restricted access Dos Passos: A Life (review)
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Reviewed by
Virginia Spencer Carr. Dos Passos: A Life. Garden City: Doubleday, 1984. 624 pp. $24.95.

It perhaps is no longer entirely fashionable to think of biography as the history of a time through the focus of a single, representative perspective, but, if we do accept the premise that a particular life can illuminate the spirit of its time, [End Page 402] then certainly John Dos Passos' life reveals much of what we could want to know of the twentieth century. Dos Passos, a man of seemingly limitless energy and insatiable wanderlust, always seemed a half stride ahead of his contemporaries. He was there: at Harvard with E. E. Cummings and a group of young aesthetes; in France with the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps; in Paris during the heady expatriate days of the 1920s; in jail in Boston for protesting the pending execution of Sacco and Vanzetti; in the coal fields of Harlan County, Kentucky, with Dreiser to explore the plight of striking miners; in Spain with Hemingway and Hellman to film the Spanish Civil War; in the Pacific as a war correspondent in the last days of World War Two; in Europe to witness the creation of a new, postwar world.

He also was a half step ahead of many of his contemporaries in the treacherous political currents of the century. Among the first writers of his generation to embrace and to be embraced by the left in the 1920s, he began the long move to the right (that was characteristic of so many of his generation) in the mid-Thirties, when many contemporaries were just discovering radical causes. Politics was one obsession of his generation; the other was craft, in particular devotion to the experimental impulse. Dos Passos, perhaps more than any other writer of his times, sought both to make the world new and to find new methods to reveal that world.

And yet, if Dos Passos' life necessarily reveals his times, there is something about the man himself that remains elusive to biographers. Virginia Spencer Carr's Dos Passos: A Life is the third major biography to appear since his death in 1970. The result of copious research, the book has a density similar to Carlos Baker's Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story and Joseph Blotner's Faulkner: A Biography. In fact, one almost wishes for less detail at times. Nevertheless, Carr provides new and important information, particularly about the novelist's early years up to his graduation from Harvard and of his later years as Mister Jack, the crotchety, opinionated gentleman farmer from Virginia. Still, something of Dos Passos the man is missing. It is as if all the accumulated information so meticulously presented is to make up for the inability to grasp or to articulate the essential human qualities of the man, qualities that also proved elusive to earlier biographers.

Throughout Dos Passos' career—even during the period of the heady successes of the late 1920s and early 1930s—he was faulted by some reviewers for his inability or unwillingness to probe beneath his characters' surfaces and to reveal their inner lives. Such a method of character portrayal probably is essential to the power of his greatest works, such as U.S.A., in which society itself is meant to be the main character, but it is frustrating to students of Dos Passos when the man seems as difficult to fathom as his characters. Professor Carr's biography makes clear that Dos Passos did not lack sympathy, compassion, or generosity either for his friends or for fellow citizens, but he possessed an emotional reserve that often made him seem distant and cool. Carr suggests that perhaps it was the reserve of a Victorian upper-class background compounded with Dos Passos' illegitimate birth that caused him to be sexually hesitant, to seem often distracted to his friends, to be uncomfortable in a group, to seem caring but always distant to his stepson. Dos Passos: A Life is thorough enough to suggest answers to the riddle of Dos Passos' personality but could [End Page 403] go further in trying to analyze the meaning of the life.

One also wishes that Carr had provided...


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