Sunday, May 25, 2008

Two biographies of John Dos Passos compared.

Townsend Ludington's 1980 and Virginia Spencer Carr's 1984 volumes weigh in about the same, over five hundred pages of closely printed text. I have the hardcovers, although both biographies have appeared in paperback reprints, Ludington's a decade ago and Carr a few years back. Despite his earlier works being edited by Ludington in three handsome installments in the Library of America series in the past few years, even these languish, absent even from the giant city libraries near me. Outside of nods to the USA trilogy or maybe "Manhattan Transfer" or in a pinch, "Three Soldiers," not many readers bother with him.

Conventional wisdom, shared even by his admirers, tends to denigrate his later novels and histories and biographies, after his gradual embrace of "middle-class liberalism" after his disillusionment with the manipulation of the Left by Stalinists in the 1920s and 1930s. None of his works remain in print which were written after his fall from favor with the Left. The Library of America selections span the twenties and thirties, and it's for his rendering of the ideas, events, and trends of the first three decades of the last century that Dos Passos will be remembered. Like many writers who outlasted their early impact and kept at it, he resented being labelled the "USA" author forty years later, but without this contribution to American literature, there'd be no pair of hefty biographies on my shelf or any other that matter over a century after his birth.

Few today may read Dos Passos, at least in America, but as with Jack London, Upton Sinclair, or James T. Farrell, this one time literary lion of the Left inspired many in Europe and the Third World with his chronicles that mingled a Camera Eye of the passing scene, a mordant Newsreel span of current events from the Wilson-Harding-Coolidge-Hoover years, and meticulously observed, if often distant and mechanical, scurryings of individuals as they resisted the machinations of "competitive Capital," "Monopoly Capital," and the triumph of the Organization Man, with "the big money."

Ludington gains the edge over Carr for his diligent incorporation of Dos Passos' correspondence, which he corrected from its previous printing as the collected letters. Carr earns her merit by adding the letters to DP, from his agent Bernice Baumgartner, his first wife Katy, Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, and others who hated and loved DP. Ludington tends to concentrate more on DP's own career; Carr expands to notice, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald complaining to Max Perkins about sales of "Tender is the Night" vs. "1919," or Edmund Wilson's sangfroid in his letters vs. his astonishing poverty at one point.

Neither biographer gives much notice to the actual works. Ludington's masterful comparison of the real event that DP reported on vs. its transformation as the "Body of an American" section in USA that covered the selection of one of four bodies for the WWI representative of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier remains an anomaly. He tends to cite a few reviews of each work after a brief paragraph or two summarizing each DP book as it was issued. Carr adds more context and often quotes a far greater range of positive and negative reviews for each work, but she rarely offers her own judgment of the work at hand.

Ludington stresses, as his subtitle emphasizes, the "odyssey" intellectually and politically that DP made over the century. You understand his opposition to technocrats, centralized power, and elite planners who conspire to ruin liberty and crush self-government, according to DP's constant resentment. You also understand, against the frequent criticism of his fiction, why DP relies on cliché and cant. He strives to make you listen to the truckdriver, the lobbyist, the ad-man, the gladhander, or the idealist who walked among us once, especially in an era before TV managed to empower the spin doctors and when radio or film could spend their own charms trying to sway the masses. His characters, from "Manhattan Transfer" on, remain less lovable and more caricatured than those created by his peers, but DP meant to use them as true satirists do, as Thackeray did in "Vanity Fair," to highlight the shortcomings and exaggerate the ambitions that ordinary folks harbored.

Ludington sums up DP's "lover's quarrel with the world." (507) You appreciate how he could go from marching for miners in Harlan County or against the conviction of Sacco & Vanzetti to sharing a stage with John Wayne, if not Strom Thurmond! He stubbornly, as Ludington documents, sought the ideal of Jefferson's gentleman farmer-- especially after inheriting his father's plantations on the Potomac-- while somehow having to live hand-to-mouth for years, borrowing from his friends constantly, writing incessantly, and travelling studiously as a free-lance journalist in war and peacetime, home and abroad, always talking to whomever he met, thinking and listening just as carefully. Ludington, more than Carr, shows how far this habitual stance of self-reliance could take him, into dangerous support at one time of Joe McCarthy, such were his distrusts of American weakness against his former Communist cabal. Dos Passos kept warning his audience, however much it dwindled, of the dangers of power when concentrated into the hands of a few, no matter their rhetoric of inclusion.

