Following his graduation from Harvard in 1916, Dos Passos divided a year between Spain and New York City, absorbing both the traditional Spanish artistic culture and the radicalism of New York intellectuals like Emma Goldman. The killing fields of World War I had not intruded on his studies at Harvard, where his immersion in a Victorian sensibility, he wrote later, "seemed more important, somehow, than the massacres round Verdun." On July 3, 1917, however, he and his friends Cummings and Robert Hillyer joined the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps in Paris, France, looking for adventure. (The service was absorbed into the United States Medical Corps on August 28, and Dos Passos agreed to stay on.) The work took Dos Passos, among other places, to the trenches of Verdun, where he witnessed what he called at the time the "rollicking, grotesque dance of death," a place where those old Victorian values were proved "putrid and false."
Writing from the Left
Dos Passos's first two novels, the inconsequential One Man's Initiation: 1917 (1920) and the much better Three Soldiers (1921), are both direct responses to his experiences in Europe. Plugged full of antiestablishment rhetoric and paeans to individualism, they were also initial attempts at modernism. Three Soldiers, especially, was interested in varying points of view and the imagery of music and painting. (One of the three soldiers is John Andrews, a Virginian who studies music at Harvard.) Dos Passos's later, more famous work, was likewise evidence of a writer who had firsthand access to the avant-garde thinkers of his day: from visual artists like Fernand Leger to writers like T. S. Eliot and James Joyce to Russian composers like Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev. The noisy clamor of New York City was another influence, and Manhattan Transfer (1925) is both a representation of that chaotic environment and an indictment of commercialized urban life.
Yet Dos Passos's visit to Russia ten years earlier had marked the beginning of a gradual shift in his thinking. Unconvinced that communism was truly improving the lives of Russian people, he began to suspect that, internationally, the Communist Party was concerned primarily with consolidating its own power. The final blow for him came in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), when a friend of Dos Passos, José Robles, was executed by the Spanish Communist Party. The affair ended Dos Passos's long friendship with the writer Ernest Hemingway, and from then on, Dos Passos used his reputation and writing as a platform for attacking fascism and communism.
Nonetheless, Dos Passos is remembered as a significant writer on the strength of his earlier novels. He was elected to the American Academy of Art and Letters in 1947 and received the Antonio Feltrinelli Prize for his body of work in 1967. Since 1980, Longwood University in Farmville has awarded an annual Dos Passos Prize for Literature to writers who display an interest in American themes and an experimental approach to form. He also nurtured a strong interest in painting throughout his life, producing more than four hundred works of art and earning respect if not great fame as an artist.
Dos Passos died on September 28, 1970, in Baltimore, Maryland, and was buried in Westmoreland County. The Alderman Library at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville has the largest collection of his papers.
- One Man's Initiation: 1917 (1920)
- Three Soldiers (1921)
- A Pushcart at the Curb (1922)
- Rosinante to the Road Again (1922)
- Streets of Night (1923)
- Manhattan Transfer (1925)
- Facing the Chair (1927)
- Orient Express (1927)
- The 42nd Parallel (1930)
- 1919 (1932)
- In All Countries (1934)
- The Big Money (1936)
- Journeys Between Wars (1938)
- U.S.A. (3-volume compilation of 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money) (1938)
- Adventures of a Young Man (1939)
- Number One (1943)
- State of the Nation (1944)
- Tour of Duty (1946)
- The Grand Design (1949)
- The Ground We Stand On (1949)
- The Prospect Before Us (1950)
- District of Columbia (3-volume compilation of Adventures of a Young Man, Number One, and The Grand Design) (1952)
- Chosen Country (1951)
- Most Likely to Succeed (1954)
- The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson (1954)
- The Theme Is Freedom (1956)
- The Men Who Made the Nation (1957)
- The Great Days (1958)
- Prospects of a Golden Age (1959)
- Midcentury (1961)
- Mr. Wilson's War (1962)
- Brazil on the Move (1963)
- Occasions and Protests (1964)
- Thomas Jefferson: The Making of a President (1964)
- The Best Times: An Informal Memoir (1966)
- The Shackles of Power (1966)
- World in a Glass: A View of Our Century from the Novels of John Dos Passos (1966)
- The Portugal Story: Three Centuries of Exploration and Discovery (1969)
- Easter Island: Island of Enigmas (1971)
- The Fourteenth Chronicle: Letters and Diaries of John Dos Passos (1973)
- Century's Ebb: The Thirteenth Chronicle (1975)
January 14, 1896 - John Roderigo Madison (later known as John Dos Passos) is born in a hotel room in Chicago, Illinois.
1907 - John Roderigo Madison (later known as John Dos Passos) enrolls at Choate Preparatory School in Wallingford, Connecticut.
1910 - John Roderigo Madison's parents, John Randolph Dos Passos Jr. and Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison, marry, allowing him to take the name Dos Passos.
1911 - John Dos Passos tours Europe for a year in the company of a tutor.
1912 - John Dos Passos enters Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
1916 - John Dos Passos graduates from Harvard University and divides the year between Spain and New York City, absorbing both traditional Spanish artistic culture and the radicalism of New York intellectuals like Emma Goldman.
August 28, 1917 - The Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, whose "gentleman drivers" included John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, and Robert Hillyer, is absorbed into the United States Medical Corps.
August 23, 1927 - Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian-born laborers and anarchists, are executed in Massachusetts for robbery and murder, an event that outrages the writer John Dos Passos.
August 19, 1929 - John Dos Passos marries Katharine Smith in Ellsworth, Maine.
1937 - During the Spanish Civil War, a friend of John Dos Passos, José Robles, is executed by Spanish communists, marking a turn to the right in Dos Passos's political thinking and the end of his long friendship with the writer Ernest Hemingway.
1938 - After the publication of John Dos Passos's so-called U.S.A. trilogy of novels, Jean-Paul Sartre declares him "the greatest living writer of our time."
September 12, 1947 - John Dos Passos and his wife Katharine are in a car accident, killing Katharine and causing Dos Passos to lose his sight in one eye.
August 6, 1949 - John Dos Passos marries his second wife, Elizabeth Hamlin Holdridge, in Baltimore, Maryland. A few days later, they will move to Spence's Point in Westmoreland County, Virginia, to live on the farm he has inherited from his father.
September 28, 1970 - John Dos Passos dies in Baltimore, Maryland.
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First published: June 16, 2009 | Last modified: June 2, 2014