In the summer of 1968, we learn from Townsend Ludington’s diligent new biography, John Dos Passos and his wife visited old friends in Coon Rapids, Iowa, and at Walloon Lake in upper Michigan. During the latter visit the Dos Passoses and their hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Rumsey Marvin, “attended a church service during which a memorial for Ernest Hemingway was read. Quietly but firmly Dos Passos stood up and left the church in a gesture of distaste more severe than anything he had written about Ernest in The Best Times. Ernest’s remarks in A Moveable Feast no doubt were still galling.”
Though Ludington has amply chronicled the break-up of that notable literary friendship, and the portrait of Dos Passos in A Moveable Feast is indeed brutal, the moment remains rather mysterious. No source for the story is given, but Ludington must have heard it from either Elizabeth Dos Passos or his friend Rumsey Marvin, and a few questions might have been asked by the biographer. Did Dos Passos know before he came that Walloon Lake was (as Ludington doesn’t mention) the site of the Hemingway family’s summer home, the place where the young Ernest learned so much of the material of his fiction? (What extraordinary fate led the Marvins to spend the summer there, one wonders?)
Why was the memorial read on that particular Sunday, seven years after Hemingway’s suicide and, since Ludington implies that Dos Passos went first to Iowa during that “July and August,” evidently not on the anniversary of Hemingway’s death, July 2? Did the preacher know that a famous writer who had been close to Hemingway was to be in the congregation? If so, how did he know? Did Marvin tip him off? Did Marvin, a close friend for some fifty years, not know that Dos Passos now despised Hemingway, four years after the Moveable Feast passage had been published? Was Dos Passos’s anger at that posthumous slur deepened by remembering that he had sent Hemingway a brief but kindly note—“Hem, hope this isn’t getting to be a habit. Take it easy there. Best of luck. Dos”—during the latter’s final breakdown? *
A biographer with a full and busy life to cover naturally can’t linger over every small detail, however intriguing. The new style of literary biography emphasizes collecting and ordering the facts while modestly abstaining from extensive criticism of the works or speculation about the psyche. The justification is a pleasantly democratic one, I suppose—given the assembled data, each reader can then feel free to construct his own interpretation of the personality and its products. But a biographer’s well-meant refusal of any but a factual authority is, in effect, a kind of irresponsibility. No mere reader knows the life, few readers know the work, as closely and comprehensively as the biographer must do, and an intelligent biographer is the necessary source, not of, final judgment but of the sort of informed speculation upon which, or against which, the rest of us can build an interpretation that hopes to be more than opinion.
Townsend Ludington is an intelligent biographer, and he is not completely of the new persuasion. He has sensible things to say about Dos Passos’s writings, even though we do hear at least as much about how they were reviewed or how well they sold as about their literary merits. And he is usually well aware that the facts of Dos Passos’s life and personality fall into patterns that invite psychological speculation, even though he himself chooses not to pursue them very far. Certainly he has done his first duty superbly—the details of an extraordinary life are skillfully marshaled, none of its considerable embarrassments is glossed over, an intelligible human figure emerges, even if its contours often seem blurred. To wish that Ludington had gone farther risks being a presumption, but I must wish so anyway.
The matter of Dos Passos’s sexuality is a prime example of incomplete focus. Dos Passos was born out of wedlock. He was brought up by his mother and nursemaids, chiefly in European hotels, seeing his self-confident, physically imposing father, a well-known corporation lawyer, only on his occasional visits to the mistress and son he could not publicly acknowledge until his devoutly Catholic wife died. It is not known at what age John Roderigo Madison, as he was known until he completed his studies at Choate, learned that his “guardian,” John R. Dos Passos, was his natural father.
As a boy Jack Madison was physically delicate, he was no good at sports, he had to American ears a funny accent. At Choate he was called “Frenchy” and “girlboy,” he did the female leads in school plays, he was called “the class co-ed” in the yearbook, which reported his favorite phrase to be “how thrilling.” At Harvard he was thought effeminate by some, started a novel (published in 1923 as Streets of Night) which Ludington describes as being “partly about a homoerotic attraction of an aesthetic Harvardian for another student, a muscular young man who exudes the Life from which the young aesthete quails.” Shortly before, he had begun his lifelong friendship with Rumsey Marvin, an intelligent boy four years younger than himself. Dos Passos’s copious early letters to Marvin lead Ludington to the cautious remark that “one might speculate that there was something of the physical in Dos Passos’s attraction for Marvin” before concluding (no doubt rightly) that neither man recognized any such motive.
