John Dos Passos, born in 1896, was one of a remarkable group of Americans who came of literary age during the decade after World War I. The group included Scott Fitzgerald, born the same year, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, e.e. cummings, Malcolm Cowley, and Edmund Wilson, all of whom had close contact with Dos Passos at one time or another during his life, which ended in 1970.
One hundred years after his birth, Dos Passos is an anomaly: his fictions of the 1920's and 1930's, Three Soldiers (1921), Manhattan Transfer (1925), and the trilogy U.S.A. (1930—1936, 1937) are acknowledged to be important works in American literary history. He is regularly anthologized; but rarely is he eulogized, a far cry from his situation in 1936, when he was featured on the cover of the August 10th issue of Time magazine to mark the publication of The Big Money, the third volume of U.S.A. Two years later Jean-Paul Sartre acclaimed him "the greatest living writer of our time."
By then, however, his literary reputation had already begun to decline because of the fierce political struggles which marked the 1930's. Dos Passos—always swimming in political currents whether along the left or the right bank—had in 1937 moved more publicly than before away from the far left after discovering that his close friend Jose Robles had been secretly executed in Spain, where he had returned to fight against Franco's rebels after leaving his teaching position at Johns Hopkins University. Dos Passos was lied to by leaders of the Republican government, and from what he learned he soon became convinced that Communists had been the instigators of Robles's death. One result of this episode was a bitter split with his close friend Hemingway. By 1939, with the publication of his partly autobiographical novel The Adventures of a Young Man, he was anathema to the likes of the Neiv Masses, where its reviewer, Samuel Sillen, wrote that the book was "almost inconceivably rotten," "a crude piece of Trotskyist agit-prop" that suffered from "sloppy writing, hollow characters, machine-made dialogue, [and] editorial rubber stamps." Malcolm Cowley, sympathetic with the Communists, criticized Dos Passos as severely as had Sillen, although with less vitriol. He blamed disillusionment for the flatness of the work and thought Dos Passos might become utterly cynical.
Dos Passos, principled, but in the eyes of his former friend Hemingway, foolish for writing against the liberal grain of the critics, continued his journey right, turning out historical portraits that lauded—simplistically, many historians would argue—America's Founding Fathers; blueprints for a Jeffersonian system of government, which meant in modern terms a conservative, agrarian program; and occasional fictions—"contemporary chronicles," he termed them, that viewed the nation through conservative lenses. By 1964 he was an ardent Goldwater Republican and behaved, a dismayed Edmund Wilson wrote him, like a kid in front of the Beatles. In 1970 he praised Richard Nixon's incursion into Cambodia as "the first rational military step taken in the whole [Vietnam] war"; but by then he was merely a sad footnote to the past in the eyes of the New Left, who received his scorn for their "rank criminal idiocy" and for "allowing] themselves to be led by their elders into this hysteria about Cambodia." He died on Sept. 28, 1970, a writer more honored abroad than in his own country, except in the opinions of William Buckley's National Review and others from that end of the political spectrum.
Yet no one loved the United States more than he. Because of a largely European upbringing until the age of 11, he had seen himself as "a man without a country" during his youth and early adulthood. Even in the first half of the 1930's, writing in an autobiographical Camera Eye toward the end of U.S.A., he characterized himself as "an unidentified stranger/ destination unknown/ hat pulled down over the has he any? face." The Spanish debacle of 1937 led him toward his true home, his Chosen Country as he called the United States in his 1951 novel by that name.
Today Dos Passes is at the least an intriguing figure: the author of the first significant anti-war novel to emerge from World War I, Three Soldiers, as well as of high modernist fiction, Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A., and of American political writing at its most vibrant, U.S.A. He is an intriguing figure also because to the end of his days, long after the years of his best writing, he was intensely involved with the United States, a kind of wide-eyed observer peering in at the society, and from the perspective of 1996, he stands far closer to the center of the nation's cultural and political currents than he did in the 1960's and 1970's.
