John Dos Passos

In a short novel called One Man’s Initiation – 1917  John Dos Passos, through his character Will, comments on war as represented by World War I:

It’s all so like an ash-heap, a huge garbage-dump of men and equipment.

And to that the incessant tedium and war seems sounds like an costly and wasteful indictment of man’s pettiness and stupidity.    Later in the same work there is similar statement made by the narrator:

The woods all about him were a vast rubbish-heap; the jagged, splintered boles of leafless trees rose in every direction from heaps of brass shell-cases, of tin cans, of bits of uniform and equipment. The wind came in puffs laden with an odor as of dead rats in an attic. And this was what all the centuries of civilization had struggled for. For this had generations worn away their lives in mines and factories and forges, in fields and workshops, toiling, screwing higher and higher the tension of their minds and muscles, polishing brighter and brighter the mirror of their intelligence. For this!

Dos Passos had graduated from Harvard and gone to Europe where he was an ambulance driver alongside Ernest Hemingway. After the Armistice, both future-writers travelled down to Spain for some additional experience. But Dos Passos’s father died suddenly and he returned to America.

The life of Dos Passos is full of twists, some tragic: his parents were married to other partners when he was born, his parents eventually married but both died suddenly, his Aunt stole his inheritance, his wife was killed in an automobile accident, he lost an eye, and the one-time social liberal turned his support to Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

But Dos Passos had already assured his place in American literature with the USA Trilogy:  42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money. Norman Mailer spoke of the Trilogy:  “Those three volumes of U.S.A. make up the idea of a great American novel.” Dos Passos also did some experimenting in the process of writing fiction, especially what was called “automatic-writing.” I consider Manhattan Transfer to be one of the top novels in American Literature and I don’t see much of a challenge coming from the current crop of American novelists.

For the record, here is a list of some of the writings of John Dos Passos:

  • One Man’s Initiation: 1917 (1920). Reprinted in 1945, under the title First Encounter
  • Three Soldiers (1920)
  • A Pushcart at the Curb (1922)
  • Rosinante to the Road Again (1922)
  • Streets of Night (1923)
  • Manhattan Transfer (1925)
  • Facing the Chair (1927)
  • Orient Express (1927)
  • U.S.A. (1938). Three-volume set includes
    • The 42nd Parallel (1930)
    • Nineteen Nineteen (1932)
    • The Big Money (1936)
  • Tour of Duty (1946)
  • The Ground we Stand On (1949)
  • District of Columbia (1952). Three-volume set includes
  • Adventures of a Young Man (1939)
  • Number One (1943)
  • The Grand Design (1949)
  • Chosen Country (1951)
  • Most Likely to Succeed (1954)
  • The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson (1954)
  • The Men Who Made the Nation (1957)
  • The Great Days (1958)
  • Prospects of a Golden Age (1959)
  • Midcentury (1961)
  • Mr. Wilson’s War (1962)
  • Brazil on the Move (1963)
  • The Best Times: An Informal Memoir (1966)
  • The Shackles of Power (1966)
  • World in a Glass – A View of Our Century From the Novels of John Dos Passos (1966)
  • The Portugal Story (1969)
  • Century’s Ebb: The Thirteenth Chronicle (1970)
  • Easter Island: Island of Enigmas (1970)
  • Lettres à Germaine Lucas Championnière (2007) – only in French

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