John Dos Passos Biography And Critical Essays

Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. U.S.A.

3. Modes of Narration
3.1 Fictional Characters
3.2 Biographies
3.3 Newsreels
3.4 The Camera Eye

4. The Big Money
4.1 Historical Context
4.2 Fictional Characters
4.2.1 Charley Anderson
4.2.2 Margo Dowling
4.2.3 Mary French
4.2.4 Richard Ellsworth Savage

5. Themes

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

When the French philosopher, critic and writer Jean-Paul Sartre concluded an essay on the American novelist John Dos Passos in 1938 with the words “I regard Dos Passos as the greatest writer of our time” it was quite clear that the author of the trilogy U.S.A. had joined the class of the most important and influential writers in American literature.

The three novels of the trilogy are critical documents and portraits of the history and life of the American nation during the first three decades of the 20th century. U.S.A. is a social and political work that is shaped by the stylistic experimentation of the author who treats art in the service of history[1] and therefore leaves him in a literary outstanding position.

This term paper aims to explain and justify this position of Dos Passos by examining and analyzing The Big Money which was the final novel of U.S.A. First of all, this work will give an overview and assessment of the trilogy as a whole to facilitate an analytical insight into its meaning and purpose. Secondly, the four different styles of narration will be discussed. The third part of the paper will deal with The Big Money: What is the historical context of the novel? Who are the main characters? Finally, the themes of the novel will be shortly summarized in the fourth part of this paper.

2. U.S.A.

The American novelist, play writer, poet, writer of historical and political nonfiction, and self-styled “chronicler” John Dos Passos (1896-1970) wrote the three novels The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936) that make up the trilogy U.S.A. between 1927 and 1936[2]. This was the time of the Great Depression, the Roaring Twenties were over and American history of that period was now seen from a Thirties radical viewpoint. The Twenties were regarded as the nadir, the discredited decade, dominated by commercialism and materialism, suppression of Radicals and rising bull-marked absurdities pointing towards the economic crash.[3] Therefore, U.S.A. is a negative and pessimistic history that depicts a critical historical, social and moral development of the American nation by producing a montage of exemplary destinies, short biographies of famous Americans, autobiographical memories of the author and collages of texts – history and fiction are presented unseparated.

When the first two novels where published, Dos Passos who was publicly committed to the Radical Left was regarded as a Communist. With the publishing of the final novel it ultimately became clear that he was also critical of Communism.[4] Although there was a shift in his political judgement and opinion, the “despair of the fate of the single human being bent into service of the institutions of modern industrial society, whatever those institutions might be” was something that remained constant in Dos Passos works.[5]

The author “aimed to produce a satire on American life, permeated with popular songs, current events, and headlines, that would truly portray the whole of American culture and events” and “expresses Dos Passos´s view of the ill effects of capitalism on the American people.”[6] The trilogy is especially notable for the author’s use of various experimental techniques (Camera Eye, Newsreels, and biographies of typical or important people of the time) that are inserted throughout the chapters of the major 12 narrative characters. These techniques had been earlier developed in the novel Manhattan Transfer (1925) for which Dos Passos had received widespread readership and critical attention.[7] In U.S.A. the author almost brought them to perfection. The result of this method is a work of more than 1500 pages that interweaves every conceivable literary genre – the novel, the essay, biography, autobiography, journalism, song lyrics, and poetry.[8]

The work as Dos Passos puts it is a “collective” novel about “the march of history”, made up mostly of “the speech of the people”. There is no individual hero; furthermore the protagonist is a social group. “U.S.A. confronts class conflict, and it examines the trauma inflicted by rapid modernization on both the fabric of social life and the individual human psyche.”[9] The leading idea which is performed is that life is collective and individuals are neither heroes nor villains. Their destiny is controlled by the drift of society as a whole.[10]

