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Modernism/modernity 14.2 (2007) 329-345

John Dos Passos in Mexico
Rubén Gallo

Very little has been published on John Dos Passos's frequent travels to Mexico in the late 1920s and early 1930s. These trips are mentioned in passing by his biographers, but so far no critics have tried to find out more details about what Dos Passos might have done during his journeys south of the border: did he meet any Mexican writers or artists? Did his works find a readership among local intellectuals? Did he have contact with any of the numerous foreign intellectuals who had made Mexico their temporary home? The latter is an especially important question, given that during the 1920s and 1930s Mexico had become a cultural magnet, drawing illustrious visitors from almost every corner of the world: Arthur Cravan, Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, D.H. Lawrence, André Breton, Antonin Artaud, Sergei Eisenstein, and Leon Trotsky all spent time in Mexico during this period, and certainly Dos Passos must have crossed paths with at least some of them. So whom did he meet? Whom did he read? What did he think of the heated debates about art and national identity that dominated the intellectual scene after the end of the Revolution? Did he find a kindred soul in any of the poets or painters that had made their home in Mexico City? In order to answer these questions, let's look a bit more closely at John Dos Passos's comings and goings in the 1920s.

Dos Passos first became interested in Mexico in 1914, when he read John Reed's Insurgent Mexico, but he did not travel there until 1926, when he wrote several articles for New Masses about Mexican muralism and the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution.1 Shortly after the launch of New Masses in 1926, Dos Passos wrote a long, enthusiastic profile on Diego Rivera's murals at the Ministry of Education in Mexico City, but it is unclear if he ever [End Page 329] met Rivera in person.2 He also published some impressions about the noise, poverty, and chaos of Mexico City, as well as a short article on the lot of peasants in the state of Morelos, where the revolutionary Zapata had lived and fought.3 During this trip Dos Passos also painted several watercolors based on his impressions: Man with Hat [Figure 1] and Trio with Straws [Figure 2]. Both of these works reveal a fascination with the people of the Mexican countryside; they appear as mysterious, hermetic beings that seem frozen in another era.4 He went back to New York in March 1927, but would return to Mexico in 1930, 1931, 1932, and 1946, though he only wrote about his experiences during the 1926–27 trip (except for the fictionalized Mexico City that appears in The 42nd Parallel).5

The dearth of material on Dos Passos's visit to Mexico has led his biographers to conclude that these trips were of little or no importance. They did not seem to have left an important mark on his work, and perhaps were no more than extended holidays for the American writer. The Mexico journeys, for instance, receive no more than a passing mention in Virginia Spencer Carr's biography Dos Passos: A Life.6 And Melvin Landsberg asserts that the Mexico trips were rather inconsequential since "it was the Bolshevik and not the Mexican revolution that Dos Passos heard about constantly and discussed with his associates in the theater and staff of New Masses." 7

There is, however, some evidence that there was more to Dos Passos's journeys to Mexico—especially the 1926–27 trip—than first meets the eye. Dos Passos met at least one foreign artist during his first trip: the Italian-born photographer Tina Modotti, who lived in Mexico for most of the 1920s and photographed him wearing a sarape and standing next to a man wearing a sombrero. Modotti did not comment on their meeting, but she did annotate her portrait by writing "Dos Passos...


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