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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

11. Modernist Portraits

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Sherwood Anderson
- Hart Crane
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Susan Glaspell
- Ernest Hemingway
- Nella Larsen
- Marianne Moore
- John Dos Passos
- Gertrude Stein
- Wallace Stevens
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: John Dos Passos (1896-1970)

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

John Dos Passos Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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 Transfer established 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.

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