John Dos Passos

John Dos Passos

John Dos Passos, the illegitimate son of a prominent American attorney, John Randolph Dos Passos Jr., was born in Chicago in 1896. His mother was Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison. Alan Wald has argued: "Dos Passos spent his early years traveling semi-clandestinely about the United States and abroad with his mother. It was to these unusual circumstances of his birth and childhood that he would later attribute his lifelong sense of rootlessness."

Eventually the family settled in Virginia. His father paid for his education and he was sent to The Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut in 1907. He also traveled with a private tutor on a six-month tour of France, England, Italy, Greece, and the Middle East to study classical art, architecture, and literature.

John Randolph Dos Passos Jr., married Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison in 1910. It was another two years before he acknowledge him until two years later. In 1912 he attended Harvard University. Dos Passos was keen to take part in the First World War and in July 1917 he joined the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. Over the next few months he worked as a driver in France and Italy.

Afterwards drew upon these experiences in his novels, One Man's Initiation (1920) and Three Soldiers (1921). This established the "pre-dominant anti-war and semi-anarchist themes of his radical period." In 1922 Dos Passos published a collection of essays, Rosinante to the Road Again, and a volume of poems, A Pushcart at the Curb. However, his literary reputation was established with his well-received novel Manhattan Transfer (1925).

As well as writing plays such as The Garbage Man (1926), Airways (1928) and Fortune Heights (1934), Dos Passos contributed articles for left-wing journals such as the New Masses, that was under the control of the American Communist Party.

In 1927 he joined with other artists such as Upton Sinclair, Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ben Shahn, Floyd Dell in the campaign against the proposed execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. This included the writing of Facing the Chair: Sacco and Vanzetti (1927).

Dos Passos traveled to Harland County with a Communist-initiated delegation to investigate the condition of striking miners. While in Kentucky he was arrested and charged with "criminal syndicalism". In the 1932 Presidential Election he publicly endorsed William Z. Foster, the American Communist Party candidate.

The 1930s saw the publication of his USA trilogy: The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936). Dos Passos developed the experimental literary device where the narratives intersect and continue from one novel to the next. The USA trilogy also included what became known as newsreels (impressionistic collections of slogans, popular song lyrics, newspaper headlines and extracts from political speeches).

Dos Passos was active in the campaign against the growth of fascism in Europe. He joined other literary figures such as Dashiell Hammett, Clifford Odets, Lillian Hellman and Ernest Hemingway in supporting the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. He went to Madrid where he met Marion Merriman. Later she recalled: " I was fascinated by Dos Passes, whom I had always thought was a better writer than Hemingway. John Dos Passes was, without question, a seasoned writer of the prose of war. But as a man, he didn't impress me. I thought he was wishy-washy. I couldn't make out everything he was saying, but his message was clear - for whatever reasons, he wanted out of there, out of Hemingway's room, out of bomb-shaken Madrid."

Dos Passos was disillusioned by what he saw in Spain and in 1938 he commented: "I have come to think, especially since my trip to Spain, that civil liberties must be protected at every stage. In Spain I am sure that the introduction of GPU methods by the Communists did as much harm as their tank men, pilots and experienced military men did good. The trouble with an all powerful secret police in the hands of fanatics, or of anybody, is that once it gets started there's no stopping it until it has corrupted the whole body politic. I am afraid that's what's happening in Russia."

His new political views were reflected in his novels, The Adventures of a Young Man (1939) and Number One (1943). He now moved steadily to the right, becoming an associate of The National Review and the Young Americans for Freedom. He also campaigned for Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.

Other books by Dos Passos include the novels, The Grand Design (1949), Chosen Country (1951) and Midcentury (1961), a biography, The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson (1954) and an autobiography, The Best of Times: An Informal Memoir (1966).

John Dos Passos died in Baltimore, Maryland, on 28th September, 1970.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) John Dos Passos, Facing the Chair: Sacco and Vanzetti (1927)

On June 3rd 1919 a bomb exploded outside the Washington house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. In the previous months various people had received bombs through the mail, one of them blowing off the two hands of the unfortunate housemaid who undid the package. No one, and least of all the federal detectives ever seems to have discovered who committed these outrages or why they were committed. But their result was to put a scare into every public official in the country, and particularly into Attorney General Palmer.

No one knew where the lightning would strike next. The signing of peace had left the carefully stirred up hatred of the war years unsatisfied. It was easy for people who knew what they were doing to turn the terrors of government officials and the unanalyzed feeling of distrust of foreigners of the average man into a great crusade of hate against reds, radicals, dissenters of all sorts. The Department of Justice, backed by the press, frenziedly acclaimed by the man on the street, invented an immanent revolution.

