring country. As he felt an urge to support the troops on the frontline, he finally volunteered for medical service in July 1917.
His experiences in the First World War left lasting impressions on John Dos Passos. In the course of his missions for the Norton Harjes Ambulance Corps in France and Italy, he learned not only about the lives and deaths of the soldiers in the field but also about the despotism and violence of the commanding officers in the hinterland. The massive brutality of the modern warfare led him to publicly express criticism, which earned him an imprisonment in a French jail and a warning by an American court martial. After the First World War had ended in 1918, Dos Passos spent some time studying at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Back in the United States, he wrote two autobiographical war novels, eloquently denouncing the humiliation and dehumanization inflicted by the army in times of industrial warfare. While One Man's Initiation: 1917 (1920) went completely unnoticed, Three Soldiers (1921) made him a successful author overnight.
In the early 1920s John Dos Passos lived and worked alternately in Europe and America. He had been a close friend of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) ever since they had met in the days of their ambulance work in Italy3. After the war he traveled with him and other American expatriates to Pamplona for bullfighting, to Cape d’Antibes for sunbathing and to Schruns for skiing. In New York, however, he established contact with the leading intellectuals and artists of his time. The Marxist journalists Max Eastman (1883-1969), Emma Goldman (1869-1940), and Michael Gold (1894-1967) convinced him that writers had to fulfill an important political function in society. Soon he not only published critical essays, reports and pamphlets in the New Republic, but also developed the ambitious plan to write a contemporary novel about the struggle for survival in the modern American city.
The publication of John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer (1925) caused an enormous stir in the literary scene of the time. Depending on readers' tastes and attitudes, the reactions ranged from exuberant praise to downright condemnation. The modernist novel focuses on the urban atmosphere of New York4. Its three sections reflect the chronological development of the metropolis from the turn of the century to the mid-1920s. Each of the twelve chapters is preceded by a short introduction, which is thematically and associatively connected with the following text section. Even if some of the characters appear repeatedly, this does not result in a consistent plot structure. Rather, the narrative technique of the stream of consciousness emphasizes the anonymity and atomization among the city's inhabitants. The interspersed headlines, lyrics, and slogans convey the growing influence of the mass media and serial production in American everyday culture.
The late 1920s brought about an artistic radicalization for John Dos Passos. Labor conflicts in American society triggered the writer’s solidarity with the working class. Confronted with the violent suppression of industrial unrest, he came to think of himself as a social revolutionary. He participated in the reestablishment of the New Masses magazine and worked as a director, author and stage designer of the expressionist New Playwrights Theater. At the center of his efforts was the controversy about the politically motivated trial of the Italian-born anarchists Nicola Sacco (1891-1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888-1927), who had been sentenced to death in 1921 for robbery and murder. Until their execution in Charlestown State Prison in 1927, John Dos Passos actively campaigned for a revision of the verdict. He not only took part in strikes outside the court house, but also presented the case and judgment in a polemic paper entitled Facing the Chair: Story of the Americanization of Two Foreignborn Workmen (1927).
John Dos Passos was in a revolutionary mood when he began work on his U.S.A. trilogy in 1928. While anti-capitalist thinking is cautiously formulated in The 42nd Parallel, it intensifies in Nineteen Nineteen and finds its most vehement expression in The Big Money. Taken as a whole, the three volumes form a polyphonic portrait of American society from 1890 to 19305. Twelve main and countless minor characters appear in various constellations at different locations in America and Europe. Structurally, the innovative novels are composed of four complementary text types6. In addition to the narrative sections, there are collage-like newsreels from authentic newspaper reports, impressionistic reflections of a first-person narrator, and satirical short biographies of important personalities of the epoch including inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), journalist John Reed (1887-1920), industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), publisher William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), social scientist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) and politician Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919).
1 Lawrence Buell has maintained that “U.S.A. unfolds as a three-stage chronicle of the betrayed promise of industrial democracy, from the top down and from the bottom up. The 42nd Parallel sweeps through the early years of the twentieth century; 1919 centers on the last stages of World War I and its aftermath; The Big Money follows the 1920s from postwar return through the stock market crash and looming Depression” (399).
2 For more information on John Dos Passos’s life see Townsend Ludington’s and Virginia Spencer Carr’s lengthy biographies.
3 James McGrath Morris has traced the friendship between Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos from their days as voluntary ambulance drivers in France to the time when they fell out over the death of their friend José Robles by the hands of the Soviets in the Spanish Civil War.
4 Donald Pizer has remarked that “in conventional literary terms, Manhattan Transfer is a historical panoramic novel. It covers some 25 years, from roughly the late 1890s to the mid-1920s, and it seeks to render not an individual life but the complex whole of New York life during this period” (31).
5 Donald Pizer has argued that “Dos Passos’s primary aim in writing U.S.A., as he explained on several occasions in later years, was to chronicle his age—that is, to render the nature of twentieth-century American civilization in all its outer multiplicity” (36).
6 Michael Denning has claimed that “Dos Passos’s experiment in uniting history, fiction, and memoir in a new type of ‘historical novel’ was immediately apparent in the division of the novels into four distinct types of writing: the sixty-eight Newsreels; the fifty-one Camera Eyes; the twenty-seven biographical portraits; and the fictional narratives organized around twelve major characters” (170).
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- John Dos Passos The 42nd Parallel The Big Money 1919 chronicle conflict USA trilogy history modernism Max Eastman Emma Gold Ernest Hemingway e.e.cummings Robert Hillyer Three Soldiers One Man's Initiation Emma Goldman Manhattan Transfer Barry Goldwater Richard Nixon First American Writers’ Congress League of American Writers Number One The Grand Design Adventures of a Young Man