Dos Passos: An Ideological journey from ‘New Masses’ to ‘National Review’

Authored by Bruce Edward Walker

It’s still too early to conclude whether this century will be as tumultuous as the preceding 100 years, but it’s certainly starting to look that way. It also remains to be seen if a writer will eventually emerge from our current morass of economic and political malfeasance as well as the detriments of war both real and threatened to thoroughly document our era.

If so, our hypothetical writer may draw comparisons to one author in particular from the first half of the last 10 decades, a man who chronicled in both fiction and nonfiction the many upheavals wrought by humans on each other throughout the planet. If ever there was a metaphorical Boswell to assiduously report nearly six decades of the Samuel Johnson of the 20th century, it was John Dos Passos. Or perhaps, a comparison to Samuel Pepys would be more apropos, considering the conflagration most closely associated with him and the flash points and infernos between 1914 and Jan. 1, 2000.

“Who is he?” some readers might be forgiven for asking about Dos Passos. For some he never was, and for others a footnote to more famous writers of his era; folks whose names still roll trippingly from the lips of English professors, including industrial-strength names such as Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck — even if these names have lost the academic sheen they enjoyed back in the days I toiled in the literary reference book salt mines.

The reasons given for his exile range from a perceived drift into spheres more related to social change rather than leftist politics and wars. Although groundbreaking at the time, Dos Passo’s prose — featuring as it did salty vernacular, portmanteaus, shifting narrative points of view, and references to copulation — would be considered jejune by contemporary standards. In a 1970 University Bookman reappraisal published the year of Dos Passos’ death, novelist Richard Hill wrote the thematic thread of our topics’ literary output captures “the dream of the little man, the small farmer and worker who wants to be free from centralization and tyranny.” Hill, however, also discerns a “decline in artistry” in Dos Passos’ literary output after the 1930s.

Some have postulated Dos Passo’s literary legacy suffered because of the perceived apostasy of his public rejection of certain elements of the leftist agenda. And it was indeed quite an evolution from embracing the allure of progressivism repletes with more than just rubbing shoulders with the Communist Party to marrying himself to the classic liberalism of his later years. He was a regular contributor to New Masses and corresponded regularly with other writers who hung their byline in the Marxist journal. His biographer Virginia Spencer Carr noted his reputation was summed up as “The Radical of the Twenties Who Turned Conservative.” Perhaps so, but despite the fact he began writing for the National Review in 1955, he acknowledged to a reporter: “I don’t always agree with it.” William F. Buckley, the National Review’s founder, believed Dos Passos’ legacy was sidelined due to politics, “victimized for his political ideas.” He continued:

There was a mind-set about him in those power centers that decide what will be reviewed and what prominence will be given to that which is chosen for review. There is blacklisting in the publishing world, tacit agreement among the cognoscenti. You know such tacit agreement exists when certain worthies get passed over the Nobel Prize and it goes to [Salvatore] Quasimodo, for instance. There is no objective evidence, of course, but one feels a sense of betrayal. Certainly the Nobel Committee maintains a high degree of confidentiality.

For those of us who recall the U.S. writers of Dos Passos’ generation who received Nobel Prizes for literature, it’s a list that includes Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck. Whilst he made his initial bones during Dos Passo’s lifetime, Bob Dylan wouldn’t receive a Nobel Prize until 2016.

Or it could be because, to my knowledge, none of his novels became the source material for star-studded cinematic spectacles. Gary Cooper, Helen Hayes, and Tyrone Power never breathed cinematic life into nary a one of Dos Passo’s literary characters. Not for the Hollywood blockbuster adaptations, in any event, but for a brief moment his literary star outshone that of his contemporaries Hemingway, Steinbeck and W. Somerset Maugham.

I have a sneaking suspicion a combination of these theories hold more than a droplet of water based on what I have dubbed the Koestler affair in which none other than an anecdote alleging blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo once boasted he stifled an attempt to turn Arthur Koestler’s novel about the Stalinist purges, “Darkness at Noon,” into a Hollywood production. In a similar fashion, literary critics came to ignore the writing of Dos Passo’s friend E.E. Cummings after the poet published his second novel, “Eimi,” in which he revealed his less-than flattering portrait of a visit to the Soviet Union as a guest of Uncle Joe in the 1930s.