Unlike others among his American literary and artistic contemporaries who during their expatriate days were for the most part only superficially assimilating European culture, Dos Passos was steeped in it. It played on his mind constantly and influenced his literary response to modern American culture. As he traveled and lived abroad for substantial lengths of time, he grasped at America because he hoped to find a sense of place—a sense of self, eventually—which Europe never could provide him. Numerous writers of the 1920's looked back at America from Europe and wrote more eloquently about it than if they had never left their native land. Dos Passos's experience was somewhat different: his early years abroad made him an outsider to the United States, and he spent his adult life trying to explain his native land. America, that is, was his response to Europe, An illegitimate child born in Chicago in 1896, he lived in Brussels and then London for the most part until entering Choate Preparatory School in Wallingford, Connecticut, in 1907. By the spring of 1911 he had enough credits to graduate but was only 15, so with a "tutor" he spent much of the next academic year traveling throughout Europe and the Near East, then enrolled at Harvard in September 1912. Such experiences enabled him to feel at ease with European culture, but he still needed intellectual maturity. Harvard provided some of that. Dos Passos was a voracious reader, devouring almost everything he could get his hands on, and he wrote constantly.
Although during his years at Harvard he read among the European greats, read such new work as that by imagist poets, and saw the Russian Ballet and the Armory Show—the 1913 art exhibition that was mostly avant garde and mostly European—his writing during his senior year was hardly on any cutting edge. His poetry drew heavily on very usual imagery. One poem printed in the May 1916 Harvard Monthly begins, "Incessantly the long rain falls, / Slanting on black walls/ Which glisten where a street lamp shines." His prose is of the same sort—clean, but genteel and derivative.
He sought a vision and a voice of his own; but he did not yet have experience enough to find them. His ideas, like his style, were borrowed, a bit from the aesthetes of the 1890's, a touch from Henry James, George Santayana, Van Wyck Brooks, and so forth. Hence, he wrote in the spirit of Brooks's 1915 harangue America's Coming-of-Age, where the author attacked the nation for being "a vast Sargasso Sea—a prodigious welter of unconscious life, swept by ground-swells of half-conscious emotion," an unhappy condition that was the result of Americans not comprehending how much they were in the grip of industrialism.
"Has not the world today somehow got itself enslaved by this immense machine, the Industrial system?" Dos Passos asked plaintively in a piece that appeared in the June 1916 issue of the Harvard Monthly. His answer, of course, was "yes." And he continued his derivative criticism in the first piece for which he was paid, "Against American Literature," which appeared in the Oct. 24, 1916 issue of the New Republic. Like the young James commenting on Nathaniel Hawthorne, and like Brooks more recently, Dos Passos bemoaned the lack of depth and variety in American literature—in all its culture, for that matter. The whole thing was "wholesome rice-pudding fare. . ., a rootless product" that had little or none of what the literature and art of other countries had: "the earth-feeling, the jewelled accretions of the imagination of succeeding ages, so rich in old English writing," for instance. "We find ourselves floundering without rudder or compass, in the sea of modern life, vaguely lit by the phosphorescent gleam of our traditional optimism," he declared, drawing almost directly, it seems, out of Brooks's chapter on "The Sargasso Sea."
Dos Passes was primed to return to Europe after graduating from Harvard in June 1916. He wanted to join the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service, but his father told him he could not until he was 21, so the younger Dos Passes traveled to Spain in October to study architecture. There he caught glimpses of the mounting horrors of World War I, but by and large Spain was sheltered from these, and his chief acquisition from his months in Madrid and traveling the countryside was an acute appreciation for the mellowness of Spanish life and the satiric spirit of Spain's writers and artists. Nothing affected him more than Don Quixote, whose scope and spirit certainly influenced what he later sought in U.S.A. On board a train to Cartagena in January 1917 he wrote his friend Rumsey Marvin that he was in the land of Don Quixote. Marvin should "abandon all else," and if he had not already read Cervantes's work, "read it." Dos Passes was admiring the countryside as he wrote, and to add to his pleasure he was reading "a volume of old Spanish romances of the Cid." He drew a sketch of the land and concluded, "Oh, it's so wonderful and strange, the very place for the mad ardors, and pathetic beauty of the Knight of the Doleful Countenance—the red and the blue & the grey—and the windmills perched like rabbits on all the hills and the gnarled olive trees climbing up the slopes." He was just beginning Don Quixote again, he said, this time in Spanish, "for about the 'n'th time," and it was "more joyful than ever." The horrors of war that he had gotten some sense of when passing through France the previous fall made more poignant the history and stark beauty of Spain. "I am mad about Spain," he wrote his friend Dudley Poore as he was about to return to Madrid, "the wonderful mellowness of life, the dignity, the layered ages." His romanticizing ended abruptly when on January 30th he received the news that his father had died in New York City of pneumonia. Stunned, he felt completely alone. As soon as he could he returned to the United States, ending his first exposure to Spain, one of the most affecting episodes in his life.
