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Dos Passos: Last of the Big Four

Remembering the great American novelist on the 50th anniversary of his death.

Editor’s Note: Fifty years ago today, the great American novelist John Dos Passos, a frequent contributor to National Review, passed away in Baltimore. To honor his legacy, NR is reprinting this remembrance, which was first published in our October 20, 1970, issue.

It was at a restaurant in the Chelsea district of New York, somewhere near the old office of the New Republic. As I remember it, I was seated at a table with Malcolm Cowley, Kenneth Burke, and one or two others. John Dos Passos was at a neighboring table, probably (though memory is dim) with some of his radical theater friends; he had been writing plays (The Garbage Man, Airways, Inc.). He looked at us and called across the aisle: “Writers of the world, unite; you have nothing to lose but your brains.”

This was “Dos” then, a skeptic about organizations of any kind, even of those formed to advance the causes he championed. Dos never changed; he always distrusted the big battalions. He often shifted his opinions on new evidence, but he never changed his emotional disposition toward instruments of power. They were to be kept on a short leash, whether they were run by capitalists, Communists, labor leaders, or whomsoever.

The obituary writers quoted him to this effect, but they did not bother to understand him. The commentaries on his death were universally maddening—so much claptrap about the superiority of the early Dos Passos, before he became a conservative, a Goldwater supporter, a signer of petitions with Bill Buckley. Did anyone recall that, in 1928, he had faced some young Russians in the December murk of a Moscow trainshed and, in answer to the question “Are you with us?,” had voiced his eternal skepticism of institutional efforts to save the world? “But let me see,” he had said, “. . . but maybe I can explain. . . . But in so short a time . . . there’s no time.” He had just said to himself that waiting to get out of Russia was “like waiting for the cage that’s going to haul you up out of a mine, like getting out of a cement factory, like climbing the long greasy ladder out of the stokehold of a steamboat . . .”

To be sure, the obit writers thought they were giving an aesthetic judgment, not a political judgment, when they slighted the later Dos Passos. Nevertheless they were the victims of an illusion fostered by 30 years of critical hostility toward any writer or artist who turned against socialism, whether his name be Max Eastman, Eugene Lyons, or Frank Meyer. As between the earlier and later Dos Passos there is more evenness of performance than one can find in Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, or Thomas Wolfe. The U.S.A. trilogy is justly remembered for its panoramic vision of a pre-Depression America in which the radical hopefulness of 1913 had subsided into a cynicism created by Versailles and the later rush for the “big money.” But though U.S.A. is everything the obit writers said it is, it does not differ in variety and power and aesthetic quality from the novel called Midcentury, which was written many years later. There is the same intensive-extensive grasp of the whole national scene in Midcentury, the same wonderful prose poems about historical characters, only this time the big labor unions have replaced the corporations as the more dangerous institutional villains. The liberal critics, averting their eyes from the McClellan investigations, just couldn’t stand the switch, which had nothing to do with the comparative aesthetics of the case. Nor could they stand it when Dos Passos made Glenn Spotswood, the protagonist of his Adventures of a Young Man, the victim of Stalinist machinations in Civil War Spain. If he had made Glenn a politically innocent bridge dynamiter and put him into a sleeping bag with Ingrid Bergman, the verdict would have been different.

The key to Dos Passos was that he was always a seeker. He couldn’t make a good speech because, when he faced an audience, he would forget that he was the attraction and start interviewing the people who had come to listen to him. In the mid Sixties he visited Yale to give a lecture. The students learned very little about Dos Passos’s philosophy other than that he liked to side with the underdog. But Dos went back to his home in Westmoreland County, Virginia, with his head crammed with all sorts of relevant information about the New Left. He had artfully pumped a whole roomful of students dry.

Dos was forever young, forever growing. The liberals would have you think he came back from Spain in 1937 merely to sulk and to pour vitriol over the New Deal in novels that do suffer a bit from Dos Passos’s boredom with political types. Actually, Dos Passos had experienced a crisis in Spain that became his new opportunity. He had been horrified when his old friend, Ernest Hemingway, counseled him to keep mum about the Stalinist plot against the anarcho-syndicalists. (Despite his bravado, Hemingway feared the New York reviewers.) Dos, caring very little about his own reputation, turned from his old preoccupation with the contemporary scene to make a long and thorough study of the founding of the American Republic. He wanted, as he put it in the title of the first of his notable historical books, to discover The Ground We Stand On. His fiction became a part-time thing when his passion for portraiture and description, his wonderful “painter’s eye” impressionism, was diverted to such works as The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson, The Men Who Made the Nation, and Prospects of a Golden Age. Later he put his skill as a researcher and his novelist’s eye for telling detail to good use in writing one of the best books about the abortive crusade to make the world safe for democracy, Mr. Wilson’s War.

Coming of age in the Harvard that had nurtured John Reed and Walter Lippmann, Dos Passos, like others of his generation who became ambulance drivers in World War I, thought freedom must exist in something that would be found on the other side of capitalism. Psychologically the young Dos Passos, whose birth was not “regularized” until his parents were married in his teens, had been governed by a love-hate attitude toward his father, an extreme individualist who was a Gold Democrat, a corporation lawyer, and an idolator of the 18th century. Both objective and subjective factors combined to put a rebellious young Harvard man well to the left, but it is significant that he always loved the anarcho-syndicalists of the Latin countries far more than he loved the Marxist ideologues and the trade-union bonzes of the North. With his great zest for life, his astounding psychological resilience, Dos kept probing his own attitudes. He came to terms with his father’s memory without psychiatric intervention, and he took it philosophically that maturity must involve the “shedding of friendships.” As he wrote in The Best Times, a book which contains the revealing memoir of his father: “When the meaning of political slogans turns topsy-turvy every few years, anyone who tries to keep a questioning mind, matching each slogan with its real-life application, each label with the thing itself, has to put up with having old friends turn into unfriends and even into enemies . . .”

But Dos didn’t know what it was to nurse grudges, to hate people, or to remain immured in the past. He turned from his disillusion with the collectivist Left to a positive identification with the check-and-balance liberalism of James Madison, he bounded from the personal tragedy of the automobile accident that killed his first wife Katy to make a beautiful second marriage, and he continued to be one of the great travelers and great travel-writers of his age. At the age of 70 he, with his wife Betty, learned Portuguese, a difficult language, in order to benefit from continuing trips to Brazil. And, in a jolting plane, he risked his health at the age of 72 to satisfy his curiosity about Easter Island, that lonely outpost in the South Pacific some 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile. He finished his book about Easter Island and its strange sculptures in a hospital when recovering from a first heart attack. Psychologically he always felt he was going to live forever; realistically, he said he would retire as a writer when the undertaker marched through the door.

Dos Passos couldn’t live in the flesh forever, but as long as there is freedom to read and to write he will live as one of the chief ornaments of a great age. With Sinclair Lewis, Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, he was one of a Big Four. Now we don’t even have a Big One.

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