Still, it’s the persistent and unfair perception Dos Passo’s creative spark dimmed sometime in his middle-age sometime around the Spanish Civil War and the advent of World War II. Having read several of his later works, however, I find this highly implausible, although he never won a major literary award and never recognized sales in the numbers of his peers despite assessments by such as writers as Jean Paul Sartre that Dos Passos was “the greatest novelist of the century.” Having read his collected letters, it seems other factors contributed to his relative contemporary obscurity, including a chronically peripatetic lifestyle, persistent financial difficulties, and health issues that prevented him from sustaining literary celebrity.

Among the first steps of his early radicalization — as it was for many of his generation — was the arrest, prosecution and eventual execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Afterwards, while it is true Dos Passos initially endeared himself to those inclined to endorse the Communist Party agenda during the better part of two decades, he never officially joined the CP and in fact expressed more than a degree of skepticism. Other events during the Spanish Civil War, completely turned against the particular Stalinist brand of enforced collectivism as antithetical to his professed agenda in which he agitated for individual freedom. News of Stalin’s purges and, later, the Hitler-Stalin pact became the point of departure for many former radicals.

As early as 1932, he attempted to steer his fellow writers of the left — a roster that included Sherwood Anderson, Robert Frost, Edmund Wilson, and Edna St. Vincent Millay — from embracing CP tropes in one of the many manifestos the left circulated during the era. In a 1931 letter to Wilson, he wrote:

I guess the trouble with me is I can’t make up my mind to swallow political methods. Most of the time I think the IWW [the Industrial Workers of the World, elsewise known as Wobblies] theory was right—Build a new society in the shell of the old—but practically all they did was go to jail. Anyway the extraordinary thing about Americans … is that while they strain at a gnat of doctrine, they’ll swallow an elephant of experiment—the first problem is to find a new phraseology that we’ll be at home with to organize mentally what is really happening now—This is all very confused.

A year later, he described the Socialist Party as “near beer” to the CP. Yet, in 1934, in another letter to Wilson, he quipped:

How you can coordinate Fourth of July democracy with the present industrial-financial setup I don’t see. Maybe [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt is already as far as we can go in that direction. But if you don’t put your money on the Communists—it’s no use putting it on anybody else until they’ve proved something….

Later in the year, he admitted to a commonality “with the wobbly line of talk … and their clever absorption of technocracy data” compared to “the humorless monotone of the Daily Worker.” And, to Malcom Cowley, he wrote about the socialists sniping at Hemingway’s literary and financial success as well his refusal at the time to align himself politically:

And for Christ’s sake people aren’t all black and white—or communist & fascist—When there’s shooting going on you have to take sides, I suppose though I’m not as sure of it as I was a few years ago… But I think that any movement that makes a practice of alienating men of ability is in bad hands…. ‘Intellectuals’ are either great men or else just lice on the body politic—where the body politic goes they go—and any man who really trying to dope things out directly from day to day—not accepting any ready made phrases without testing them—is sure to be in wrong with the inkshitters most of the time. And God damn it, you’ve got to admire that quality—the first rate quality—in people whether you agree with them or not.

In early 1935, Dos Passos – again addressing Wilson—astutely asked: “What’s the use of losing your ‘chains’ if you get a firing squad instead?” He continued: “I’ve been clarifying my ideas about what I would be willing to be shot for and frankly I don’t find the Kremlin among the items.” In the same letter, he acknowledges he has “overstated” his issues with Stalinism, encouraging Wilson to make his own pilgrimage to the U.S.S.R as Dos Passos and, as well, Cummings, had done previously. Tweaking the Marxist phrase “the ends justify the means,” he concludes “[i]ntellectual theories and hypotheses don’t have to be a success, but political parties do….”

