| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
John Dos Passos
Son of a famous Wall Street lawyer, John Dos Passos
attended Choate, toured Europe, and went on to Harvard to become first an
aesthete and then, gradually, something of a political rebel. In 1917, like
many young men of his background, he went to France as a volunteer ambulance
driver. Horrified by the war’s brutality, by the official lies, by the
meaninglessness of the suffering he witnessed, he grew increasingly radical and
further alienated from the world his father represented. In Three Soldiers, an
attack on the army, he sought, through formal means, to break out of the narrow
perspective of his own social class: this early novel is narrated in turn from
the points of view of three different soldiers, one an artist and Harvard man,
but the other two very much “average” soldiers.
Passos’s desire to broaden further the social perspective in his writing, along
with his intense interest in postwar developments in the arts, led to the
experimental novel Manhattan Transfer, published in 1925. Here the point of
view shifts rapidly, providing over a hundred fragments of the lives of dozens
of characters, so that no one individual, but rather Manhattan itself—dazzling,
but lonely and alienating—emerges as the novel’s protagonist.
the next ten years, Dos Passos became involved with a variety of left-wing
causes, among them the New Masses, a political journal; the radical New
Playwrights Theatre; the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian American
anarchists hastily accused of murder and finally executed in 1927; and the 1931
miners’ strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. The fiction he wrote during this
period, the trilogy U.S.A., reflects Dos Passos’s deepening radicalism as well
as his increasing ambition as a writer, for the subject of U.S.A. is the
history of American life in the first three decades of last century. His best
work, the trilogy represents a culmination of Dos Passos’s experimentation with
literary form. In U.S.A., Dos Passos found the technical means to delineate the
connections between the kinds of alienation he dramatized in Manhattan Transfer
and the social structures that produced it.
of this lengthy trilogy consists of twelve interwoven fictional narratives,
each told from the point of view of its central character. These twelve
narratives are interrupted not only by each other but by three kinds of formal
devices: (1) sixty-eight “Newsreel” sections, carefully constructed collages of
actual newspaper headlines, news story fragments, and snatches of song lyrics,
political speeches, and advertisements that together trace mass culture and
popular consciousness over the years; (2) twenty-seven biographies (like the
two included in the book) of key public figures, people who shaped or represented or
resisted the major social forces of the era; and (3) fifty-one “Camera Eye”
sections, stream-of-consciousness fragments that depict the developing
awareness of a sensitive and artistic individual (not unlike Dos Passos). These
four components—narratives, Newsreels, biographies, and Camera Eye
sections—work together to dramatize the impact of public events on private
lives, to illustrate the very social nature of individual experience, and to
indict capitalist America.
Passos’s writing after U.S.A. never approached the power of the trilogy. His
experimenting had been very much tied up with his radical ideas, and he began
rejecting those ideas in the late 1930s (becoming, in later life,
extremely conservative). He returned to more traditional forms in a second
trilogy, District of Columbia (1952), and in later novels; he began writing
history, including a biography of Thomas Jefferson; and he continued the
political journalism and travel writing he had been producing all his life. In
1961 he published Midcentury, which copies the form of his first trilogy but
has none of its power; Midcentury’s attack on unions, psychoanalysis,
teenagers, and other targets seems narrow and petulant next to the passionate
critique of an entire social system that is Dos Passos’s greatest achievement,
Robert C. Rosen|
William Paterson University
In the Heath Anthology
The Body of an American
The Bitter Drink
The 42nd Parallel
The Big Money
District of Columbia
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"The Adventures of John Dos Passos"
Chapter 15 from Daniel Aaron's Writer's on the Left.
One Man's Initiation: 1917
The complete text of the novel.
The John Dos Passos Collection
Information about UVA's collection of work by Passos, including dust jacket image files.
Janet Galligani Casey, Dos Passos and the Ideology of the Feminine, 1998
Robert Gorham Davis, John Dos Passos, 1962
Townsend Ludington, John Dos Passos: Politics and the Writer, 1981
Donald Pizer, Dos Passos' "U.S.A.": A Critical Study, 1988
Linda W. Wagner, Dos Passos: Artist as American, 1979