Doses of Dos Passos, Part I

A trek through a volume by the great John Dos Passos

Several weeks ago, I was titling a piece (about a talk I had with George W. Bush). A phrase ran through my head: “The theme is freedom.” Where had it come from? I knew it was the title of a book by John Dos Passos, one that I had long wanted to read.

It is also the title of a book by M. Stanton Evans, the famed conservative journalist. Published in 1994, that book is The Theme Is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition. This volume of Stan’s is on my list, too.

I’ve read the Dos Passos volume. It is superb. And I’ve written about it for the current issue of National Review. I’d like to expand that piece, significantly, in this column.

‐John Dos Passos was very, very famous. You knew Ralph Kiner and Adlai Stevenson, and you knew Dos Passos, too. His name is little known today — I can tell you that even the well-educated young don’t know it. But it was one of the biggest in American letters from the 1920s until about midcentury.

In fact, that’s the title of one of Dos Passos’s novels: “Midcentury.”

He was born in 1896. Sartre called him “the greatest writer of our time.” But something happened: Dos Passos broke with the Left, where everyone was, and moved right, for he was essentially a liberal, in the old sense. Hemingway told him that, if he persisted in his independence of thought, “the New York reviewers will kill you. They will demolish you forever.”

They did.

Critics decided that he could no longer write — which was baldly untrue. One beneficiary of his writing was a new magazine, NR (born in November 1955).

‐The magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., once talked to me about Dos Passos. He said that people called him “Dos” — pronounced “Dahss,” not “Dohss.” For our pages, Dos Passos reported from the 1964 Republican convention. Four months later, he voted for the nominee, Goldwater.

Do you know how odd it was for Dos Passos, a onetime hero of the literary Left, worldwide, to pull the lever for Goldwater?

Dos Passos died six years later, in 1970.

‐It was in 1956 that he published The Theme Is Freedom. It’s a collection of his journalism. A better description, and a more accurate one, comes from the author himself — who called it a “collection of various writings of a more or less political complexion out of tattered back numbers of surviving and defunct publications and out of the already brittle pages of some of my own out of print books.”

Whatever it is, The Theme Is Freedom is dazzling and deep. Who writes like Dos Passos today? Mark Helprin, for one, but not many others.

The collected pieces date from 1926 to the present, i.e., 1956. That is a neat span of 30 years. And, for the anniversary-minded, this is the 60th anniversary of the book. Throughout the book, Dos Passos provides a running commentary, in italics. That is, his mid-’50s self comments on his earlier self. He is sometimes embarrassed, but he would not have republished these pieces if he weren’t pleased with them — as well he should be.

He maintains that, wherever he has been on the political spectrum, his theme has been constant: the freedom of the individual, and therefore of society as a whole. We can argue with him, and claim that he tarried too long with the Left, but he has a case. And, even at his left-most, he was usually awake and skeptical, rather than hypnotized and fanatical.

‐The first chapter of the book is about the Sacco and Vanzetti case. The next is about the Soviet Union, which Dos Passos visited in 1928. Then we have him on the coalminers of Harlan County, Ky., in 1932. Next he is in Spain, for the civil war. Later, he is in various spots, for World War II.

In addition to reporting pieces, we have him in essays, which are timeless. But the reporting pieces are timeless too, really — for their observations about people, passions, and politics. Reading this book, I thought constantly about the present, which is not so different from the immediate past (or the distant past).

I’d like to give you tastes of The Theme Is Freedom. Doses of Dos. And we should begin with Sacco and Vanzetti, and their partisans.

‐You remember who the two men were: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants to America who were accused of murder in 1920. They were executed seven years later. Many protested their innocence, saying that they were victims of anti-immigrant prejudice and political discrimination. (The pair were anarchists.)

Dos Passos was a protester. In fact, he was arrested alongside Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Here is Dos Passos — the 1950s Dos Passos — on the radical attitude (an attitude that he of course shared):

Capitalism was the bogey that was destroying civilization. Cut the businessman’s profits we said. … We thrilled to the word cooperative. … Capitalism was the sin that had caused the war [World War I]; only the working class was free from crime.

