Ian Bedford 1960

John Don Passos

Source: Libertarian #3, January 1960;
Transcribed: by Curtis Price.

The following apologia for his lifetime up-to-date was given in 1941 by John dos Passos, an American novelist of fair notoriety then engaged on a journalistic mission to England.

“In the towns and cities they knew young men found the phraseology of our political heritage, dribbling greasily from the mouths of wardheelers, spellbinding the greenhorns, or else polished and smooth and meaningless in the after-dinner speeches of the respectable starched-shirt candidates for office ... It was inevitable that the first impulse of any fresh young intelligence was to throw the whole business overboard lock, stock and barrel . . . The history of the political notions of American intellectuals during the past twenty years, is largely a record of how far the fervor of their hopes of a better world could blind them to the realities under their noses . . .

“In contrast to the agony of Europe, it began to be apparent that our poor old provincial American order, whatever it was, was standing up fairly well. Maybe the republic was something more than a painted drop-curtain hiding the baby-eating Moloch of monopoly capital. Maybe there was something more than campaign oratory and poker-playing and pork and dummy hank accounts behind those Graeco-Roman colonnades.

“How are these doubts to be answered? I myself believe that . . . our peculiar institutions have a future, and that this country is getting to be a better place for men to live in instead of a worse; but unfortunately, just putting the statement down on paper does not make it true.”

This extract would be valuable as a text for illustrating the elementary chicane of liberal journalism: the solidarity assumption, the melodramatizing of the other case, the substitution of psychological for social argument (that well-known “fervor” of “young men”). Its author would have made short work of it ten years before. He is one of the few men who, amid the recent sophistication of American political attitudes, might have been supposed to remain his old, callow self, and the story of how he did not is cautionary.

Dos Passos’ radicalism was not made easy for him. His father was a corporation lawyer and his mother’s family had been a long time in Maryland. He traveled to Mexico and Europe with them, had a year at an English public school, and finished off at Harvard. He wanted to be an architect and chose Spain as the place to study-there the war caught up with him. First he drove an ambulance, later fought as a private, but the book he wrote about this, One Man’s Initiation (1917), was romantic and bad, in a style turgid even for a twenty-year-old; the calamity of war was symbolized by the destruction of the cathedral at Linoges, which dos Passos viewed as a blow to architecture. Three Soldiers, some years later, is technically improved, but the attitude to war has not changed: an intelligent and sensitive young man would like to have been a composer, dies in battle, and this is a great loss. Dos Passos looked more of a poet than a novelist. In these books he shows a keen apprehension of beauty and is in earnest, but does not try to do much more than assert himself as the artist

in an indifferent world. A book of poems followed. It seems that dos Passos must have learned about his short comings and set about to rectify them: his first good book, Rosinante to the Road Again, is a simple observation, and account of his wanderings in Spain; the style is flatter and less resonant. There is a number of essays on Spanish poetry, and writers whom dos Passos met: one was Pio Baroja, a novelist of action and violence, born into the middle-class, whose adopted philosophy of anarchism appealed to dos Passos.

“He says . . . that the only part a man of the middle-classes can play in the re-organization of society is destructive. He has not undergone the discipline which can come only from common slavery in the industrial machine, necessary for a builder. His slavery has been an isolated slavery which has unfitted him forever from becoming truly part of a community. He can use the exact power of knowledge which training has given him in only one way. His great mission is to put the acid test to existing institutions, and to strip the veils off them.”

Dos Passos has never masqueraded as a proletarian, nor has he claimed a mainly proletarian audience. “Working people, underdogs, reds, know instinctively what is going on.” The middle-class prophet was needed in his own country.

In the next few years, he set about his self-imposed task with a lot of early difficulty: working self-consciously, striving to get the hang of a society which was so vast that one could dwell in a single recess of it and never speculate about the rest. He sniped at his old rich-boy habitat with a mediocre novel about Boston and Harvard. By 1925, when Manhattan Transfer appeared and dos Passos was twenty-nine, he had taken America as his symbol, and his style, over-effusive yet, was slangy and American and raw. Even at his angriest with it, dos Passos had admired his country and responded to its “bigness”: he is the most national of writers: whatever happens in America, whatever you feel about it, it is significant because America is the top of the world.