During the spring in New York he discovered a culture he had hardly known before, that of Greenwich Village and of political radicals such as Emma Goldman, Max Eastman, and others who opposed the war and the nation's ever-more-certain entry into it. Intellectually he stood with them; viscerally he still lacked the experience to take his stand. Bemoaning "the dance of death" to George St. John, the headmaster of Choate School, after America had entered the war in April 1917, Dos Passes chirped, "Oh but it is wonderful to live amid the downfall—and perhaps it is the birth-pangs too," and he confessed that he was "very anxious to see things first hand," expecting that when he returned to Europe with the ambulance group with which he had signed up he would get a full taste of war.
He did in August 1917 during an intense several days on the Western Front near Verdun, where he drove ambulances while the Allies staged an offensive that drove the Germans back a mile at the usual cost of many lives. Dos Passes quickly lost any romantic sense about war: "I'm dying to write—but all my methods of doing things in the past merely disgust me now, all former methods are damned inadequate," he wrote even before the offensive but after having seen a good deal of the carnage. Scrawling in his diary, he lashed out, "How ridiculous it all is! . . . My God what a time—All the cant and hypocrisy, all the damnable survivals, all the vestiges of old truths now putrid and false infect the air, choke you worse than German gas." A short time later, after the offensive, he wrote Marvin,
The war is utter damn nonsense—a vast cancer fed by lies and self seeking malignity on the part of those who don't do the fighting.
Of all the things in this world a government is the thing least worth fighting for.
Dos Passes had numerous other war experiences before the armistice in November 1918: he served in northern Italy, did gruesome volunteer work in Paris, and suffered from the boredom of military life after the armistice. Nothing had more effect on him than the days spent close to Verdun. The derivative nature of his writing lessened; deeply felt experiences brought out a more nearly original voice. But how was he to write distinctively when it was not about war? He had to pull together the anti-materialist instincts he had earlier voiced with his growing sense of the satiric, the discovered meanings of what he had seen in World War I, and his knowledge of the forms of literary and artistic modernism which he learned in Europe during the years directly after the war ended.
His first novel, One Man's Initiation—1917 (1920), was an attempt to present his war experiences drawn directly—and in didactic terms—from his notebooks and diaries. They would be treated with more literary sophistication in Three Soldiers. As he wrote a friend while composing that novel, he wanted it to express his "utter," he began, then paused. "It's not exactly that though. The feeling of revolt against army affairs has long crystallized itself into the stories of three people." The characters and plot were clear in his mind: "The first part is at training camp in America, the second part at the front, the third in that strange underground world of deserters and AWOL's, the underside of the pomp of war. There is going to be rather a lot of murder and sudden death in it." His description is accurate about the book as published. When it was, the reception was satisfying. Critics, while generally praising it, recognized that an attack on the military was controversial. Conservatives attacked it: the reviewer for the New York Times condemned it for its "unmanly intemperance both in language and plot." It lacked any "voice of righteousness" and had only the "voice of complaint and petty recrimination." In March 1922 the Chicago Tribune published a diatrbe against Three Soldiers under the headline: THREE SOLDIERS BRANDED AS TEXTBOOK AND BIBLE FOR SLACKERS AND COWARDS.
