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).