In his introduction, Melvin Landsberg notes the wide political gulf between Dos Passos and his lifelong friend Arthur K. McComb. Early on they articulated their identities in relation to each other: Dos Passos was the romantic radical, McComb the "eighteenth century" elitist. What the two shared was a despair of the modern world; McComb writes for them both saying, "What an age! All reason, sanity, light, humanity gone!" Landsberg reports that each often regarded the other as needful of political guidance, and "there was mutual teasing in the correspondence . . . and certain subjects were touched on lightly." "Lightly" indeed; those seeking lengthy discourses on American society, literature, history, or politics from Dos Passos should look elsewhere. Instead, this book is valuable for recording—in sketch form—how Dos Passos wrestled with the two great ideas that polarize his writings: organization and the noble individual.
The early letters are in many ways the most interesting, as they show most clearly Dos Passos' political passions. During this period his letters veer from radical fulminations and friendly castigation of McComb to detached and ironic despair. They show that Dos Passos could never take up a party line for long; his passions went to cataclysmic changes, not "policies." "Organization is death. Organization [End Page 475] is death—. . . I repeat the words over and over . . . " he writes in 1918 of Army life, although this will ultimately include organizations of both the left and the right. He hates the stupidity of the war and dreams of revolution and assassinating "statesmen, capitalists, war-mongers. . . ."
But the letters are far from pedantic. A dedicated opponent of all cant, he can never fully accept even his own generalizations. Often in these letters Dos Passos follows passionate observations on politics with wistful invitations to McComb, all involving solitude: "Let's all find a retreat . . . among vineyards and there all go and solemnly renounce the world. . . ." This is not ideological waffling, nor fawning toward the "aristocratic" McComb. Dos Passos wants changes on a massive scale but is repeatedly disgusted and exhausted by the barriers against individual action and expression that he feels attend mass action.
These letters are allusive notes between friends who don't need (or want) to dilate on their differences. Few discuss Dos Passos' novels, and none at any length; the letters are not manifestoes, aesthetic or political. On Dos Passos' side they are the often scattered, private thoughts of a writer who was intensely and personally invested in the ideal of the free individual, and who suffered greatly, especially as a young man, from every success of the forces of political orthodoxy over the individual. "Politically I've given up hope entirely. . . . It's rather a comfort. . . . You can take refuge in pleasantly cynical sullenness . . . and stride away from the whole human tribe. Of course I have twinges, and shall probably ere long take up again my self-inflicted burden. . . ." The burden of "telling the truth about the world" he would take up again, but these letters show how heavily he felt it.