Ludington reports evidence of heterosexual desire in the adolescent Dos Passos, who himself intimated, in his memoir The Best of Times (1966), that he went with prostitutes in Paris in 1917. But he seems not to have been very active sexually. Though he was rather tepidly engaged for a time in the Twenties to an American graduate student at Strasbourg, he was evidently attracted mostly to women who were safely attached to his friends, like Kate Drain, who married John Howard Lawson, and no overt lustfulness was apparent to E.E. Cummings, whose fascinating report to Edmund Wilson in 1921 Ludington records:
As they journeyed [in Spain, Cummings] enjoyed the culture and the scenery, but he would occasionally seek a prostitute…but he could never entice Dos Passos to venture out with him. “I’ll just stay here in the hotel, I think,” Dos Passos would say. Cummings, bemused, finally asked his companion if he ever thought about women or dreamed about sex. No, was the response, but at night Dos Passos would wake Cummings up by groaning and thrashing in his sleep. “What’s the matter, Dos?” Cummings would ask, and Dos Passos would answer that he had been dreaming of wild swans flying overhead. After repeated awakenings, Cummings one day said to him, “You know, sometimes sex appears in dreams in very much disguised forms. You may be dreaming about sex without knowing it. Tell me one of your dreams—what did you dream about last night, for example?” As Cummings, who enjoyed imitating his friend’s slight lisp, told it, Dos Passos answered, “Why I dweamed I had a bunch of aspawagus and I was twying to give it to you.” Cummings was floored.
It’s a wonderful story, but what does Ludington think Cummings was “floored” by? By this new evidence of his friend’s invincible naïveté? (Though Dos Passos was an omnivorous reader, no reading of Freud is recorded.) By a recognition that he’d been ambushed by a subtle joke? Did manly womanizers like Cummings and Wilson often share such laughs at Dos Passos’s expense? The questions are no doubt unanswerable, and Cummings’s story might even not be wholly true, but the incident is material for imagining Dos Passos more clearly, and it deserves more than the biographer gives it.
As it turned out, Dos Passos did eventually marry, the first time in his early thirties and again twenty years later, after his first wife died in a car crash, with him at the wheel. Both marriages were happy, and the second gave him a daughter. (Oddly, of the four major American novelists who arose in the 1920s, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner all had but one child, a girl; only the macho Hemingway had sons, and lots of them.) And nothing in Ludington’s book suggests that people thought the mature Dos Passos effeminate or sexually ambiguous; even Hemingway, who in A Moveable Feast abused him for being an inconstant friend, a toady, a money worshipper, a reactionary, and even a bastard, offered no slur on his manhood. It is surely not a question of latent homosexuality, whatever that means, but of sexual shyness.
One might expect a “love child” to feel some hesitations about sexual love between men and women, particularly a child educated within the Anglo-Saxon moral conventions who knew that his parents had violated those rules. His mother was technically his father’s mistress for some eighteen years of subterfuge and shame, during which she and her son had no settled home, no conventional domestic life, no clear social identity. Lucy Madison and John R. Dos Passos did finally marry in 1910 (she had suffered an incapacitating stroke the year before), but their son did not take the name Dos Passos for two more years, and even then only as his father’s “step-son.” As Ludington remarks, we can see why no father appears in the autobiographical sketches Dos Passos wrote for C.T. Copeland at Harvard, and why, when he absorbs these sketches into U.S.A. and Chosen Country, the appearance of a father usually signals bad news.
Dos Passos told Edmund Wilson that Streets of Night was “a tragedy of impotence,” and while he may have meant to describe the Cambridge-Boston society in which the novel’s story of ambiguous sexual and aesthetic attraction unfolds, “impotence” has larger resonances in his early life. His observation of his parents’ thwarted love and his failure to find friendship and respect at Choate led him to write a touching entry in his diary for 1911:
…there is no one who cares a rap about me. No one ever seems to speak to me unless it is necessary; no one ever comes into my room to talk to me. If I go into anyone else’s room, I feel that I am not wanted…. Perhaps I am a “hated little stuck up fool.” I certainly try not to be—but it does hurt me to feel that if I should die tonight it would no[t] make any lasting impression on anyone. No one would miss me! No one cares for me at all. But I do not care what misery I go through now if I can only in the future be great—Be the greatest man th[at] ever lived—Be such a man that they will all treasure the remembrance of me and say with pride—“I went to school with John R. Dos Passos” (if I ever do assume that name).
