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Dos Passos: the Mind and the Man

ISSUE:  Summer 1981
John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey. By Townsend Ludington. Dutton. $20.00.

Is there a Dos Passos revival underway? The rhythm of his reputation suggests that the time is ripe. After the “best times” of the 1920’s and 30’s, shortly after which Sartre confidently named him America’s greatest living writer, Dos Passos’ reputation suffered a long decline. But now that the almost obligatory decade of stock-taking after an author’s death has occurred (Dos Passos died in 1970), there are signs of increased interest in his life and work. The foundations for this interest were well laid in the early 1970’s by two important works, Melvin Landsberg’s Dos Passos’ Path to “U.S.A.” and Townsend Ludington’s collection of Dos Passos’ letters and diaries, The Fourteenth Chronicle. These were followed by two major exercises in reassessment, lain Colley’s Dos Passos and the Fiction of Despair and Linda W. Wagner’s Dos Passos: Artist as American. And most recently Dos Passos has received two minor indicators of acceptance in the circle of American writers of current importance—a volume in the G.K. Hall reference guide series and an issue of Modem Fiction Studies devoted to his work. Still lacking, however, were an authorized biography, a definitive bibliography, and a full collection of letters. The bibliography and letters are still to come, but the biography is now before us in Townsend Ludington’s John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey.

Ludington’s book fulfills almost all the expectations one brings to a major authorized biography. Relying heavily on the Dos Passos Collection at the University of Virginia Library, he has for the first time told the full story of Dos Passos’ extraordinarily peripatetic and active life. Here, for a man who knew everyone, went everywhere, and wrote endlessly, and who had no home until his late thirties, is a comprehensive and reliable account of whom he knew and where he was and what he was writing. There are no startling revelations in this account, though some of Dos Passos’ romantic attachments—to the Frenchwoman Germaine Lucas-Championniere and the American graduate student Crystal Ross—do come as minor surprises. Rather, there is a fullness and richness of detail—of dates and places and names—which will be the invaluable “Dos Passos log” for generations of scholars to come. Lacing this record, and supplying much of its cohesion and dramatic force, are generous quotations from a series of correspondences which Dos Passos maintained throughout his life. As Dos Passos tried out his literary and political ideas in letters with Rumsey Marvin and Arthur McComb early in his career, and later with John Howard Lawson and Edmund Wilson, Ludington’s admirably controlled authorial distance temporarily surrenders the stage to the living record of youthful conviction and high spirits and of middle-aged, tendentious defensiveness.

John Dos Passos is not an intimate biography. Ludington is very much the biographer as gentleman in restricting himself to brief allusions to such matters as Dos Passos’ possible homosexual interest in Rumsey Marvin or to the nature of his relationship with his first wife, Katy Smith. He is best as an historian and interpreter of Dos Passos’ ideas and particularly of his political and social ideas. We are unlikely, for example, to have a better account of Dos Passos’ attitudes toward American society during his crucial post-Harvard half-decade or of his fluctuating private beliefs and public positions during the turbulent 1930’s.

Ludington has no special thesis to put forward in his rendering of Dos Passos’ life and work. He is principally interested in setting the record straight. Nevertheless, several significant themes do emerge from his narrative. One is the importance of Dos Passos’ early life. Dos Passos’ personal background was almost unknown until the appearance of his own The Best Times in 1966, but it must now loom large in any attempt to understand him and his writing. On the surface a genial and open man, Dos Passos could be included nonetheless in Edmund Wilson’s gallery of writers whose artistic bows were strung by the psychic wounds of youth. Dos Passos was illegitimate and of Portuguese immigrant stock, yet his father was a Wall Street lawyer and Dos Passos attended Choate and Harvard. Out of these tensions and ambivalences came not only the Choate boy of the Camera Eye of U.S.A. who, unlike his companions, “couldn’t learn to skate and kept falling down,” but the fierce, unspoken pride and anxieties of an entire literary life.

The subtitle of Ludington’s biography suggests another of the major themes in his reading of Dos Passos’ life. Unlike Odysseus, however, Dos Passos did not wander a mere ten years. Where the action was, there was Dos Passos, from the French and Italian fronts of 1917 and 1918, to Russia, Paris, and Village New York in the 1920’s, to the American hinterland and Spain in the 1930’s, and finally to postwar Europe and South America in the 1950’s and 60’s. Dos Passos’ physical restlessness is the controlling metaphor of his life. He did not travel merely to seek out experience, as in the Hemingway model of the writer who gains authenticity of emotion through personal adventure. He sought rather in his travels to discover his own beliefs and values, to measure and express them by comparison with those of the culture he was experiencing. So Europe, and especially Spain, served Dos Passos initially as a reservoir of counterimages for the deficiencies he felt in American life. And so later in his career America itself became the standard by which he measured all other cultures.