And here he is on an interesting correlation of forces:

Greenwich Village wanted freedom and so did the working class. … Greenwich Villagers, mostly the sons and daughters of professional people, clergymen and lawyers and doctors, felt a sudden kinship with the working class. Of all strata of society only the artists and writers and the people who worked with their hands were pure. Together they would overturn the businessman and become top dog themselves. From the alliance between the trade unions and Greenwich Village the American radical was born.

Exactly. I know this alliance — or imagined alliance — so well. I saw it in Ann Arbor (my hometown), to begin with.


‐Dos Passos has a memory. The New York radicals have traveled to Passaic, N.J., to protest for Sacco and Vanzetti.

The protest meeting is over and I’m standing on a set of steps looking into the faces of the people coming out of the hall. I’m frightened by the tense righteousness of the faces. Eyes like a row of rifles aimed by a firing squad. Chins thrust forward into the icy night. It’s almost in marching step that they stride out into the street. It’s the women I remember most, their eyes searching out evil through narrowed lids. There’s something threatening about this unanimity of protest. They are so sure they are right.

Dos Passos agreed with the protest, mind you. He was part of it. But he was unnerved — “frightened” — by the people. I know these people. I saw them in Ann Arbor. I saw them in many other places afterward.

Today, you can see them on campuses as “SJWs”: “social-justice warriors.” You can see them wherever there is arrogant, intolerant extremism (no matter which direction it’s coming from).

‐Once upon a time, there was tolerance, Dos Passos writes. You could talk to people.

It’s amusing to remember that in those carefree days a Communist party-member and an anarcho-syndicalist and even some sad dog of a capitalist who believed in laissez faire could sit at the same table and drink beer together and lay their thoughts on the line. It wasn’t that you respected the other fellow’s opinions exactly, but you admitted his right to remain alive. Needless to say, this happy state didn’t last very long.

‐I’ll give you some more of Dos, then bring up something that happened last month. Once more, Dos is writing in the 1950s about the 1920s:

The House of Morgan was powerful in those days, but not that powerful. It was years before I learned that producing a bogy man was an emotional quirk that blocked clear thinking.

A month ago, one of our presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders, sat down with the New York Daily News. An editor noted that the senator liked to accuse “corporate America” of tearing the “fabric of the nation.” Could he name some corporations that were doing this? The first syllables out of the candidate’s mouth were “JPMorgan Chase.”

I wonder what ol’ J.P. (1837-1913) would think: still a bogy, well into the 21st century.

‐Since the rise of Obama, especially, the concept of “American exceptionalism” has been contentious. Get Dos, again writing in the 1950s about the 1920s:

The Marxists who are so skillful in the detection and the isolation of heresies used to inveigh against one particular heresy that pleased me particularly. They called it American exceptionalism. During these years of mounting protest against the way things were going in America that label was my refuge. It enabled me to join in the protests of the various breeds of Marxists … without giving up the automatic responses of the plain American patriotism I’d been raised in.

‐Dos Passos writes of “that Marxist stirring up of envy, hatred and malice that corrodes the character of men and women.” I know just what he means. You do too, I’m sure.

‐Here is something amusing written by the 1920s Dos Passos:

Gradually among liberals and intelligent people generally certain phases of anarchism have meanwhile been reluctantly admitted into respectable conversation under the phrase “philosophical anarchist,” which means an anarchist who shaves daily, has good manners and is guaranteed not to act on his beliefs.

(My kind of anarchist, actually.)

‐Dos Passos — the 1920s Dos Passos — describes the jury that judged Sacco and Vanzetti. Here he is: “a hundred per cent American jury, consisting of two realestate men, two storekeepers, a mason, two machinists, a clothing salesman, a farmer, a millworker, a shoemaker and a lastmaker.”

I believe that Dos Passos — the ’20s Dos Passos — means this sarcastically and contemptuously. But I rather like it.

I’m sure I’ve gone on long enough for one day. Join me — join us — tomorrow, for Part II? See you soon.


The Latest