Books: The Metropolitan Critic — He Didn't Stifle |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

He Didn't Stifle

Back in 1938, when Sartre was still pushing John Dos Passos as Ie plus grand écrivain de notre temps, he wrote a paragraph which doubtless had its truth then, but in the light of The Best Times seems exactly wrong today. Fermez les yeux, essayez de vous rappeler votre propre vie, essayez de vous la rappeler ainsi: vous étoufferez. C’est cet étouffement sans secours que Dos Passos a voulu exprimer. Dans la société capitaliste les hommes n’ont pas de vies, ils n’ont que des destins: cela, il ne Ie dit nulle part, mais partout il Ie fait sentir; il insiste discrètement, prudemment, jusqu’à nous donner un désir de briser nos destins. Nous voici des révoltés; son but est atteint. Considering what was to happen to Dos Passos’s writing in the years to come, this passage is irony unmixed. For in his post-war writing from Chosen Country through to Midcentury Dos Passos has promoted as a major theme the idea that capitalist America is exactly the place where a man can live his life without having it distorted into destiny. Chosen Country is an acceptance novel and as anyone who has waded through it knows, it shows a monstrous falling-off in creativity from the triumphs of the USA trilogy, which was the work Sartre was mainly thinking of. To the superficial eye Dos Passos over his whole creative course from Three Soldiers until now has gone through one of those sideways feats of mental travel that one thinks of in connection with Steinbeck and Max Eastman and which seem always to end up in the offices of Reader’s Digest. But if The Best Times has any intellectual value, it lies in the fact that Don Passos, in reminiscing at low pressure — and incidentally turning out some of his best writing for many years — is able, to show that his own cast of mind has never allowed for such an inter-pretation at any stage. Sartre got him wrong.

The radical view of Dos Passos is that he was a great political writer, ideologically sound in the first instance, who eventually sold out. The libertarian view is that he was a great political writer, opposing all ideologies, who eventually cracked under the strain and plumped for the ideology that guaranteed his personal freedom to function — capitalism. But the only possible consistent view (and this is the view that The Best Times unconsciously, and therefore convincingly, supports) is that Dos Passos was never a political writer at all. Considering his associations, through the Norton-Harjes ambulance service and the subsequent revulsion towards the sanctity of the allied cause, through the New Masses, the New Playwrights’ Theatre and the Sacco-Vanzetti defence, this view at first looks paradoxical. But on close examination we see that Dos Passos nowhere in any of these institutions and on any of these issues took quite the line that was expected of him. When he made his trip to Russia (and he made it before the terror had really got going) his rejection of communism was not the intellectual kind made by Edmund Wilson and Eastman, but the artistic kind, like Cummings’s and Gide’s: it picked up danger signals on a totally different set of antennae.

When we look back and recall the historical setting of USA (which really is an historical novel, a fact often neglected) we find that it is the Wobblies who hold his closest sympathy — and by the time USA was being written the Wobblies were certainly not the group that any real politician was likely to put his money on. If Dos Passos has ever backed anyone he has backed losers, usually when he already knew they were losers. So if he was ever a political writer, he was one of a disengaged kind whose relationship to politics cannot be seen in terms of preparing the future. And although Sartre did not have much difficulty deducing from USA a total condemnation of capitalist America, he was plainly far from being able to judge the significance of the fact that Dos Passos was able to publish the book in America, and the significance of the fierceness with which Dos Passos would cling to, and proclaim the value of, this freedom. The preoccupation of USA is with the overwhelming power of impersonal forces — Department of Justice investigators, censors, witch-hunters, strike-breaking army units. USA is really a set of parables which show men trying to retain their individuality before these forces. But the awkward fact, for those radicals who consider the early Dos Passos their champion, is that this preoccupation will do as well for the right as for the left: the individual resistance to central pressure is what the American right considers itself to be all about and the reason why it is able to document itself so well constitutionally. It is a fact that Dos Passos has ended up pretty far to the right. But I think it’s a mistake to assume that he started very far on the left.

He comes out of Dreiser’s school of naturalism, a kind of naturalism that needs material; and eventually he ran out of material. His early scope was wide and impersonal and took in a lot of stuff nobody else wanted to touch. The interest of his writing was dependent on this breadth of view: to Scott Fitzgerald, much the more gifted writer, Dos Passos in these years looked like a genius. He was a camera, but a man can be a camera for only so long. In time he became more personal, his novels were given a protagonist (Huey Long in Number One) and in Chosen Country the world was given the autobiographical novel that most writers turn out at the beginning of their careers: it was like a clumsy start in a kind of introspective narration he was never to be any good at, the past seemed as shallow as if the hero was eighteen, and there were unending references to Gibbon as night trains chugged through the bosom of the motherland. Like Hemingway’s, Dos Passos’s career was back to front, the masterpieces first, the duds last.

Hemingway’s personality is one of the continuing threads in The Best Times and helps make for the immediate interest the book will hold even for those who have not read the early novels. Dos Passos is deeply cultivated, has been everywhere, done everything. He helped Goncharova paint the scenery for Noces. When tiny he met Mark Twain. Like Edmund Wilson he heard Cummings, the most solid claimant for the title of Talker of the Century, in full voice. He met the big fish and the little fish: Joyce, Fitzgerald, the Murphys, Pudovkin, Léger, von Sternberg, Dietrich, Blaise Cendrars, Eisenstein. He has had a good life and he is grateful for it, and although his work has declined with the years and made little of Sartre’s temporal judgment, when all our battles are done the best of it will read well in eternity.

(New Statesman, 1968)


There is too much of Sartre’s French here and not enough analysis of his position on Dos Passos, whom he elevated so uncritically that he made Baudelaire’s homage to Edgar Allan Poe look severe. It was always worth asserting that USA was an important novel, and worth pointing out that Dos Passos cut himself off from the possibility of writing a late masterpiece to match his early one. Even today, not enough of those young British critics who are mad about the United States know about USA: they tend to imagine that the literary reaction to American comformity started with Nathanael West. I could have added originality to useful labour, however, by pointing out that Sartre was a typical European intellectual in being unable to give a clear account of why American artists who started on what he thought of as the left ended up on what he thought of as the right. He always believed that it was imperialism at work. But it was just the Constitution. In the long run, Americans didn’t buy the idea of unlimited state power, whereas Sartre never saw anything wrong with it — as long as it wasn’t exercising power over him.