(2) John Dos Passos, Facing the Chair: Sacco and Vanzetti (1927)

Why were these men held as murderers and highwaymen and not as anarchists and advocates of the working people? Among a people that does not recognize or rather does not admit the force and danger of ideas it is impossible to prosecute the holder of unpopular ideas directly. Also there is a smoldering tradition of freedom that makes those who do it feel guilty. After all everyone learnt the Declaration of Independence and "Give me Liberty or Give me Death" in school, and however perfunctory the words have become they have left a faint infantile impression on the minds of most of us. Hence the characteristic American weapon of the frameup. If two Italians are spreading anarchist propaganda, you hold them for murder.

(3) John Dos Passos, speech (1938)

I have come to think, especially since my trip to Spain, that civil liberties must be protected at every stage. In Spain I am sure that the introduction of GPU methods by the Communists did as much harm as their tank men, pilots and experienced military men did good. The trouble with an all powerful secret police in the hands of fanatics, or of anybody, is that once it gets started there's no stopping it until it has corrupted the whole body politic. I am afraid that's what's happening in Russia.

(4) Marion Merriman, the wife of Robert Merriman, met Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos in Madrid in 1937. She later wrote about the meeting in her book American Commander in Spain: Robert Hale Merriman and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (1986)

As we drove into Madrid, the first thing we saw was the big bullring - the Moorish architecture, arch upon arch, dusky brown with beautiful coloring in the tiles, the columns. It was magnificent, I thought. Entering Madrid was like entering any big city's industrial section. We drove through a ring of factories, then into the nicer part of the city.

'Even under bombardment, Madrid is marvelous!' I said to Bob. The wide tree-lined boulevards and modern buildings had an air of dignity that even blocks of bombed-out ruins could not dispel.

But the scene changed, quickly. As we walked down a broad boulevard, we heard the crack of rifle fire. Then the tempo picked up. 'That's machine gun fire,' Bob said. The machine-guns rattled in the distance, perhaps a few blocks away, I couldn't be sure. Then we heard the boom of artillery and the reality of Madrid at war returned deeply to me. The artillery shell landed some distance away, collapsing part of a building, which fell into a rubble of dust. We dashed down the street, staying close to the buildings. The horror of war was driven home to me. I was terrified.

I was shaking badly when we entered the Hotel Florida and went directly up the stairs to Hemingway's room. Bob steadied me, then knocked on the door.

'Hello, I'm Merriman,' Bob said as Hemingway, looking intense but friendly, opened the door.

'I know,' Hemingway said. Bob introduced me, and the writer greeted me warmly.

Then Hemingway and Bob fell into conversation about the war and the broadcast they planned. They were joined by John Dos Passos, Josephine Herbst, and a scattering of American volunteers and correspondents who sipped Hemingway's scotch and compared notes and stories. I slipped into an old chair, still quite shaken by the action outside.

I studied Bob and Hemingway. They got along. Each talked for a moment, then listened to the other. How different they were, I thought, Bob at twenty-eight, Hemingway at least a good ten years older. Hemingway seemed complex. He was big and bluff and macho. He didn't appear to be a braggart but he got across the message, through an air of self-assurance, that he could handle what he took on.

Bob was taller than Hemingway by several inches. They looked at each other through the same kind of round glasses, Bob's frames of tortoise shell, Hemingway's of steel.

Hemingway was animated, gesturing as he asked questions, scratching his scalp through thick dark hair, perplexed, then scowling, then, something setting him off, laughing from deep down. He wore a sweater, buttoned high on his chest, and a dark tie, loosened at the neck.

Bob was clean shaven. Hemingway needed a shave. He didn't appear to be growing a beard, he just seemed to need a shave, the scrubble roughing his cheeks and chin. He looked like he had had a hard night. He had a knot on his forehead, probably suffered in some roustabout skirmish.

Hemingway sipped a scotch, as did Bob. Someone offered me a drink, and I thought I'd never been as happy in my life to get a drink of whiskey. Even in the relatively safe room I remained frightened. The sheer madness of the war would not leave my mind.

As Bob and Hemingway talked, the contrast between them struck me time and again. Bob was an intellectual, and he looked like one. Hemingway was an intellectual, but he looked more like an adventurer. Bob looked like an observer. Hemingway looked like a man of action.

I was fascinated by Dos Passes, whom I had always thought was a better writer than Hemingway. John Dos Passes was, without question, a seasoned writer of the prose of war. But as a man, he didn't impress me. I thought he was wishy-washy. I couldn't make out everything he was saying, but his message was clear - for whatever reasons, he wanted out of there, out of Hemingway's room, out of bomb-shaken Madrid.

I was scared too, with good reason. But somehow Dos Passes acted more than scared. I guessed it was his uncertainty, his facial expressions, his general attitude that this was a lost cause, given the superior strength of the Franco forces. Dos Passes criticized the Spanish Republic, for which Americans were fighting and dying.

Hemingway, on the other hand, let you know by his presence and through his writing exactly where he stood. Hemingway had told the world of the murder in Madrid, including the murder of children by fascist bombing. He had told about 'the noises kids make when they are hit. There is a sort of foretaste of that when the child sees the planes coming and yells "Aviacion!" Then, too, some kids are very quiet when they are hit - until you move them.'