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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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.

Dos 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.

Over 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.

Most 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.

Dos 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, U.S.A.

Robert C. Rosen
William Paterson University

In the Heath Anthology
from U.S.A.
      The Body of an American (1932)
      The Bitter Drink (1936)

Other Works
Three Soldiers (1920)
Manhattan Transfer (1925)
The 42nd Parallel (1930)
The Big Money (1936)
District of Columbia (1952)
Midcentury (1961)

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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.

Secondary Sources

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