Doses of Dos Passos, Part II

(Portrait: National Archives)
The writer in a revolutionary state

Editor’s Note: In our current issue, we have a piece by Jay Nordlinger on John Dos Passos — specifically, on The Theme Is Freedom, a collection that Dos Passos published in 1956. Mr. Nordlinger is now expanding his piece in Impromptus. For Part I, go here.

The Sacco and Vanzetti case was one of the great convulsive cases of the 1920s. It caused a significant cleavage in American life. I’ll quote Dos Passos:

The case left an immense bitterness between those who believed the men were innocent and those who believed they were guilty.

Every now and then, there’s a case that breaks up friendships. I think, from the decade of the 2000s, of the Iraq War. (The Florida recount was pretty bitter, too. And, before that, the Clinton impeachment drama.) I think right now of the Trump phenomenon and what it has done to Americans on the right.

Anyway, I will quote Dos Passos (who was writing in the 1950s about the ’20s and Sacco and Vanzetti):

I remember receiving a letter from a man I’d liked and admired and been on friendly terms with in college formally breaking off relations. Since we hadn’t seen each other for many years, and he lived on one side of the country and I on the other, it puzzled me that he should have taken the trouble. Undoubtedly he felt he was doing his duty as a citizen.

‐Here is Dos Passos on the Communists:

In this country they were then a small sect striving without too much success to form their own unions. Their strength was that they had a definite set of convictions they held to with religious fervor. Their movement offered men and women who subjected themselves to the discipline dedicated careers, the selfrighteous assurance that they were better than other men, and that sense of participation in history that takes the place of religion for the Marxist.

I have seen that, again and again. I’m sure you have too. Okay, what was the Communists’ weakness?

Their weakness was that they had no way of appealing to the desire for personal independence and to the basic creed that there should be fair play for all, which, thank God, is just as strong among American working people as it is in the rest of the population.

Another sentence on the Communists, and their success:

Their great success lay, as it does today [the 1950s], in the skill with which they managed to direct the thinking of halfeducated and inexperienced young people among Americans of middle class origin.

Am I way out of bounds to think of Bernie Sanders and his legions of college supporters?

‐Sanders spent his honeymoon, or something close to it, in the Soviet Union. (New York mayor Bill de Blasio spent his in the Castros’ Cuba.) Dos Passos traveled to the Soviet Union in 1928. (Fellow-traveled, I’m tempted to say.) The Bolshevik state was young: just eleven years old.

On the way, Dos Passos stopped in Helsinki. My series is not intended to be a literary one — more of a political one — but I want to give you a line from Dos, concerning Helsinki. And he is using the old, Swedish name for that city:

Helsingfors is all right except that the sea isn’t salt here and the town looks like a cleaner Duluth and they have run entirely out of this year’s supply of darkness.

That is very Dos Passos, that line.

‐Dos Passos talked with a couple of young people in Leningrad. The state was young, but not so young to them — who knew scarcely anything else.

It was as hard for them to imagine a time when Marxism had not been a rule of conduct as it would be for an American high school kid to doubt the desirability of the open shop or the Monroe Doctrine.

Dos Passos wrote those words in 1928. Here he is in the mid-’50s, commenting on what he wrote:

Lord how things have changed. Marxism is still the rule of conduct beyond that frontier. … Meanwhile the Western world has shuffled up all its convictions. If you talk to an American high school boy in this year of 1955 he’ll tell you that the open shop is the stratagem of designing businessmen. If he ever heard of the Monroe Doctrine he takes a dim view of it.

And in 2016?


‐Dos Passos is talking to a Russian — a Soviet, really. He is a technician of some kind. The Soviet tells him that Americans have come up with fantastic “industrial techniques.” But “we are learning your system. … It is like arithmetic, once it is invented anybody can learn it. What did your Shakespeare say? The villainy you taught me I shall execute.”

That line is from The Merchant of Venice. It’s usually “The villainy you teach me,” not “taught me,” but no matter: What an interesting encounter.

‐Here is Dos Passos looking back in the ’50s:

Everything I thought and wrote that summer [of 1928] was based upon the notion, which Josef Stalin was immediately to prove false, that the violent phase of the Russian revolution was over, that the drive of communist fanaticism was slackening, that the magnificent energies of the Russian people would soon be set to work on making life worth living.

I believe that those energies should still be let loose, to make life worth living.

‐Take a break for a little humor. Again, Dos Passos is writing in the ’50s:

Stalin’s own taste had great influence on the arts. What he liked in the theater was the endless repetition of “Swan Lake.”

