Of Portuguese American ancestry, John Roderigo Dos Passos (duhs-PAS-uhs) was born in Chicago on January 14, 1896, and educated at Harvard University, graduating in 1916. During World War I, he served in the ambulance corps, and from his experiences grew his first novel to attract attention, Three Soldiers, a contribution to a large body of fiction intended to strip war of any shreds of glamour or romance. Disillusioned like so many of the now-famous “lost generation,” Dos Passos next turned his attention to an exhaustive study of the American scene, trying to pack into Manhattan Transfer and the trilogies that followed it a picture, as nearly complete as possible, of society during a significant and crucial period of American history.
John Dos Passos
During his early career as a novelist, Dos Passos displayed distinctly leftist and radical sympathies that he carried into practice to the extent of being jailed for joining a picket line during the furor that attended the Sacco-Vanzetti case. This was the period of the proletarian novel, a type that he did much to form, not just by his sympathies with the underdog–those whom he considered to be exploited and abused by the American system. During the Depression years, when so much in America received sharp critical attention, the point of view maintained by Dos Passos had great popularity and influence.
In massive novels crowded with characters, like the U.S.A. and District of Columbia trilogies, the real protagonist can be described as society itself. As much effort is made to describe and make realistic the social scene of a given period as would normally be expended upon the development of a human hero. The characters are subordinate to society; the important point is the effect that the social and particularly the economic milieu has upon the individual. Thus it is vital for the success of the book that the reader be given as vivid a picture of the era as is possible. To accomplish this purpose, Dos Passos employed a variety of experimental and technical devices: the “Camera Eye,” which focused on atmospheric details subjectively and impressionistically rendered; the “Newsreel,” made up of snatches of popular songs, quotations from speeches, reproductions of newspaper headlines and related reportage of the time; and interpolated biographical sketches of real historical figures whose activities coincided with those of his fictional creations. It was a kind of literary pastiche which proved successful. The accuracy of detail, adding up to a portrait of modern America, won the highest praise of Dos Passos’s contemporaries as well as later critics.
The Spanish Civil War was a disillusioning experience to Dos Passos, as it was to many writers; it was to turn his sympathies toward the political Right and to deepen his interest in American history and the democratic tradition. It was a shift, however, which lost him the support of some of his earlier admirers. Further, critics were not so kind to his later novels; the documentary style, they felt, had been overworked. Nevertheless, Dos Passos’s novels are important in that they reveal varied aspects of American life from a sociological viewpoint largely ignored until the revival in the 1980’s of interest in the political literature of the 1930’s.