In content the trilogy describes three phases of the declining history of the United States. The 42nd Parallel covers the years from 1900 until America’s war entry in 1917. This first novel presents twentieth-century hopes for the new nation and moves towards the rise of the progressive impulse and radical challenges to the capitalist system; it goes over to the European battlefields. In 1919 the war is the main concern; it is seen as “the plot of the big interest”, as a place of horror, debasement, new sexual opportunity, rising revolutionary momentum. It culminates in the Russian Revolution for which there is no western parallel (U.S.A. is not only concerned with internal affairs of the U.S. but also with those of international interest). The novel ends in the corrupted idealism of the Versailles conference while there is the general strike of 1 May 1919 in the U.S. that collapses into Red Scare. The path towards commercialism and superpower capitalism is opened. The Big Money is set in the 1920s. It portrays a society that is economically cohesive, socially divisive, emotionally and personally destructive. The emotional collapse of the main characters and the economic wasting of the system run parallel. The end of all progressive social hope is marked by the deaths of Sacco and Vanzetti.[11] The trilogy ends with the picture of “Vag”, a vagrant and someone who belongs to the side of the defeated and above whom successful people of the upper class are sitting in airplanes on transcontinental flights. The Vag is a symbol for the wreckage of broken promises and self-betrayals.[12]

In technical terms the trilogy is a result of experimentation inspired by cinematic influences - Eisenstein’s and Griffith understanding of montage. Elements of reportage and documentary are included in the Newsreels. Minute biographies and a large range of fictional characters give an objective frame to the Camera Eye which adds a subjective element to the novels. Intersections between documentary matter and naturalistic materials are used to create a massive modernist epic.[13] The composition of the four modes of narration forms among themselves an elaborate dialogic relation.[14] The presentation of these modes is not an attempt to produce a clear plot but it depicts only the movement forward in U.S.A.; history is seen as a process.[15] Therefore, meanings in the trilogy are generated by the thematic and structural tensions among its compositional blocks and by the complex and various compositions of its four styles[16] which finally is an expression of the damaged coherence of twentieth-century America.[17] Obviously, Dos Passos was convinced of the idea of multiple perspectives (as in Ulysses) and he was able to employ his own techniques and his own balance of elements that stamp him “as the last of the great inventors in the field of the social novel.”[18]

3. Modes of Narration

3.1 Fictional Characters

The trilogy U.S.A. contains dozens of characters whose lives are not systematically woven into a main plot but float incessantly within the process of a certain phase of history. None of the characters is a typical hero or individual protagonist of a novel. None of them dominates the picture, no single force drives toward a conclusion.[19] Some of them occur in all three novels but the importance of the role they play may differ from novel to novel.

The characters are ordinary citizens who represent the American society of that time, they are average Americans. Their individual stories are “tales of types”. Some of these tales intersect, others run parallel, some continue for the entire sequence and others drop out from sight.[20] In The Big Money these people are ex-war aces, movie stars, promoters from Wall Street, social workers, reformers, Communist leaders, United States Senators. They are all influenced by the kind of living that demands the quick reward and by the millions that are made today and lost tomorrow.[21] Although these people are typical Americans they do not compose a representative picture of all kinds of people in this society – Dos Passos made a limited selection of fictional characters. Some social groups are not included at all or only play a minor role, such as Non-White Americans or people in rural areas. The occurring characters belong to the broad middle class.

As in satire the fictional characters are always seen from above. There is no chance for the reader to identify with them, to be touched by their lives or to develop sympathies for them. The reason for that lies in the characters´ lack of ideas – there is no reflection or consequential thought that is not connected with their appetites. These people are almost entirely occupied with their sensations and their longings.[22] The narration sections do not contain much of deep emotion. Furthermore, the characters are only a depiction of “motor and verbal behavior”. The characters in U.S.A. are hollow and without depth, they are “automatons” who do not feel and who are not affected by any intellectual values since they exist in a world without moral content or complication. They are not stimulated by anything aesthetic or depressed by anything spiritual – all the pleasures and pains pass them by.[23] For example, Mary French’s abortion is described only within a few sentences.[24] The fact that Charley Anderson loses custody of his children is also presented with only a few words and does not evoke any sympathy.


[1] John H. Wrenn, “U.S.A,” John Dos Passos (Twayne: 1999) quoted in: “Themes of Memory, Language, Tragedy, Doubt and Affirmation,” (04/02/2005).

