Magazine | May 9, 2016, Issue

Welcome Back, Dos

Not long ago, I was titling a piece, and a phrase came to mind: “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. The full title of that book, published in 1994, is “The Theme Is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition.” I’d like to read this one, too.

Dos Passos was very famous. His name is little remembered today, but it was one of the biggest in American letters from the 1920s until, say, midcentury. In fact, that’s the title of one of his novels: “Midcentury.” Dos Passos 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, National Review. NR’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., once talked to me about Dos Passos. People called him “Dos,” he said — pronounced “Dahss,” not “Dohss.” For these pages, Dos Passos reported from the 1964 Republican convention. Four months later, he voted for the nominee, Goldwater. Dos Passos died in 1970.

It was in 1956 that he published The Theme Is Freedom. It is a collection of his journalism. A better description, and a more accurate one, comes from Dos Passos himself: 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 his book is about the Sacco and Vanzetti case. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, remember, were the Italian immigrants to America who were accused of murder in 1920 and 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.

The next chapter is about the Soviet Union, which Dos Passos visited in 1928. The Bolshevik state was just eleven years old. Then Dos Passos writes about Harlan County, Ky., in 1932. Like Sacco and Vanzetti, the miners were a cause célèbre. Then we have Dos Passos reporting from the Spanish Civil War — more dubious than ever about the Communists, worldwide. Later, we get him among American troops in World War II. The book also includes essays, which are timeless.

But then, so are the reporting pieces, 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 book. And we should begin with Sacco and Vanzetti, and their partisans.

Talking to us in 1956, Dos Passos has a memory:

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. Was part of it. But he was unnerved — “frightened” — by the people. I know these people. I saw them in my hometown of Ann Arbor. You can see them on campuses today, as “SJWs,” or “social-justice warriors.” You can see them wherever there is arrogant, intolerant extremism, no matter which direction it’s coming from.

Dos Passos writes,

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.

This label, says Dos Passos, “was my refuge.” He was guilty of the heresy, and, though he would join certain causes of the Left, he would never give up his patriotism, his democracy, his attachment to the Founders’ vision.

“The House of Morgan was powerful in those days,” writes Dos Passos, meaning the 1920s, “but not that powerful. It was years before I learned that producing a bogy man was an emotional quirk that blocked clear thinking.”

At the beginning of April, a presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, sat down with the New York Daily News. An editor noted that Sanders 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.

In Spain, Dos Passos saw the Fascists and the Communists fighting each other, with both sides killing the liberals. They “shot the best men first,” he writes, looking back on the war 20 years later. He further writes, “How to bring home to people in America that their own liberties depended to a certain extent on the liberties of Russians, Spaniards, Esthonians, Poles, Moroccans; that freedom in our world was indivisible?”

For those words, he would today get tagged a “neocon” — which, come to think of it, he was, sort of, like many another ex-leftist.

On a train through Germany in 1946, Dos Passos talks to an American captain, “redhaired.” Formerly a lawyer in San Francisco, the officer now serves in our military government. And he doesn’t much like what he has seen. The Soviets are carving up Europe, and the Americans seem unsure of themselves.

What he tells Dos Passos has, to me, a terribly contemporary ring:

If the American people want to commit suicide, I suppose in a democratic country it’s the politician’s business to tie the noose for us so that we can slip it comfortably around our necks. . . . It’s all this apologizing that makes me sick. With all our faults we have invented a social system by which the majority of men for the first time in human history get a break, and instead of being cocky about it we apologize about it. . . . We built up the greatest army in the world and won the war with it, and now we’re letting everything go to pieces. . . . We apologized to the French for saving their country and we apologize to the British and we apologize to the Russians. . . . First thing you know we’ll be apologizing to the Germans for licking them. . . . And they all hate our guts and it damn well serves us right.

Incidentally, Dos Passos’s candidate in 1964, Goldwater, titled his memoirs “With No Apologies.”

In 1950, Dos Passos wrote an essay called “The Changing Shape of Society.” In it, he issues a word to the wise, or several of them. “If we are to save the republic we must continually be aware of the aims of the republic.” Those aims, he encapsulates as “the daily effort to give to every man as much opportunity as is possible to fulfill himself in his own way, protected by law from the arbitrary measures of those in authority.” He also notes that a society “has to be born again from time to time.” As many of us see it, 2016 would be a really good time.

Writing in 1956, Dos Passos says, “The ordinarily decent impulses the ordinary man learned at his mother’s knee are our last line of defense against the wickedness of overweening power at home and abroad.” Are mothers still doling out decency? They’d better be — or we’re cooked.

Even in the most unburdened life, there’s not the time to read or re-read what one wants. But I can tell you that to read or re-read Dos Passos is rewarding. Frankly, I feel like reading The Theme Is Freedom again, before moving on. Slower this time.

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