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.”

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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.

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled generation (1894-1903).

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HiLo Heroes, Literature