[2] Robert Dowling, “John Dos Passos,“The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, ed. Jay Parini (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): 394.

[3] Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern American Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) 108.

[4] Henning Thies, Hauptwerke der amerikanischen Literatur: Einzeldarstellungen und Interpretationen. (München: Kindler Verlag, 1995) 317.

[5] E.L. Doctorow, “Foreword,“The Big Money (Boston: Mariner Books, 2000) IX.

[6] Kelly Winters, “Critical Essay on U.S.A,., Novels for Students (The Gale Group, 2002), (04/02/2005).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Parini, OxfordEncyclopedia, 395.

[9] David Minter, A Cultural History of the American Novel: Henry James to William Faulkner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 132-133.

[10] Malcolm Cowley, “The End of a Trilogy,“John Dos Passos: A Critical Heritage, ed. Barry Maine (London: Routledge, 1988): 138.

[11] Bradbury, Modern American Novel, 108-109.

[12] Minter, Cultural History, 166.

[13] Bradbury, Modern American Novel, 108.

[14] Janet Galligani Casey, Dos Passos and the Ideology of the Feminine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 132.

[15] Doctorow, Big Money, IX.

[16] Charles Marz, “Dos Passos´s U.S.A.: Chronicle and Performance,“American Fiction 1914-1945, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987): 180.

[17] Bradbury, Modern American Novel, 82.

[18] George J. Becker, “Visions…,“John Dos Passos (Ungar, 1974) 58-79, in (04/02/2005).

[19] Horace Gregory, “Dos Passos Completes His Modern Trilogy,“Critical Heritage, 132.

[20] Bradbury, Modern American Novel, 109.

[21] Gregory, Critical Heritage, 131.

[22] Doctorow, Big Money, XI.

[23] Bernard de Voto, “John Dos Passos: Anatomist of Our Time,“Critical Heritage, 126-127.

[24] “In the end she had an abortion but she had to write her mother again for money to pay for it.” John Dos Passos, The Big Money (Boston: Mariner Books, 2000) 359.

Dos Passos was the most experimental of the major novelists of what critics now refer to as the period of “high modernism,” which lasted roughly from 1910 until 1940. His great contemporaries in the American novel, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner, all concentrated on writing about specific areas or groups. Hemingway, during the 1920’s, wrote mostly about expatriate Americans living in Europe and about such upper-class sports as big-game hunting and bullfighting. Fitzgerald, too, wrote about expatriates but also about bored flappers and socialites, upper-class young people with too much money and too little to do. Faulkner, while using such experimental techniques as stream of consciousness, focused all of his attention on the Deep South, especially his native corner of northern Mississippi.

Dos Passos was looking for techniques that would enable him to portray the wide range of characters and economic situations to be found in American society. He was also looking for a style that would reflect the fast pace of modern life and the actual speech of its people. Even as early as Three Soldiers he was engaged in this pursuit, choosing as his principal characters a farm boy from Indiana, an aesthete from the East Coast, and an Italian working-class man from San Francisco and making no attempt to combine their stories, except to make clear that all were destroyed by the machinelike nature of the modern Army.

Dos Passos’s experimentation took a major step forward in Manhattan Transfer, which also brought him wide public attention. He attempted to create a cross-section of urban life in the United States by introducing a wide range of characters. While much of the book’s attention is devoted to a young newspaper reporter and a young woman who becomes an actress, depictions are also given of a young man from a farm who cannot find work, who becomes homeless and eventually dies, either accidentally or by suicide; a French immigrant who makes himself something of a success by marrying a widow who owns a delicatessen; a man who had once been a rich Wall Street investor but whose luck went bad and who sinks to the lowest levels of society; a war veteran who turns to crime; and a milkman who is injured in an accident and uses the settlement as a springboard to a successful political career.

Each chapter in Manhattan Transfer is introduced by a brief section of impressionistic prose about some aspect of New York City and its life, which will appear in that chapter. For example, where a couple of the characters are to find their way to the waterfront and others are to arrive by ship in New York harbor, the opening segment depicts the shoreline and the dirty waters of New York Bay. In each chapter, as it proceeds, episodes in the lives of several of the characters are described, with occasional brief references to individuals who are mentioned only a single time. The intention is to produce a kaleidoscopic effect, a novel that will give the reader a vivid impression of what it is to live in a city as bustling and energetic and squalid as New York.