Well, in this respect, and only in this respect, I may be a bit of a Stalinist …

P.S. Hitler is known for his love of Wagner. But what he loved above all — his favorite work of art — was The Merry Widow, the operetta by Franz Lehár. He bestowed awards on the composer, personally.

P.P.S. I know a woman — that’s present tense, “know” — who met Lehár and says that he was one of the most charming men she has ever met in her life.

‐The most throttling thing in Dos Passos’s report from the Soviet Union is a brief account of a meeting he had: a meeting with, a visit to, a couple. He was an Englishman, she a Russian. The Englishman had gone to the Soviet Union for idealistic reasons. Now he and his wife were scared out of their minds, and were looking for a way to leave. Dos Passos did not want to believe them.

His account is only two and a half pages long, but they are hard to forget.

“Did I know about Kronstadt? It was learning the truth about Kronstadt that had turned it all into a bitter nightmare for him” — the “him” being the husband, the Englishman.

Kronstadt, remember, was a naval fortress on an island in the Gulf of Finland. In 1921, Soviet sailors, soldiers, and others rebelled against Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Needless to say, they were crushed like bugs.

Since then, “Kronstadt” has served as a metaphor. Ex-Communists and ex-leftists have spoken of their personal Kronstadts. The term “Kronstadt” has two definitions. It can refer to the moment of one’s disillusionment with the Communist Party. Or it can refer to the moment at which one took a stand against the Party.

The crucial moment, for some, was the Nazi-Soviet pact. For others, Khrushchev’s “secret speech.” For others, the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. And so on.

Back to the Englishman whom Dos Passos met: His Kronstadt was, literally, Kronstadt. I’m going to quote Dos Passos some more. Bear in mind that the Cheka, or Tcheka, were the Soviet secret police; the Okhrana were their predecessor, the czarist secret police.

The sailors who revolted at Kronstadt were the men who had made the October days [who had won the Russian Revolution] … There was no doubt that the revolt was a great danger. … Undoubtedly it had to be suppressed. The loyal troops recaptured the fortress after fierce fighting. The sailors capitulated on terms. The Tcheka agents had run like rabbits at the first sign of danger. They didn’t dare come back until three days after the troops had recaptured the place. But then the prisoners were turned over to the Tcheka …

And the Chekists, many of them,

had been members of the old Okhrana, czarists, sadists, perverts of every hideous kind — “there’s no cruelty like Russian cruelty, not even Chinese [this is the Englishman talking]. They butchered even the miserable prostitutes in the brothels of Kronstadt. Some of the Tcheka agents had with them copies of Le Jardin des Supplices written by that filthy Frenchman to use as a textbook when their imagination failed. It’s a nightmare, I tell you.”

I’m going to continue, with Dos:

I got to my feet a little dizzily. It was terror I’d seen in the man’s eyes … [and] in the woman’s nervous step. I felt sick. I cleared my throat. “But the Tcheka’s gone. [It was reorganized and renamed in 1922.] … They had most of them shot. The terror is over.”

“You can say that. … You can come and go when you please. It’ll never be over for us till we die or they get us, unless we can get out. We are doomed. You know they always come at night. No arrests are ever seen. No one who sees them ever dares tell anyone. Nothing is ever known.”

It was a relief to get out into the casual street …


‐Give Dos Passos credit for writing this, not later, in the 1950s, but right then, in the 1920s. Many writers withheld what they witnessed. Dos did too, to a degree. Here he is talking to us in the 1950s:

How hard it is to write truthfully. Reading over these lines I keep remembering things I forgot to put in. Why did I forget to put in about the enlarged photographs of Lenin as a baby I saw in the ikon corner in the peasants’ houses instead of the Christ Child? Why did I neglect people’s hints about Stalin?

He explains himself with the following lines, I think:

Just like every other American, I’d done my best to see the good, but the last impression I came away with was fear, fear of the brutal invisible intricate machinery of the police state. No fear was ever better founded.

Consider another fear — a fear of Dos Passos’s: “the fear of writing something that would be seized on by anti-Soviet propaganda in the West.”

Dos Passos, in the 1920s, was not ready to be an anti-Communist. “I was trying to be neutral, above the battle like Goethe.” But eventually he would have to choose sides, and he chose well — and bravely.

So, I will see you later for Part III. That will include Harlan County and Spain and more. Thank you for joining me, and Dos Passos, for these unusual notes.

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