Manhattan Transfer is a much expanded One Man’s Initiation. The concern for individuals is there: the protagonist is still a slice of dos Passos himself: but the prevalent note of frustration is less nostalgic, less prone and sentimental: there is a recognition of social powers: the writer has taken a step away from his characters and it is not the viewpoint but the panorama that has changed. It is one of those familiar seeking-after-what novels. The residue of liberal individualism is there. dos Passos might never have written anything like U.S.A. had he not himself been caught up in political action.

This was over the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Two migrant workmen, who happened to be anarchists, were found guilty in 1921 of a murder which they had not done. They were kept in prison for another six years before being executed, while petitions continued for a re-trial. In 1925, a Portuguese, in jail, confessed to the murder and cleared Sacco and Vanzetti, but his evidence was held not to warrant a re-trial. dos Passos was one of many liberal writers who interceded. In December, 1926, lie published a pamphlet. “Facing the Chair,” which Sacco mentioned with approval in one of his letters. The Governor of Massachusetts refused to commute the sentence, and execution was fixed for a day in August. 1927. Dos Passos stood in picket-line and was arrested. Sacco and Vazettti were reprieved for twelve days, and there was no second reprieve.

Vanzetti was a courageous and, in his own form of English, highly articulate man. His and Sacco’s letters were published and so were their pre-execution speeches and other reported statements of Vanzetti. In his most moving subsequent work, the “Camera Eye” sequences of the third volume of U.S.A. dos Passos frequently returns to the rhythm and atmosphere of those speeches.

Through his activities at this lime, dos Passos formed an association with the political left-wing. He became one of a group of Communists and near-Communists who called themselves the “New Playwrights” and wrote for an experimental theatre. In “Airways. Inc.,” 1928. dos Passos further modified his style. The only characters of the play to speak with any vigor and feeling are the strikers and those sympathetic to them. The other dialogue is a series of cliches, ironically inserted wherever the action flows fastest. In his next works, dos Passos as author will pass no judgment on his characters. He lets them stand revealed out of their own mouths. “Above all, U.S.A. is the speech of the people.”

For the few years of his maturity, dos Passos had been busy extending his range as a novelist: he met the Communists without having read Marx. In 1928 he went to Russia and read Capital. What most impressed him was the scope of them both. “Someone’s got to have the size to Marxianise the American tradition before you can sell the American worker on the social revolution. Or else Americanise Marx.” Back in America, he joined the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners and wrote a pamphlet. “Harlan Miners Speak: Report on Terrorism in the Kentucky Coal Fields.” It is the same Harlan of which the folksong tells:

“They say in Harlan county there are no neutrals there- You either are a union man or a thug for J. H. Blair.”

U.S.A. was issued in three volumes over six years. 1930-36. The first volume was submitted by dos Passos to the Communist “New Masses” as a premium on a subscription. Its advent was hailed by relatively few critics; notably by Edmund Wilson, who had noticed dos Passos early. Subsequently, the only influential critic whom I know of to have praised the work as unreservedly as Wilson was, surprisingly, Jean-Paul Sartre. Time has not helped the reputation of “U.S.A.” It is hard to buy. Its technique is said to be out of date. What it implies about American society, being pessimistic, is. therefore, not quite defensible. It is propagandist: one’s attitude to the characters is such as may inspire political conclusions. It would have been a better book if not so big a one. Dos Passos by his attitude since writing it. has himself lent very little sanction to whoever would like to praise his book.

This is his mature work and one of the most ambitious of all literary undertakings. It had taken dos Passos thirteen years to isolate the theme which is only jibbed at in his early, crippled work, and in the rest of modish contemporary literature. The main part of the book consists of twelve biographies. Characters are introduced as children: we know about their home-life, their early temperaments and what they are disposed to do: then by simple chronicle, without having to take the author’s word for anything, we follow them into their mature lives and watch them gradually acquire their social roles. The effect is astounding. What we have, at epic length, is an anti-epic, in moderate and American tones, of the impotence of single persons against the aggregate of persons, of what becomes of individuals when they leave contemplation before the mirror and engage in even the most innocent of social activity. Dos Passos treats of the will and of people’s intentions, but only to show that what happens has nothing to do with what people want to happen, and no more with what they tell themselves is happening. No liberal has sustained an enquiry into individualism at greater length on paper than has dos Passos, but one cannot draw the regular conclusions. An apothogegm for one aspect of the work could be Marx’s: “Men make their history, but they do not make it as they choose” But “U.S.A.” is not a thesis: it is demonstration, not explanation: a thesis in action.