Ludington’s Odyssey motif also encompassos an almost inevitable issue in any interpretation of Dos Passos’ career, that of the causes and nature of his transformation from an endorser of William Z. Foster in 1932 to a Goldwater supporter in 1964, a political journey which coincided with Dos Passos’ loss of imaginative strength. Unlike Linda Wagner in her recent study, Ludington does not avoid the central problem posed by Dos Passos’ simultaneous loss of radical conviction and creative brilliance in the late 1930’s by arguing that in fact there was no falling off in literary quality. Nor does he dismiss the problem by seconding the notion that Dos Passos, after the 1930’s, was the victim of a left-wing plot to discredit his later work. There is no doubt some truth to both of these revisionist positions, but Ludington effectively dramatizes his conviction that Dos Passos’ later life and work indeed are of lesser interest by allotting the last 20 years of Dos Passos’ life a mere 50 pages in a biography of more than 550 pages.

Ludington’s interpretation of Dos Passos’ “decline” is convincing because he refuses to offer a single simplistic explanation but rather views it as the product of the joining of a number of threads in Dos Passos’ life and work in the late 1930’s. Among these is the now almost conventional belief that Dos Passos’ radicalism, because of its Jeffersonian and anarchistic emphasis on personal liberty, could easily shift into conservatism when the threats to liberty appeared to stem from big government rather than big business. Ludington contributes to this interpretation his own observation that Dos passos’ early radicalism was perhaps itself thinly based, that it was more the product of a youthful rebelliousness than deep-seated principle and could thus be readily shed in later life. As for the connection between Dos Passos’ changing political position and his fictional power, Ludington convincingly argues that Dos Passos’ shift was not only from radicalism to conservatism but also from an exploratory frame of mind to intellectual certainty and that it is the vehement positiveness of his later beliefs which leads him to neglect the complexities of character and event for the representation of theme through single-dimensional characterization, unselective reportage, and loaded narrative.

The last major theme which emerges from Ludington’s biography is finely adapted in expression to Dos Passos’ own most memorable narrative style. I have noted that John Dos Passos is not an “inside” narrative. In this characteristic—that is, in Ludington’s dependence on full documentation of speech and movement rather than on lengthy analysis of states of mind and feeling—his biographical style resembles Dos Passos’ fictional style in the narrative portions of U.S.A., though of course without the satiric or parodic thrust of the narratives. But just as most readers of U.S.A. can grasp the essential nature of the inner life of the characters depicted in this manner—the weak and self-indulgent selfishness of a Richard Savage, the shrewd vacuousness of a J. Ward Moorehouse—so there emerges out of the largely external descriptive method of John Dos Passos a sense of the man. And unlike so many modern American writers—Dreiser and Hemingway come most to mind—whose artistic greatness seems inseparable from their personal nastiness, Dos Passos appears before us as a figure who, in his indefatigable industry, in his shy loneliness yet underlying strength of character and purpose, and above all in his honesty and goodness, we can respect and admire as a human being as well as an artist.

Although there is no denying the importance and value of John Dos Passos, it is lacking in one major area. Ludington’s comments on specific works by Dos Passos are spare and generally endorse traditional views. There is thus a gap between the fresh insights which his biography affords into Dos Passos’ experience and character and the comparative tameness of his critical readings. It is clear, for example, that there are many apparent contraditions between Dos Passos the man and Dos Passos the author. Edmund Wilson noted one of the most prominent when he commented that Dos Passos seemed to enjoy life immensely, yet his fiction presents an unrelieved “grim” picture of life and his characters “always get a bad egg for breakfast.” But there are others of equal importance. So the mild-mannered and diffident Dos Passos writes principally a fiction of satiric hyperbole and angry bitterness; and the shy, asexual intellectual (brilliantly caught by Wilson as the character Hugo Bamman in his I Thought of Daisy) imbues his fiction with portraits in sexual desire and violence. Other unresolved and largely unexplored paradoxes exist in the man himself, as in the descendant of Portuguese immigrants who becomes an extoller of America’s Anglo-Saxon heritage, or in the man of wide sympathies and great intelligence who swallows whole a know-nothing McCarthyism.

Townsend Ludington has provided us with a rich and suggestive basis for understanding Dos Passos the man and the mind. But if the Dos Passos “revival” is indeed to flourish, we must move on to seek to understand as well the relationship between Dos Passos’ character and the themes and forms of his best work. In that enterprise, hitherto largely neglected because of the absence of a reliable biography and because of Dos Passos’ reputation as principally a social novelist, lie riches of critical insight indeed.


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