He was famous, if not notorious, and was headed into a remarkably prolific period in his career. In 1922 his only volume of poetry, A Pushcart at the Curb, was published, as was a first collection of essays, Rosinante to the Road Again. The next year a novel, Streets of Night, was resurrected from among his college writing. But his chief interest was in capturing a sense of New York City, newly caught up in the excesses of Prohibition. It was the land of the Big Money, as he called the 1920's in his U.S.A. trilogy. New York was "like a badly drawn cartoon," a kind of "Babylon gone mad," he told a friend, where people seemed to look like the advertising they constantly saw before them. He told a French friend that New York was:
a city of cavedwellers, with a frightful, brutal ugliness about it, full of thunderous voices of metal grinding on metal and of an eternal sound of wheels which turn, turn on heavy stones. People swarm meekly like ants along designated routes, crushed by the disdainful and pitiless objects around them.
He was, in effect, describing the setting for Manhattan Transfer.
All that remained for him to create his major fiction was to find a form suitable for his modernist themes and subject matter. This, too, emerged from his European experiences. The visually and verbally frenetic, staccato, expressionist styles of Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A. did not suddenly arise, but were shaped out of a long process that began with Dos Passos's awareness of "the new" when during his years at Harvard University from 1912—1916 he saw such events as the Russian Ballet and the Armory Show. From that moment on he steeped himself in contemporary art of all sorts: during and after World War I he repeatedly listened to—studied is not an exaggeration—contemporary music in Paris; read the works of the symbolist poets and of T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and a host of others; was fascinated with the techniques of cinema he saw in France and later in Soviet Russia; worked on making sets for the Russian Ballet in Paris; and talked about contemporary forms of art with Fernand Leger and the many others whom the American arbiters of taste Gerald and Sarah Murphy gathered together as their revenge on life.
And as a thematic counterpoint to "the new" was the Spain he had come to know in 1916—1917 and to which he returned in 1919—1920. In essays written during both visits and collected in Rosinante to the Road Again he spoke lovingly about the many qualities of Spain he admired: its variety of languages and topography, its art, and most especially the character of its people with their pride and above all, their individualism. Against these qualities and similar ones he found in France, he set what he saw as the raw power and materialism of a rapidly industrializing United States, and the contrasts he noted became part of the basis for his interpretation of modern life in Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A.
He recognized that "Spain as a modern centralized nation is an illusion, a very unfortunate one; for the present atrophy, the desolating resultlessness of a century of revolution, may very well be due in larger measure to the artificial imposition of centralized government on a land essentially centrifugal," an insight that is analogous to—perhaps even the root of—his remark to the critic Malcolm Cowley after the publication of 1919, the middle volume of U.S.A., that "the later part of the book shows a certain crystalization (call it monopoly capitalism?) of society that didn't exist in the early part of [the first volume] 42nd Parallel (call it competitive capitalism?)" To make his point about Spain he cited the variety of languages spoken, the variety of topography, and most tellingly, the variety of types reflected in art that become almost caricatures."Given the ebullient fertility of the Spanish mind and its intense individualism," he noted, "a constant slipping over into the grotesque is inevitable." It takes no great leap of mind to understand how his admiration for the grotesque in Spanish art influenced him when he created the caricatures who populate Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A., which like Don Quixote attempt to paint a broad sweep of life.
Repeatedly in the essays he stressed the differences between Spain, where "life is one vast ritual," and America, "to whom," he had a student assert, "the future belongs; you are so vigorous and vulgar and uncultured. Life has become once more the primal fight for bread." He admired the ritual but believed that it could not succeed over the vigor of the younger nation. Despite his pessimism, he admired most the individualism of the Spanish, the anarchism of a novelist such as Pio Baroja, and the cohesiveness of small, independent villages such as Almorox. What Dos Passes learned from his experiences in Spain was what Baroja wrote about: his "profound sense of the evil of existing institutions." "Occasionally, only occasionally," would Baroja allow himself "to hope that something better [might] come out of the turmoil of our age of transition."
The Spain Dos Passes learned about from 1916 to 1920 taught him to hope, as he declared the martyred Italian anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti had hoped, that "somehow men's predatory instincts, incarnate in the capitalist system, can be canalized into other channels, leaving free communities of artisans and farmers and fishermen and cattle breeders who would work for their livelihood with pleasure, because the work was itself enjoyable, in the serene white light of a reasonable world." Alas, when in the early 1930's and then after the beginning of the Civil War in 1937 he next visited Spain for any length of time, he saw that it, like much of the rest of Western Europe, had succumbed to those predatory instincts, and the "serene white light" had been extinguished. But that was in the 1930's; in the early and mid-1920's the examples of Spain and France offered him exactly the contrast with the brutal, vulgar United States which he needed to combine with modernist aesthetics to produce Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A.