He had of course not become “great” when he entered Harvard a year later, but he did know what his name was and had assumed a flamboyance of personal style that gained a good many interesting friends—including Cummings, Dudley Poore, Foster Damon, Robert Hillyer, and Malcolm Cowley—even though it disqualified him for acceptance in the world of the Harvard clubs, then the common measure of undergraduate success.
But though he learned to be gregarious, it seems clear that his imagination was shaped by loneliness and a sense of social disability. The sexual timidity Cummings noted, testimony about his awkwardness at rowdy Twenties’ parties, which he usually left early, his abiding compulsion to travel—it all suggests that to be separate was to be most authentically himself. His earlier letters, journals, and fiction dwell repeatedly on a situation in which he or some surrogate, far from home, hears or sees from a distance (often from a hotel room) a rich and turbulent life in which he doesn’t, can’t, won’t participate. Though physiological impotence isn’t to be suggested, there’s some metaphorical aptness to Elinor Wylie’s remark that in Dos Passos, as she knew him in the Twenties, there was “something…that was soft that ought to be hard.”
He never stopped traveling—in 1969, the year before his death from congestive heart failure, he resolutely visited Chile, Easter Island, Argentina, and Brazil, and went down to Cape Kennedy for the Apollo 10 launching, before spending the summer in Maine and the winter in Arizona. But the older Dos Passos did settle down in other ways. Hemingway maliciously claimed that he lost his stuff as a novelist when he got married in 1929 (in fact, both 1919 and The Big Money were still to come), but there’s no doubt that he did lose it, forever, a bit later. His well-known withdrawal from the political left was really, Ludington suggests, a belated acceptance of a relationship with America, one which, in his writings for the Luce magazines, Reader’s Digest, the National Review, and various corporations, became something like a scandalous love affair.
But the depth of his earlier radicalism is itself subject to question. He came rather late to radical causes (as distinct from radical feelings) like the Sacco-Vanzetti case—it was artistic revolution, enterprises like the New Playwrights Theatre, that most engaged him. Cummings, who found even that mode of revolution amusingly shallow, mimicked him (again to Wilson) thus: “Isn’t it dweadful of me to lie here in this luxurious warm bath while human welations are being violated all over the country”; and Wilson himself noted, in 1930, that his friend had decided to be a “middle-class liberal” after all. It was Wilson who, in I Thought of Daisy, best identified the uneasiness at the center of Dos Passos’s (“Hugo Bamman” in the novel) politics:
He distrusted his family and his early associates, because he believed that they had sold their souls to capitalist institutions; but though he chose to live exclusively with outlaws, in whom he was always discovering qualities heroic and picturesque to the point of allegory, he never managed really to be one of them and perhaps never trusted them, either. So tough remained the insulation between himself and the rest of humanity—the insulation of his Puritan temperament and his genteel breeding, reinforced by his artist’s detachment and his special situation.
This, along with Ludington’s acute remark that Dos Passos always allied himself with a group “that saw itself as a defiant minority struggling for liberty against a self-satisfied majority,” makes it less surprising to find the older Dos Passos opposing himself to the Red hordes at our gates—suggesting that the efforts to save Sacco and Vanzetti had been no more than a communist manipulation of dupes like himself, defending Joe McCarthy long after others had given him up, or receiving an award—along with Strom Thurmond and John Wayne—from the Young Americans for Freedom. Like his sexuality, his politics were, one might say, less ideological than structural, less important for their content than for their provision of a feeling of separateness that he needed even as he yearned for its opposite.
Ludington sees him as a satirist, but this appears to mean only that he wrote about social and political phenomena that he found in some way unsatisfactory. (By this test, all serious novelists would be satirists.) What this very strange career shows, I think, is that Dos Passos became “great,” or great enough, by trying to make his fiction appropriate for itself an exterior life he had great difficulty in feeling a part of. Certainly he appropriated his friends—to know or even meet him was, as Ludington repeatedly shows, to risk finding yourself in print, not much disguised, shortly thereafter, and some, like Lawson and Hemingway, could never forgive him. In the end, in the patriotic fiction and polemic of his later life, he tried to absorb all of America, and if the rhetoric was that of editorials in Life, the attempt still had a certain grandeur. If he was not the “pilot fish” Hemingway called him, he was at least a notable species of sponge.
The “insulation between himself and the rest of humanity” which Wilson spoke of is evident even in the best of his fiction, where life is observed or read rather than being imaginatively participated in. But the materials Ludington’s biography generously makes available should help us to see why the insulation is there, and to understand and value the novels in a way Dos Passos didn’t really intend us to do, as dramatic records of a life more interesting and troubling than the lives of most artists ever are.
January 22, 1981