John Dos Passos: Contribution as American Novelist

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      John Dos Passos’s grandfather was a Portuguese immigrant and himself he attended the Choate School in Connecticut. His mother came from a southern family in tidewater Virginia and his father was New York Lawyer.

      Born in Chicago, John Dos Passos (1896-1970) spent his childhood settling among New York, Mexico, Europe and Virginia. When he attended Harvard, he adopted the romantic rebelliousness of the young aesthete, swooning before the hard, inhuman surface of industrialized society. When he emerged from the World War I, he was on his way to becoming a Marxist of a militant Left Wing. In 1916, he graduated from Harvard and prepared for the study of architecture in Spain but the career was cut short by a service in French Ambulance Unit, The Italian Red Cross and the American Medical Corps. The bitter disillusionment showed up in his novels like. One a Man’s Initiation (1920), Three Soldiers (1921) and The Streets of the Night (1923). These novels are concerned with the responses of a sensitive Youngman faced with isolation and dehumanization, caused by the war. Three Soldiers (1921) is the best of his early books, attracting critical attention. John Dos Passos, like Sinclair Lewis, began as a left-wing radical but moved to the right as he aged. He wrote realistically, in line with the doctrine of socialist realism. His best work achieves a scientific objectivism, almost documentary effect.

      Dos Passos developed an experimental collage technique for his masterwork U.S.A., consisting of The 42nd Parallel (1930) and The Big Money (1936). This sprawling collection covers the social history of the United States from 1900 to 1930. It exposes the moral corruption of materialistic American society through the lives of its characters. USA is a trilogy of three novels - The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936). It is one of the most ambitious as well as saddest and most angry novels the USA has yet produced. It aims to chronicle the essential experience of the thirty years of the 20th century. Only its immense length has prevented it finding a permanent readership. The most conventional, and the least satisfactory of its several approaches follows the lives of various ‘typical’ fictional characters, ending in disaster. The individual stories are supplemented by: ‘Camera eye’ sections, written in stream of consciousness technique. The novel presents the experiences of a young boy growing to manhood or montages, of slogans, newspaper headlines, popular songs and political speeches; and the most fruitful of all, incisive miniature biographies of historical figures who include Eugene V Debs, Randolph Bourne, Thorstein Veblen, Thomas Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Henry Ford, Isadora Duncan and Rudolph Valentino.

      The Adventures of a Young Man (1939), The Grand Design (1948), The Ground We Stand On (1941), The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson (1953) became his later more popular novels. Dos Passos’s new techniques included “newsreel” sections taken from contemporary headlines, popular songs, and advertisements, as well as “biographies” briefly setting forth the lives of important Americans of the period, labor organizer Eugene Debs, film star Rudolph Valentino, financier J.P. Morgan. Both the newsreels and biographies lend Dos Passos’ novels a documentary value; a third technique, the “camera eye,” consists of stream of consciousness prose poems that offer a subjective response to the events described.

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