New York City in the early 1920's was not only a Babylon drenched in illegal liquor because of Prohibition, the nation's misguided attempt to improve its morals by doing away with alcohol; it was an emerging center for the arts in the United States. Dos Passos was very much aware of this and sharpened his literary techniques by studying art and developing a more-than-passable style that has touches of expressionism, precisionism, and even a bit of cubism about it. He understood color and composition, and these found expression in his writing in heavy doses of imagism in Manhattan Transfer and in the multi-voiced, multiple perspectives that give shape to the city novel and then more obviously to U.S.A. The devices of the Camera Eye, the short biographies of noteworthy people, the Newsreels, and the longer narratives about a variety of representative characters, that is, interspersed as they are, became his method of achieving a cubistic effect to the degree that the written page will permit.
While the art he practiced and the expressionistic dramas such as Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape he saw and whose techniques he emulated in a play, The Garbage Man, which he completed in 1923, helped set the stage for Manhattan Transfer, more influential by far was Paris. Many years later, Gerald Murphy, the American painter and organizer of a kind of artistic salon for his expatriate friends, wrote to Dos Passos about the early 1920's in Paris. They came, he observed, "at the end of an era when most of one's values were those of a classic education and nothing planet-shaking had happened to the arts." Murphy appreciated Paris for "the forces that were loose in the arts at that time of which we felt the import at close range: les Six, Diaghilieff, les Independents, les Dadaists, Picasso, Stravinsky, Brancusi, et cetera, above all life on the Rive Gauche which seems like the Age of Innocence now."
Life on the Rive Gauche: that was what excited Dos Passos for the very reasons Murphy mentioned. When Dos Passos arrived in Paris in 1923 after more than a year away, he almost immediately joined Murphy and others to help paint sets for the Ballet Russe's presentation of Stravinsky's Les Noces. The premiere was an extravagant affair; Diaghilev persuaded the composers Francois Poulenc, Georges Auric, Vittorio Rieti, and "the leading interpreter of the new music," Marcelle Meyer, to perform the ballet's four piano parts. George Balanchine, the choreographer, even traveled from Moscow especially to see the premiere.
In Paris he and his friends discussed art and ballet, and the talks had a great influence on his work. That spring, in fact, Gerald Murphy had been commissioned by Rolf de Mare, a Swedish impresario then in Paris with the Ballets Suedois, to create an "American Ballet," which would be the curtain raiser for what was to follow, the ballet La Creation du Monde, by Milhaud. Murphy engaged Cole Porter, living in Venice at the time, to do the score, so later in the summer of 1923 the two created the ballet, entitled Within the Quota, about which Dos Passos talked with Murphy at length.
It was, in a general way, the subject of Manhattan Transfer put to music, a ballet recording the impressions of a Swedish immigrant freshly arrived in America. In Manhattan Transfer, Dos Passos brought not a single immigrant but a number of different types to New York; like the Swede, several are naifs. The impressions they get of the stresses and frantic rhythms of the city are like those conveyed in the ballet, which employed a movie-piano solo counterpointed against an orchestra playing a "jazz base" score that included such diverse strains as "a Salvation Army chorale, a fox trot, a Swedish waltz, and an allusion to New York taxi horns." The cover of the souvenir program for the ballet was Expressionistic and faintly Cubist, showing a land of Everyman immigrant figure superimposed on a collage of skyscrapers, trolley cars, trains, steamship funnels, harbor fronts, and scattered dots of people—images of the city and of industrial society. But the most striking part of Murphy's contribution to the ballet was the backdrop he painted, a parody of the front page of a tabloid. On one side of the backdrop was the steamship Paris on end next to the Woolworth Building; then over the rest were sensational but—as it was a parody—nonsense headlines like: GEM ROBBERS FOIL $210,000 SWINDLE; EX-WIFE'S HEART-BALM LOVE-TANGLE; RUM RAID LIQUOR BAN; and in the boldest print of all UNKNOWN BANKER BUYS ATLANTIC. The similarity of the backdrop to the italicized portions that begin each section of Manhattan Transfer or more, to the Newsreels of USA, is obvious.