“The Big Money” is the last volume of the three. The determinism is most unremitting here; in the story of Mary French. a Communist, the agents of social change are themselves revealed as subject to it. Throughout, the narrative has been interspersed with trenchant biographies of public figures, “newsreels” of press cuttings, and a prose-poemy sequence entitled “The Camera Eye.” As the book moves greyly to its close, the “Camera Eye” interludes become hortatory and impassioned; the condemnation of the American order is all at once explicit: the voice of dos Passos breaks through, with something of the poignant accents of Vanzetti:

“they have clubbed us off the streets / they are stronger / they are rich they hire and fire the politicians the newspaper-editors the old judges the small men with reputations the college-presidents the wardheelers (listen businessmen college-presidents judges / America will not forget her betrayers) they hire the men with guns – the uniforms the police-cars the patrol-wagons / allright you have won / you will kill the brave men our friends tonight

“there is nothing left to do / we are beaten / we the beaten crowd together in those old dingy schoolrooms on Salem .Street / shuffle up and down the gritty creaking stairs sit hunched with bowed heads on benches and hear the old words of the haters of oppression / made new in sweat and agony tonight

“our work is over / the scribbled phrases / the nights typing releases the smell of the printshops the sharp reek of new-printed leaflets / the rush for Western Union stringing words into wires the search for stinging words to make you feel who are your oppressors America.

“America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned the language inside out who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul

“their hired men sit on the judge’s bench they sit back with their feet on the tables under the dome of the State House they arc ignorant of our beliefs they have the dollars the guns the armed forces the powerplants “they have built the electric-chair and hired the executioner to throw the switch

“all right we are two nations”

As one knows nothing about dos Passos’ intimate history, the story of his demise is better told without speculation. He ceased to be a fellow-traveller in 1934, when a letter he published denouncing the Communist

Party for its sabotage of a protest meeting held by the Socialist party, was counter-attacked in the pages of “New Masses.” It was suggested that “comrade” dos Passos was “growing away from the revolution.” This followed by the publication of his finest book, with its implied censure of the Communists. It is difficult to think of any public figure who broke with Communism and moved to the spacious left of it and not the and over-populated right. “Adventures of a Man” in 1939, the first volume of a new trilogy, revealed that dos Passes witnessed of the nefarious role the Communists in the Spanish Civil War. It was followed by “Number One” and “The Grand Design,” respectively of Huey Long-style fascism and New Deal. Both books are worth reading: “The Grand Design” is merciless about the cocktail parties where top-level decisions are made; but they hang together less well; the author doesn’t seem as interested, he hasn’t tried to supersede the technique of “U.S.A.” When “The Prospect Before Us” was published in 1945, one might see what was wrong. The prospect before us is one of hard struggle along democratic lines, but likely amelioration. Now this is not true. Dos Passes’ style is much the same as ever: big, windy vernacular and loads of plump cliches. The difference is that they serve no ironic intention now; they are meant to be serious. In 1953 dos Passos actually published “The Heart and Head of Thomas Jefferson.” His latest novel one does not wish to read. Its hero looks back over his turbulent career. When a man looks back like that, it is clear what has become of him.

John dos Passos now lives in Provincetown, New Jersey. Here he paints a little, fishes a little, writes for the New Republic, Esquire and other magazines which lots of people read. He is moved to address himself particularly to today’s young men, whom he warns by the example of him and his friends when, in the days before collective bargaining and cooperative enterprises, they argued about capitalism, socialism, unemployment, phoney culture and the size of bank-accounts, and were blind to the realities under their noses.

America will not forget her betrayers.

Ian Bedford