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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Modernist Portraits John Dos Passos (1896-1970)

[7200] Jack Delano, Portrait of a Coal Miner (1940), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-041334-D].

John Dos Passos is one of the most overtly political authors in this unit. Involved in many radical political movements, Dos Passos saw the expansion of consumer capitalism in the first decades of the twentieth century as a dangerous threat to the health of the nation. The son of unmarried Portuguese American parents, Dos Passos grew up in Chicago. He attended prestigious East Coast schools, first the Choate School and then Harvard University. He graduated from Harvard in 1916 and joined the war effort before the United States entered World War I, becoming a member of a volunteer ambulance corps and later serving in the American medical corps.

Following the war he became a freelance journalist, while also working on fiction, poetry, essays, and plays. He wrote a novel drawing on his war experiences, Three Soldiers (1921), but his 1925 novel Manhattan Transferestablished him as a serious fiction writer and displayed many techniques that writers who followed him would emulate. Political reform underwrote much of his fiction, and in 1926 he joined the board of The New Masses, a Communist magazine. Though not a party member, Dos Passos participated in Communist activities until 1934, when the Communists’ disruption of a Socialist rally convinced him that the Communists were more concerned with achieving power than with the social reform about which he cared passionately.

From 1930 to 1936, Dos Passos published three bitingly satirical novels about contemporary American life, The 42nd Parallel; 1919; and The Big Money, an excerpt of which is discussed in this unit. Together the novels form a trilogy called U.S.A., and they attack all levels of American society, from the wealthiest businessman to the leaders of the labor movement. Dos Passos believed that American society had been thoroughly corrupted by the greed its thriving capitalist system promoted, and he saw little hope for real reform of such an entrenched system. His novels experimented with new techniques, especially drawing on those of the cinema, a relatively new cultural form (see the Context “Mass Culture Invasion: The Rise of Motion Pictures,” Unit 13). His “Newsreel” sections mimic the weekly newsreels shown before films at local cinemas, blending together a patchwork of clips from newspapers, popular music, and speeches.

Dos Passos’s politics shifted radically following World War II, as he saw the political left, with which he had identified himself, becoming more restrictive of individual liberty than the political right. His trilogy District of Columbia (1952) reexamined American society from this new perspective, attacking political fanaticism and bureaucracy.

Teaching Tips

  • Students will likely be bewildered by the opening sections of the selections “Newsreel” and “The Camera Eye.” Encourage them to note what the headlines are about and to see trends in the snapshots. They should eventually see that many of the headlines are about labor struggles and many others are about money-making and business. This should lead them to realize that these issues are very much interrelated. The relationship between the wealthy and the struggling workers will arise again in the “Mary French” section, and Dos Passos will not make explicit what he is saying about these coexisting groups. Students should speculate on what Dos Passos implies about the parallel lives of the wealthy and poor that intersect in the character Mary French. Some background on capitalist expansion and the labor movement would be useful to help students understand what exactly is at stake in the work that Mary does and in the description in “The Camera Eye.”
  • A look at modern art, especially political art, would work well with this selection. The collages of Picasso and Braque, for example, demonstrate visually the fragmentation associated with modernity that appears in the “Newsreel” pastiche. You might break students into groups to look at different images together and make connections to the Dos Passos excerpt. You might also ask them about the role of popular culture in the making of art and discuss why taking clips of songs and newspapers (which Picasso’s collages, for instance, also do) and pasting them together should be considered art.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What are the different attitudes toward the labor movement espoused by different characters in The Big Money?
  2. Comprehension: How do the three sections–“Newsreel,” “The Camera Eye,” and “Mary French”–work in conjunction with one another? What links between and among them do you see? How does the “Mary French” section develop the ideas briefly enumerated in the headlines of the “Newsreel”? What do the parallel lives of the labor activists and the New York elite say about one another? Why do you think Dos Passos draws them together in this section?
  3. Context: Like Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, this story examines an individual as well as a large social movement. What do these two narratives suggest about the way individuals must wrestle with their personal lives in the context of their involvement in larger social movements?
  4. Context: Other works in this and other units use the form of the pastiche–the patching together of disparate elements, often with the intention of parodying the sources–that Dos Passos employs in the “Newsreel” section. Why do you think Dos Passos and authors such as T. S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein use this technique? What is the effect of jumbling together seemingly unrelated materials, and what does this technique achieve that could not be achieved any other way?
  5. Exploration: Much modern art also patches together disparate elements to create a whole, as Dos Passos does in The Big Money. Take a look at some collage images. Picasso and Braque were especially fond of this technique and exhibited some of these works in the Armory Show of 1913. Do you see similarities between their work and Dos Passos’s? What could their preference for such a technique be saying about modernity?

Selected Archive Items

[5940] Dorothea Lange, Labor Strikes: NYC (1934), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [NLR-PHOCO-A-71134]. 
Labor demonstration on New York City street. John Dos Passos wrote explicitly political novels and argued that the greed encouraged by capitalism was destroying America.

[7200] Jack Delano, Portrait of a Coal Miner (1940), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-041334-D]. 
Photograph of a coal miner in work clothes. Authors such as John Dos Passos wrote about working-class people and labor rights.

[7423] Anonymous, Harvard Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. (1935), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-94158]. 
John Dos Passos attended prestigious schools on the East Coast, including Choate and Harvard University. Graduating from college in 1916, he joined the volunteer ambulance corps and served in World War I.

[7426] Herbert Photos, Inc., Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, manacled together (1927), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-124547]. 
Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants and anarchists, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers and guards before entering a Dedham, Massachusetts, courthouse. In a series of incidents representative of the first American “red scare,” these political radicals were accused of murder and received the death penalty, despite a lack of evidence.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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