The early notes for Manhattan Transfer from which he worked read somewhat like Gerald Murphy's backdrop for Within the Quota. Dos Passos had jotted down observations, slogans, bits of information, and snatches of dialogue on scraps of paper, from which he began to piece together the several narratives that would make up the novel. Since his stay in the city in the fall of 1920, when the urban theme was solidifying in his mind, he had been collecting slogans and advertising signs. The notebooks in which he wrote his first tentative drafts of the novel indicate that early on he had the idea of breaking up the various materials he had gathered, but before weaving the narratives together, he seems to have written them out separately. The more he wrote, the more the work became a "collective" novel about the city, where individuals were less the central concern than the city itself, which overwhelmed and sometimes killed them.
"Rejoicing City That Dwelt Carelessly" is the title of the first part of the "Third Section" of the city novel. "There are flags on all the flagpoles up Fifth Avenue. In the shrill wind of history the great flags flap and tug at their lashings on the creaking goldknobbed poles up Fifth Avenue," announces the opening italicized passage, evoking a scene reminiscent of the artist Childe Hassam's paintings of flag days in New York City during World War I. Lines from contemporary songs intersperse the italicized parts, which also include wartime slogans and bits of scenes from the American homefront.
"Wall Street Stunned," blares out the first line of the final Newsreel in The Big Money. The Newsreel then moves in rapid succession through the lyrics of a folksong about the wreck of "Old Ninetyseven," the train that got going faster and faster until, out of control—just like the economy of the United States in 1929—it crashed on the tracks between Lynchburg and Danville, Virginia. Ever faster and in some ways more outlandish become the staccato lines in the Newsreel as we recognize—which the newspaper headlines never acknowledge—that there exists a tremendous economic disparity between the prosperity President Herbert Hoover touts and the poverty most Americans face.
One can become too impressed—obsessed—with the many influences that play upon an artist. Dos Passes once asserted that any artist, rather than being influenced by one or two major figures, absorbs "certain . . .styles and methods [that] are in the air." He was part of a generation that was busy creating an artistic renaissance, and in New York and Paris he was constantly among people who were rendering their sense of the 20th century through themes, techniques, and styles such as those he came to employ.
Two associations in France and a third with an expatriated German artist exemplify the influences upon him. The first was with the painter Fernand Leger, whom Dos Passes met in 1923 through Gerald Murphy. During that summer the three talked extensively and walked along the quays by the Seine, with their painter's eyes noticing shapes and colors around them. In a piece entitled "A New Realism—the Object" (1926), Leger described what he meant to be doing in his cubist work. His remarks fit exactly with what Dos Passes attempted in his experimental, fragmented, collective fictions."In the new realism," wrote Leger, "the human being, the personality, is very interesting only in these fragments, and . . .these fragments should not be considered of any more importance than any of the other objects listed." Like Dos Passos in the 1920's, Leger was fascinated with cinema and noted that in his form of painting "the technique emphasized is to isolate the object or the fragment of an object and to present it on the screen in close-ups of the largest possible scale." Just so Dos Passos in his "contemporary chronicles" emphasized the nature of modern society by creating fragmented, partial portraits of a multitude of characters. Rarely are they even close to being fully developed; rather they flicker across a screen— Leger's canvas—which has been constructed from the back-drops of New York in Manhattan Transfer and the country in U.S.A., themselves represented through "close-ups" such as the introductory pieces in Manhattan Transfer and the Newsreels of the trilogy.