Dos Passos’s most radical experiments are the techniques used in U.S.A. The prose style makes frequent use of a device he used sparingly in Manhattan Transfer, that of run-together words. The narrative segments move rapidly, with little attention to extended depictions of characters; the “Camera Eye” segments are more relaxed, and the “Newsreel” collages are jagged and sometimes almost incoherent as they skip from subject to subject.

In the novels that compose this trilogy, Dos Passos interweaves the stories of eleven major figures from various parts of the United States and various economic and social levels. Along with these narratives, three very different devices are employed. One is the “Newsreel,” a collage of headlines from newspapers, brief stories of violence or betrayal, snatches of popular songs of the time, and quotations from public officials and from government reports. The second is the “Camera Eye,” impressionistic pictures in vivid prose from the perspective of a single individual responding to the events of the times. The third consists of portraits of important historical figures of the time, from the industrialist Henry Ford and the financier J. Pierpont Morgan to the Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs and the economist Thorstein Veblen. Dos Passos’s views about politics and economics are most clearly suggested in these portraits.

Manhattan Transfer

First published: 1925

Type of work: Novel

Characters from all walks of life struggle with the tensions and pressures of life in New York City.

Dos Passos, in Manhattan Transfer, tried to show what life was like between the last years of the nineteenth century and the early 1920’s for a wide variety of people living in the largest of American cities, New York. At the center of the action are two characters, Ellen Thatcher, whose birth occurs in the novel’s opening pages, and Jimmy Herf, who is first seen as a young boy. Ellen’s background is lower middle class; her father is an unsuccessful accountant, her mother an invalid who dies while Ellen is still a child. Jimmy’s background is more wealthy, but his father is dead and his mother dies after a series of strokes. Instead of Yale or Harvard, he goes to Columbia University.

In the course of the novel, Ellen becomes a minor star in the theater and marries an actor who, it is revealed, is homosexual. She divorces him, and after a frustrating affair with a rich young alcoholic, she goes abroad with the Red Cross during World War I and meets Jimmy, whom she had known in New York. He has been a newspaper reporter. The two marry and have a son, but eventually they become bored with each other. Ellen has abandoned the theater and becomes a successful magazine editor. When she and Jimmy divorce, she reluctantly agrees to marry a longtime suitor, George Baldwin. Jimmy becomes increasingly restive as a reporter, and at the end he quits his job and sets out to see the rest of America.

This thin plot is only a means for holding the novel together while Dos Passos provides glimpses of a number of very different lives. A few of these are from upper levels of society. Jimmy’s aunt and her husband live well, and their son, James Merivale, becomes an officer in the war and then a stuffed-shirt banker. Phineas T. Blackhead and his partner, Densch, run an export-import business which seems very successful until the end of the novel, when it goes bankrupt.

A few characters represent the lower depths of society. Bud Korpenning is a young farm boy who comes to the city after stealing his father’s savings. He never finds a permanent job, drifting from handout to handout and eventually becoming a Bowery bum before falling, perhaps deliberately, from the Brooklyn Bridge. Anna Cohen, a poor Jewish girl, makes a meager living as a seamstress until she joins a strike against intolerable conditions and loses her job. She takes a job in a dress store and, dreaming of something better, is horribly burned in a fire. Dutch Robertson, a war veteran, and his girlfriend, Francie, are barely surviving until he begins robbing stores. She joins him and is romanticized by the press as a “flapper bandit.” They are caught when she gives birth to their baby.

Most of the characters, however, belong at some level of the middle class; a few of them rise. Gus McNiel is a milkman who negligently allows his cart to be hit by a train and is injured. An ambulance-chasing lawyer named George Baldwin sues, seduces McNiel’s wife, Nellie, and wins a large settlement for McNiel. The money is the springboard that launches McNiel on a successful...

(The entire section is 3199 words.)


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