John Dos Passos

By: Brian Berger
January 14, 2011

“No novelist,” observed Alfred Kazin of JOHN DOS PASSOS (1897-1970), “has written more somberly of the dangers to individual integrity in a centrally controlled society.” If this makes Dos Passos among the least fun of great American novelists, his finest works impress as much today as they did upon his notable progeny: Kerouac, Mailer, Pynchon, Doctorow. Three Soldiers (1921), Dos Passos’ review of the Great War, showed off his ear for vernacular; Manhattan Transfer (1925) applied that to a structurally acute vision of contemporary New York. A committed Leftist, young Dos Passos defended anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in the non-fiction Facing The Chair (1927) — a work which bears comparison to Upton Sinclair’s 1928 “documentary novel,” Boston — and said farewell to Left ideology in his Spanish Civil war novel, Adventures of a Young Man (1939). In between, Dos Passos completed the U.S.A. trilogy (1930-1936), which remains the ne plus ultra of avant-garde historical fiction. Here the author employs the widest variety of technique to adduce his American century, where inclusion wrestles pessimism to a wary stand-off; no Joycean aesthete, as Dos Passos had been, ever went so far so fast. Dos Passos’ later work — much marked by an anti-Communism that shouldn’t be derided — is less read and well-regarded. “To be harsh,” wrote Gore Vidal of Dos Passos in 1961, “he has mistaken the decline of his own flesh and talent for the world’s decline.”


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Robert Motherwell.

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