The second association is that which Dos Passos had with the poet Blaise Cendrars, whom he had gotten to know well in the early 1920's and whose volume, Le Panama et Mes Sept Oncles, he translated into English in 1930. Reading the volume, one can immediately understand Dos Passos's fascination with Cendrars, whose poetry conveys his excitement about the modern age, while his flat documentary style has about it a cinematic objectivity that is akin to what Dos Passos sought in U.S.A. He asserted in his foreword to the translation that Cendrars belonged to the modernist movement which heavily influenced him:
The poetry of Blaise Cendrars was part of the creative tidal wave that spread over the world from the Paris of before the last European war. Under various tags: futurism, cubism, vorticism, modernism, most of the best work in the arts in our time has been the direct product of this explosion, that had an influence in its sphere comparable with that of the October revolution in social organization and politics and the Einstein formula in physics. Cendrars and Apollinaire, poets, were on the first cubist barricades with the group that included Picasso, Modigliani, Marinetti, Chagall; that profoundly influenced Maiakovsky, Meyerhold, Eisenstein; whose ideas carom through Joyce, Gertrude Stein, [and] T.S. Eliot. The music of Stravinski and Prokofieff and Diageleffs Ballet hail from this same Paris already in the disintegration of victory. . . .
The German artist whose work clearly influenced him was George Grosz, who came to the United States in 1932. From that moment, and very likely long before it, Dos Passes knew of Grosz's bitter caricatures of the bourgeoisie, caricatures directed at the United States after his arrival there. Dos Passos did not exactly draw Grosz's "stick figures" in words, but he did very much satirize in the same bitter vein as had the other artist, and his caricatures have the flat, two dimensional qualities about them that Grosz's have. In a piece that appeared in Esquire magazine in September 1936, a month after the publication of the third volume of the U.S.A. trilogy, Dos Passos wrote about the German's work:
Grosz was full of the horror of life. A satirist is a man whose flesh creeps so at the ugly and the savage and the uncongruous aspects of society that he has to express them as brutally and nakedly as possible to get relief. He seeks to put into expressive form his grisly obsessions the way a bacteriologist seeks to isolate a virus or a micro-organism. . . . Looking at Grosz's drawings you are more likely to feel a grin of pain than to burst out laughing. . . . The satirist in words or in visual images is the doctor who comes in with his sharp and sterile instruments to lance the focusses of dead matter that continually impede the growth of intelligence.
American writers have often been influenced by European art. Less frequent is a case like that of Dos Passos, who grew up at least as much a European as an American. He was not trying to run away from his native land when he seemed to be an expatriate; rather, the experience of Europe made him want to define the United States, which he tried repeatedly to do in the "contemporary chronicles." Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A. were the first—and most exciting—of his attempts to present chronicles of the modern nation he wanted to call home after an early life abroad. Although traditional critics such as the New Humanist Paul Elmer More condemned the avant garde fiction—in this case specifically Manhattan Transfer—as "an explosion in a cesspool," less hidebound critics recognized that Dos Passes had caught a sense of the modern age in his high speed, panoramic works.
After U.S.A. he would never again produce a chronicle with the same sort of nervous excitement about it. Adventures of a Young Man was plaintive and ordinary in style. Subsequent novels, even when—as with Midcentury (1961)—he used the multiple perspectives which he had employed with such success in U.S.A., never seemed to have the verve and stylistic daring about them that marked the trilogy. Partly the reason was that the experimental forms, warmed over, lacked the shock of the new. And the message, still political but now blindered once Dos Passes had made up his mind about exactly who were the good guys and the bad guys, seemed neither revolutionary nor alive with passion but more nearly only cranky. Dos Passos blamed the liberal bent of the critics. There was truth to that; yet his work lacked emotional engagement. Then, too, he had more and more declared himself an historian, writing repeatedly about the early days of the Republic, about the President he had come to despise, Woodrow Wilson, and, in his last days, about the land of his ancestors, Portugal.
Anyone wishing to dismiss Dos Passos should remember that he was an intelligent, thoughtful man of letters who agonized about his politics. His stance once he had turned right represents that of a substantial, now powerful group of Americans—he would be considered a mainstream Republican in 1996—and his sorrow about his chosen country was akin to that of the literally millions of his countrymen on the left and on the right who have despaired about this democracy. A sense of hopelessness was abroad in the land during the last decade of his life; many Americans feared then—and still fear—that little or nothing can be done to stem technological growth; the government, which they once believed was them, now seems impersonal and unresponsive. Taken all in all, his work still speaks to the issues before us, and that is not an insignificant achievement.