John Dos Passos died in 1970, and it is startling to find him in our own world, deploring (in a letter to his daughter) “this hysteria about Cambodia” and praising Nixon for “the first rational military step in the whole war” taken “in face of overwhelming Communist-inspired propaganda.” For years it had been much easier not to think about his puzzling case, the conversion of the radical author of Three Soldiers, Manhattan Transfer, and U.S.A. into the anticommunist apologist for America.
The novels were still there, somewhere, of course, and he was still dutifully listed with Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald as one of our modern masters who arose in the Twenties to connect us with what was going on in literary Europe. But I doubt that the novels have been much read, outside Modern American Lit. classrooms, for twenty or thirty years. At best you read U.S.A., as I did in the Fifties, because of its interesting and sometimes moving account of a political history you were born too late to take part in, not as a work of great literary distinction.
Professors Townsend Ludington and Melvin Landsberg seem in some doubt themselves about just what it is that they have devoted their impressive scholarly energies to. Landsberg calls U.S.A. “an outstanding and enduring literary achievement” but quickly adds, as if unwilling to argue about it, that it “yet…is biographically significant beyond its literary merit”; Ludington even more cautiously settles for saying that the letters and diaries he has collected “should enhance Dos Passos’ reputation” and help in “assessing his contributions to American literature.” Neither of these books helps directly with Dos Passos’s work—Landsberg’s chapter on U.S.A. contains rather pedestrian criticism, with lots of plot summary and character analysis, while Ludington doesn’t even attempt critical assessment. But Dos Passos was an appealing and interesting person whose life matters at least as much as his work. Both books suggest that the person seems more important than the novels, and make one want to know why.
It always helps a little in trying to understand a writer to know what he looked like, and the older Dos Passos obliged by contriving an amazing resemblance to Dwight D. Eisenhower, from the polished dome down to the big, winning grin—the marriage of Jeffersonian ideals and cold war realism is there to see. But what did the younger Dos Passos look like? On the dust jacket of The Fourteenth Chronicle is a photograph taken in the mid-1920s of Dos Passos sitting on a balcony in some Spanish town, looking smooth, well-groomed, and self-assured, like any young Harvard man with intellectual pretensions and a good family in the background. He looks like a promising young man of letters, that is, whose papers would be handsomely edited fifty years later by a serious scholar like Ludington.
Yet on the dust jacket of Landsberg’s book the photograph of Dos Passos is of someone …
U.S.A. Defended February 7, 1974