Carr depicts DP as a coach on the sidelines, a fellow-traveller at times but not a party man by nature. The artist Adolph Dehn said of him, even at DP's most radical stage in 1928: "One sees better if one sits on the fence." (qtd. 235) The Left idolized him and then excommunicated him, but DP, as both biographers realize, lacked the credulity to follow any leader. This outsider aura began in his days as an illegitimate son of a wealthy capitalist and his long-time mistress, to his gawky status at Choate, and his aesthetic posing at Harvard-- this stint's richly detailed by Carr). He hated war, but wished to see it. This led to his ambulance-driving volunteer duty in the French trenches of 1917, which sparked his wish to both save the world for the little man and resist any program or power that would in doing this crush the freedom he learned increasingly to admire as the American contribution. This led, as Ludington explains with more evidence than Carr, to his distrust of both sides as they mouthed democracy in the Cold War, to his advocacy of Goldwater, and his impatience with hippies and the New Left on the campuses where he lectured before his death in 1970.

Determined to champion the common man even as he became the country squire his father longed to be, in his temperament he stayed his own man, infuriating more than he inspired as the decades went on. In the thick of ideological allegiance, as the Communist Party in the U.S. courted DP, he remained a refusenik. He sided with "the scavengers and campfollowers." (qtd. Carr 299) He agreed in 1932, as did most of his peers, that the American system was doomed to inevitable failure and collapse. But, while the capitalist failure loomed in the Depression as obvious, he could not discern any collapse. A plutocracy appeared to him more likely to spring from American soil than a Red dictatorship of the proletariat. Seventy-five years later, post-Cold War, it seems that Dos Passos' prediction has long come to pass!

Both academics draw on his widow's and daughter's permission to use the archives, and while Carr adds a few reminiscences from his family, Ludington uses his earlier editing of his letters to enrich his study. I assume both scholars worked in the same time, the 1970s, on their works, and although my back-to-back perusal of both uncovers the same content carefully sifted, each has its advantages. Carr gives more of the flavor of his times. She's superb on conveying Harvard during WWI, DP's courage as he rescued the wounded under fire, and the background of the Spanish conflict. You understand more his relationship with both his wives and his children, and the tensions that his commitment to living off others' generosity as he determined to make it as a writer created in his friendships and his family. Ludington probes into his mental evolution as he challenged leftist orthodoxy, and how he grew into a more consistent, organic, and daring critic of both D.C. and the Kremlin, the fat cats on both sides of the Iron Curtain, than the stereotype of an addled right-wing convert that many disappointed critics continued to peddle in the media for the three dozen productive years after he returned from Spain and challenged liberal platitudes with what he struggled to see as the sinister truth.

Both scholars inevitably repeat much of the same detail in this man's seven-and-a-half decades of a life spent as what Time magazine a bit clunkily but typically phrased it, in an echo of Dos Passos' own style, a "champion of the individual, an implacable foe of organized Bigness." But, after learning much from a two-time plunge into Dos Passos' life and his career, largely from primary sources well annotated by both professors, one can then return to not only Dos Passos' essays and fiction in print, but an intrepid reader may seek out the other works that languish in the rarely visited holdings of a few libraries today. Dos Passos, as you will agree after these two biographies have been finished, deserves for a full understanding of his defense of the individual against the political machine and the bureaucratic system, a careful study of his many writings, for which Carr and Ludington at least give if not in-depth criticism of their own, then at least a reminder of what awaits the few who delve off the path of conventional thinking from left or right, as he searched for himself.

(Above posted to both books as variously listed in editions on Amazon US.)

P.S. George Packer in the Oct. 31, 2006, New Yorker reviewed Stephen Koch’s “The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of José Robles.” The Spanish Prisoner. I was curious about this work and I figured it might shed new light into this shadowy episode of the murder by the Reds of DP's old friend. His disappearance had drawn DP into returning to Spain; Robles' cruel fate hastened "Dos"' break with the fellow travelers, like "Hem," of the Communists during his stay in Spain during the Civil War. It also led to the dissolution of the two writers' long friendship, worsened by the macho and callous way that Hemingway set up DP to be told the news of his friend's death. However, from Packer's summary, the opening of the Soviet archives and new revelations about the vast extent-- beyond what even Orwell or Dos might have suspected-- of the collusion between Stalinists and Republicans as they battled each other and the Fascists under Franco and abetted by Hitler and Mussolini does not appear to have led to shocking new insights. Kock, from this summary, appears to tell the tale again that TL and VSC have already covered in fewer pages. Yet, as Koch wrote an earlier study of how the Comintern manipulated 1930s Western intellectuals, certainly its vantage point after the Cold War and the revisionist efforts done to upend the old clarity that many leftists found in 1930s Spain should be one worth scanning.

Painting: Luis Quintanilla, friend of DP, depicted him in a series of portraits begun in 1943 of writers as they saw themselves. DP, "a Sunday painter," was also a talented artist, who at one time wished to pursue a career as one. Paul Quintanilla's "Waiting by the Shore" is a biography of his father, and he has a fine website with more information. (Both Carr and Ludington cover the basics of his relationship with DP.) John Dos Passos by Luis Quintanilla

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