When one thinks of the American modernist pantheon—and who doesn’t at least three times daily?—I suspect the usual names rise to the fore: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot.
For reasons not always so clear, the name that is often either left off this list, or is at least put on its second tier, is that of John Dos Passos (1896-1970). Dos Passos’s marginality is all the more surprising if one considers the level of sophistication and innovation behind his contributions to modernism.
For instance, the “camera eye” sections of the novels comprising the U.S.A. trilogy were every bit as instrumental in rendering the experience of modernity as Hemingway’s “iceberg” technique or Stein’s literary cubism. Hemingway’s and Stein’s larger-than-life personalities helped them live beyond the novels they wrote. In that crowd, how could the mild-mannered “Dos,” as he was often called, compete?
In 2011 the life and writings of this frequently neglected writer experienced a modest resurgence when my colleague Victoria Bryan and I founded the John Dos Passos Society. We initially set limited goals for the organization—the publication of an annual newsletter, a showing at the American Literature Association Conference each May, and the occasional correspondence with other, relevant author societies.
But in its first full year of existence, the Society garnered enough interest and memberships that it began planning, at first idly and then intensely, an academic conference to be held in Chattanooga, Tennessee, (where I’m on faculty at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) in conjunction with the one-hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I, which Dos Passos saw up close as an ambulance driver on the Western Front.
The conference did indeed take place, and it attracted scholars and writers from not only the different regions of the United States, but also from Brazil, various European nations, and Japan. By the time the proceedings had concluded, talk was already underway about a second conference, this time in Madrid, a city Dos Passos knew intimately since his adolescent days.
Held in early June 2016, the Madrid conference commanded a generous amount of attention from the Spanish press, particularly after it played a crucial role in reuniting the descendants of the author with those of the author’s friend and translator José Robles, who was executed during the Spanish Civil War. No sooner had the first day of the conference begun than a participating Portuguese scholar volunteered to host the third biennial conference in Lisbon in 2018.
What propelled the success of the Society and, more generally, the growing international enthusiasm for Dos Passos? One must first concede that in much of Europe—Spain and Portugal in particular—the author never really went out of fashion. For instance, in Spain Manhattan Transfer (1925) has been in print ever since it was first translated into Spanish in 1929. But perhaps the most crucial element in this success comes in the form of the author’s grandson, John Dos Passos Coggin, himself an author, who at the time of the Society’s formation in 2011 had dedicated much of his own energies toward keeping his grandfather’s legacy alive.
Bearing a striking resemblance to his namesake, Coggin has done so not only though the website johndospassos.com and his frequent participation with the Society, but also though various efforts to keep Dos Passos’s writings (particularly from Midcentury forward) accessible to the public either in print or electronic form. Much of the grandson’s motivation and support has no doubt come from his mother Lucy, who from the ancestral home in rural Virginia is the chief executor of the Dos Passos literary estate.
While planning for the 2018 Portugal conference is underway, the Society is sponsoring a roundtable discussion titled “Dos Passos Today” at the American Literature Association annual conference held May 25-28 in Boston. The author once recalled how Ernest Hemingway used to “bawl [him] out for including so much topical stuff” in his novels. But as the Boston panel plans to show, the writer’s emphasis on history and politics, even from an earlier time, offers insight into how we live our lives today. Discussion topics will range from the writer’s presence in contemporary Brazilian politics to his appropriation in the rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election.
The Boston roundtable scheduled for late May will show Dos Passos’s unnerving prescience. One can’t help but sense a manic energy in his writings. His observations in his fiction and non-fiction alike track the rise and decline of mass movements on both the Left and Right.
Since the year 2000, America has seen swift and dramatic political shifts, from the neoconservatism and overt religiosity of George W. Bush, to the swing leftward with the election of the first African-American president in 2008, to the rise of nativist nationalism under Donald Trump in 2016. Given these massive swings in only a half-generation, one wonders if the country really knows what it wants any more than the characters who populate so much of Dos Passos’s fiction.
I think for instance of Martin Howe and John Andrews, the respective protagonists of One Man’s Initiation (1920) and Three Soldiers (1921), who at first embrace participation in the First World War but then recoil in horror after getting exactly the experience they sought. How different is the present collective American consciousness, with all of its contradictions and ambiguities, from Manhattan Transfer’s Jimmy Herf and Ellen Thatcher, who swerve wildly, even violently, from one pyrrhic answer to life’s problems to another?
These shifts may also reflect that of the writer himself, who by the mid-1930s had abandoned his leftist leanings for a more conservative vision, seeing the latter as the better alternative for preserving individual rights in a century increasingly overrun with the collusion of big government and big business.
Then perhaps, after all, the manic state of national and world politics, more than academic conferences or even a devoted grandson, can best explain the rise in interest in Dos Passos, as is evidenced by the way he has shown up recently in other media.
The author has appeared in film, either as a character (in the 2012 HBO film Hemingway and Gellhorn) or as the subject of Sonia Tercero Ramiro’s 2015 documentary Robles, Duelo al Sol, which recounts the author’s friendship with the scholar José Robles, whose execution by Soviet partisans during the Spanish Civil War initiated Dos Passos’s disillusionment with leftist politics.
This friendship is also recounted in the 2006 Spanish-language nonfiction book by Ignacio Martínez de Pisón titled Enterrar a Los Muertos, which in 2009 came out in an English-language translation. Finally, a book on the tortured friendship between Ernest Hemingway and Dos Passos has just recently been published by James McGrath Morris titled The Ambulance Drivers (McGrath initially wanted to make the book exclusively about Dos Passos but was convinced by his editor that the book would sell better if it included Hemingway). In each of these works the theme of swift and uncontrollable movement—be it in the realm of global politics, personal friendships, or in some inevitable combination of the two—prevails.
But prevails to what end? Usually destruction. Daughter, the automobile enthusiast from 1919 (1932), goes to her inglorious death at the hands of a hung-over pilot in a plane crash, taking her unborn child with her. In a drunken frenzy, Stanwood Emery, the wealthy playboy from Manhattan Transfer, sets himself on fire while singing advertising jingles. In these and other instances, self-annihilation seems nearly as compulsive as booze, sex, or fame.
And in this regard, Dos Passos is at his most prophetic. The choices we make—in our personal friendships, our politics, our finances, or even our consumption habits—often seem to carry the simultaneous promise of liberation and imprisonment, of a beginning and an end.
UC Foundation Professor of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
615 McCallie Ave.
Chattanooga, TN 37403