John Dos Passos and the American Dream

Topics: Sacco and Vanzetti, John Dos Passos, U.S.A. trilogy Pages: 22 (9034 words) Published: June 18, 2012
1. John Dos Passos: A Committed Writer

The American way of life is an expression that refers to the "life style" of people living in the United States of America. It is an example of a behavioral modality, developed from the 17th century until today. It refers to a nationalist ethos that purports to adhere to principles of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." It has some connection to the concept of American exceptionalism and the American Dream. It was the American day dream that especially fascinated John Dos Passos. Like a darkling Walt Whitman, he sang of a sprawling, intricate, in many ways desolate, industrial America. Dos Passos had to invent his own form to contain his vision. U.S.A. was a montage of deft biographies, Joycean interior monologues, narrative fictions and fascinating oddments, headlines and snatches of popular songs. His prose-poetry was as varied and fragmented as his pluralistic America. Dos Passos was the last major survivor of the literary generation that included Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and Faulkner. He was both a social and artistic revolutionary, supporting socialist causes while helping to redefine narrative fictional techniques. One of the first American writers to use the stream of consciousness technique, his blending of historical artifacts with fictional characters helped to create a greater sense of versimilitude and increased the sense of the novel's historical importance. His work has been slighted in recent years. Politics—the central theme and passion of much of his writing—helped to undermine his reputation. Read today, Dos Passes' earlier works often seem archaic. But there are also passages that seem eerily prescient: "All right we are two nations. America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have bought the laws and fenced off the meadows and cut down the woods for pulp and turned our pleasant cities into slums . . ." In fairly familiar disenchantment, Dos Passos turned against Communism in the 1930s. By the '60s, he was voting for Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater. To Dos Passos, big labour and centralized Government had replaced "the big-money boys" as the American villains. But the most consistent theme in his life was a vaguely anarchic impulse, a craving for individuality which no ideology could permanently satisfy. His fictions of the 1920's and 1930's, Three Soldiers (1921), Manhattan Transfer (1925), and the trilogy U.S.A. (1930—1936, 1937) are acknowledged to be important works in American literary history. He is regularly anthologized; but rarely is he eulogized, a far cry from his situation in 1936, when he was featured on the cover of the August 10th issue of Time magazine to mark the publication of The Big Money, the third volume of U.S.A. Two years later Jean-Paul Sartre acclaimed him "the greatest living writer of our time." Dos Passos, principled, but in the eyes of his former friend Hemingway, foolish for writing against the liberal grain of the critics, continued his journey right, turning out historical portraits that lauded—simplistically, many historians would argue—America's Founding Fathers; blueprints for a Jeffersonian system of government, which meant in modern terms a conservative, agrarian program; and occasional fictions—"contemporary chronicles," he termed them, that viewed the nation through conservative lenses. By 1964 he was an ardent Goldwater Republican and behaved, a dismayed Edmund Wilson wrote him, like a kid in front of the Beatles. In 1970 he praised Richard Nixon's incursion into Cambodia as "the first rational military step taken in the whole Vietnam war"; but by then he was merely a sad footnote to the past in the eyes of the New Left, who received his scorn for their "rank criminal idiocy" and for "allowing themselves to be led by their elders into this hysteria about Cambodia." Yet no one loved the United States more than he. Because of a largely European upbringing until the age of 11, he had seen himself as...
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