Paul McIntier on “John Dos Passos: The Greatest Traveler of the Lost Generation”
Many authors of the Lost Generation chose to expatriate themselves – most notably to France. While most still traveled in pursuit of their writing, perhaps none traveled more than John Dos Passos. As Malcolm Cowley noted in Exile’s Return, “When [Dos Passos] appeared in Paris he was always on his way to Spain or Russia or Istanbul or the Syrian desert” (292). What Cowley may not have been aware of is the long and winding path Dos Passos took on his way to becoming “the greatest traveler in a generation of ambulant writers” (Cowley 292).
Many of the Lost Generation authors traveled in order to earn their paychecks. Ernest Hemingway provided newspaper coverage of the Spanish Civil War. Janet Flanner, after moving to Paris, wrote of her experiences there for The New Yorker. But Dos Passos’ need to travel may have been less about making a living and more about a necessity to move. He had been traveling since his birth, a fact Cowley may or may not have known when he observed Dos Passos’ frequent forays through Paris.
Born out of wedlock to Lucy Sprigg Madison and John Randolph Dos Passos, the younger Dos Passos spent his first 11 years traveling. E.L. Doctorow once commented, “Dos Passos was born wandering, living out his lonely childhood with his … mother as she toured the European capitals” (Dos Passos vii). Between the ages of five and 13, the younger Dos Passos was shuttled between England and the United States for his schooling, never spending more than three years in one place.
His nomadic childhood melded seamlessly with his adult years. Before returning to America to begin working on Manhattan Transfer, Dos Passos spent time hiking the Mediterranean coast (Morley 65). As his success in writing grew, Dos Passos found himself returning to New York each time his publisher was set to release a new book. However, once the final preparations were complete, Dos Passos deliberately left New York before the official release. It was a pattern he repeated “throughout most of his life (in order to) put each book behind him and go on to something new” (Maine 3-4).
As if Dos Passos’ own travels were not enough, the movement of people as they go about their lives became a focal point in many of his stories. A reviewer remarked, “Like most of his books, [One Man’s Initiation] begins with a man traveling” (Parini 476). The 42nd Parallel, the first book in Dos Passos’ “U.S.A” trilogy, chronicles the life of Fainy as he crisscrosses America by train in search of a job. Set on New York’s subway system, Manhattan Transfer is described as “the constant motion, the to-ing and fro-ing of the narrative in a dynamic swirl of characters” (Morley 66).
The players in Dos Passos’ stories were more than figments of his imagination, and Dos Passos’ wanderings were so ingrained in his psyche that the accolade Cowley gave him was no hyperbolic epithet. With thousands of miles logged and perhaps a dozen stamps in his passport, John Dos Passos was arguably “the greatest traveler” of the Lost Generation.
Cowley, Malcolm. Exile’s Return. New York: Penguin Group, 1994. Print.
Dos Passos, John. The 42nd Parallel. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000. Print.
Maine, Barry. John Dos Passos: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 2003. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 1 Oct. 2014.
Morley, Catherine. Modern American Literature. Edinburgh: EUP, 2012. EBL. Web. 1 Oct. 2014.
Parini, Jay. American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. Detroit, Mich: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2010. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 1 Oct. 2014.
Devon Johnson on “John Dos Passos: The Estranged Expatriate”
The American literary expatriates of the 1920s are often painted as a cohesive group of artistic comrades. Despite being surrounded by fellow expatriates, John Dos Passos found himself separated from them. The estrangements throughout his life, from politics, friends, and home, led to multiple shifts of identity, forcing Dos Passos to define himself multiple times. Dos Passos’ estrangement began in his home country of the United States, where he attended Harvard University and experienced the same stripping of identity that his colleague Malcolm Cowley writes about in Exile’s Return. Cowley calls this process deracination, stating that “we were not being prepared for citizenship in a town, a state, or a nation; . . . we were being exhorted to enter that international republic of learning whose traditions are those of Athens, Florence, Paris, Berlin and Oxford” (Cowley 28). This stripping of identity freed the generation from their patriotic identities, creating the opportunity for their coming expatriatism.
Unlike other expatriates like Hemingway, Dos Passos is unique under Cowley’s definition as Dos Passos used his deracination to steadily travel, never settling in Paris. He visited various locales in Europe and the Middle East, studying literature and architecture. Afterward, like many other American expatriates, Dos Passos began working with ambulances during World War I, serving in Paris and Italy and the U.S. Army (Carr). In 1928, Dos Passos lived in the Soviet Union to study socialism and then took residence in Spain in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War (Carr). Cowley observes in Exile’s Return that Dos Passos was always on his way to somewhere else (Cowley 292). This constant travel left Dos Passos without a defined home, leaving him estranged from his peers who settled in one place for their art.
During his youth, Dos Passos leaned heavily to the political left. However, his travels began to influence his political ideology. His visit to the Soviet Union allowed him to see the practical implementation of socialism and the negative effects it created. However, his visit to Spain with his good friend Ernest Hemingway is one of the most explicit examples of estrangement in Dos Passos’ life. While the two were in Spain, one of Dos Passos’ other good friends, José Robles was murdered (Carr). The subsequent cover-up of Soviet responsibilities in the murder shook Dos Passos’ belief in his leftist politics. When he turned to Hemingway for solace, trying to reconcile his beliefs between the socialists and destroyed civil liberties, Hemingway’s response was “Civil liberties, shit. Are you with us [the Socialists] or are you against us?” (Packer). The subsequent falling out left Dos Passos estranged from a lifetime of travels, his political ideals, and one of his closest friends.
By 1950, Dos Passos had changed to a conservative political stance (Carr). These constant estrangements — from his patriotic identity, his travels, his political ideals, and his friends – all influenced Dos Passos. He views himself as a pure observer, and when asked how difficult it is to remain that way, he states “I think I’ve tended to come back to center. I’m often carried away by emotions and enthusiasms for various ideas at one time or another, but I think the desire to observe, to put down what you see as accurately as possible, is still paramount.” (Sanders). The forced separations from his identities led to this definition of himself. From deracination and travel to his shifting politics, Dos Passos’ identity was reinvented and reshaped by his experiences. Dos Passos is unique among the American expatriates as he used the facets of his expatriatism to their fullest potential, resulting in the estranged expatriate.
Carr, Virginia Spencer. Dos Passos: A Life. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern UP, 2004. Print.
Cowley, Malcolm. Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s. New York: Penguin, 1994. Print.
Hicks, Granville. “The Politics of John Dos Passos.” The Antioch Review 10.1 (1950): 85-98. Web.
Packer, George. “The Spanish Prisoner.” The New Yorker 31 Oct. 2005. Web. 20 Sept. 2014.
Smith, James Steel. “The Novelist of Discomfort: A Reconsideration of John Dos Passos.” College English 19.8 (1958): 332-38. Web.
Sanders, David. “The Art of Fiction No. 44.” Personal interview. 1 1969.
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