It was the Spanish Civil War during which Dos Passos completely repudiated leftist causes. A detailed analysis of the entire episode involving Hemingway, Dos Passos and the execution of Jose Robles can be found in multiple sources elsewhere but is summed up by Townsend Ludington in his “The Fourteenth Chronicle.” No matter how the tale is spun, Hemingway ends up looking the fool and Dos Passos the bruised but wiser of the pair: “Hemingway, only recently politicized and much absorbed in the courageous fight of the Loyalists, could not believe Dos Passo’s charges, nor could he accept the challenge to what he considered his superior knowledge of the subject, and he chose to ignore Dos’ own familiarity with Spain and her people.” Afterwards, in a 1937 article for Common Sense, he noted he admired the goals of the Bolshevik Revolution, but said totalitarian rule made it impossible to recognize such goals. “In my opinion the one hope for the future of the type of western civilization which furnishes the frame of our lives is that the system of popular government based on individual liberty be not allowed to break down.”

“I’ve been clarifying my ideas about what I would be willing to be shot for and frankly I don’t find the Kremlin among the items.”

In late 1937, he wrote to John Howard Lawson: “the real difference between your attitude and mine about politics is that you think that the ends justify the means and I think that all you have in politics is the means; ends are always illusory.” Later he labels Marxism an “impediment to progress.” As Europe teetered on the brink of another world war in 1938, he summed up to none other than Upton Sinclair his views on communism.

I feel more and more that the Communists are introducing the fascist mentality that has made Europe a nightmare (After all it’s the Bolsheviki that invented all of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s tricks—) and I’m very much afraid that it’s the reactionaries that will profit by them. So I’ve come to think that the communists—Stalinist and Trotskyite alike—and that for the time being the best thing people like us can do is keep out of their clutches….

After the war, in December 1945, he once again addressed Sinclair after returning from two months in Europe:

Never felt so much sadder and wiser in my life as after this trip to Europe. Maybe the Russians are right and man is vile and can only be ruled by terror—but I still refuse to believe that everything the West has stood for since the first of the Forefathers tumbled out of their leaky boats to do their washing on this beach I’m looking out at as I write must go on the ash heap. My god the tide runs strong against us.

During the postwar period, Dos Passos suffered personal tragedy and financial misfortune, the latter enhanced by financial issues. Struggling to make ends meet, he wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times Book Review, saying books that attempted to set the record straight about life behind the Iron Curtain were being systematically censored. “For quite long enough now the country has been flooded with propaganda from the dominant party in Russia. It is time we heard from the underdog. And by underdog I don’t mean the political dissidents, I mean the great tortured majority of the Russian people.”

He declined to sign a petition protesting Rep. J. Parnell Thomas and the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation of Hollywood in 1948, noting some screenwriters were either aware or naïve about spreading Communist propaganda and expelling any writer not aligned with their agenda. In his book on Thomas Jefferson, he espoused his view that he preferred any government predicated on decentralization of power.

By the mid-1950s, Dos Passos’ byline was appearing next to the names of Russell Kirk, Frank Meyers, and Whittaker Chambers in the newly launched National Review. Had not Cummings already borrowed Dante’s “Divine Comedy” as a template for removing the Communist scales from one’s eyes in his “Eimi,” Dos Passos could have just as easily done the same. Politics aside, Dos Passos delivers on Sartre’s opinion with a shelf-full of novels that rank with the finest literature produced by an American writer over the past century.

Abraham Lincoln’s adage about not being able to please all the people all the time, certainly applies to Dos Passos. Conservative critics cavil about the literature written before Dos Passos’ conversion as a pinko verging on Red, while far-left critics moan his later works are too didactic – a fair point that is far more accurate than it is to his early novels, which read more as a bildungsroman of the country about which they were written. But the point remains that literature doesn’t need to check all the partisan squares to retain literary merit. Inasmuch this scribe disagrees with Dos Passos’ politics through all facets of his career, he also recognizes the author was responsible for providing readers with a roadmap – complete with dead ends, cul-de-sacs, and washed-out bridges – of the ideological landscape of the 20th century and beyond. 

Bruce Edward Walker is a freelance writer on culture, pop culture and public policy.

Authored by:Bruce Edward Walker


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