Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Dos Passos, John (1896–1970)
Author:
Price, Kenneth M.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In 1938 Jean-Paul Sartre hailed John Dos Passos as the greatest writer of his generation. Although Dos Passos's reputation has slipped in the intervening years, he remains widely admired for his innovations in fictional technique. Whitman was of central importance to his career from his first essay, "Against American Literature" (1916), which asked, "[S]hall we pick up the glove Walt Whitman threw at the feet of posterity?" (38), to his last work, Century's Ebb (1975), a posthumously published novel addressed to the poet.

The illegitimate son of a prominent Portuguese-American lawyer who wrote a treatise on Anglo-Saxon supremacy, John Madison (as Dos Passos was known until 1912) grew up as a loner who identified with the powerless. A leftist political orientation marks his early work, culminating in his trilogy, The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). These novels, reissued with a prologue and an epilogue, make up the monumental U.S.A. trilogy (1938). Using four modes—"newsreel," biography, narrative, and "camera eye"—Dos Passos successfully blends history and fiction. He invokes Whitman periodically in U.S.A., most notably perhaps in his account of the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a climactic moment in the novel.

In the final decades of his career Dos Passos turned to the political right. Once a fellow traveler with the Communist party, he became an admirer of Joseph McCarthy. Despite his fundamental shift in outlook, Dos Passos maintained his admiration for Whitman, asking, in his final book, "Here, now, today, if you came back to us, Walt Whitman, what would you say?" (Century's Ebb 13).

Bibliography

Baker, John D. "Whitman and Dos Passos: A Sense of Communion." Walt Whitman Review 20 (1974): 30–33.

Dos Passos, John. "Against American Literature." John Dos Passos: The Major Non-fictional Prose. Ed. Donald Pizer. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1988. 36–38.

———. Century's Ebb: The Thirteenth Chronicle. Boston: Gambit, 1975.

Hughson, Lois. "In Search of the True America: Dos Passos' Debt to Whitman in U.S.A." Modern Fiction Studies 19 (1973): 179–192.

Price, Kenneth M. "Whitman, Dos Passos, and 'Our Storybook Democracy.'" Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Ed. Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 217–225.

Weeks, Robert P. "The Novel as Poem: Whitman's Legacy to Dos Passos." Modern Fiction Studies 26 (1980): 431–446.


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