John Dos Passos, the illegitimate son of a prominent American attorney, John Randolph Dos Passos Jr., was born in Chicago in 1896. His mother was Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison. Alan Wald has argued: "Dos Passos spent his early years traveling semi-clandestinely about the United States and abroad with his mother. It was to these unusual circumstances of his birth and childhood that he would later attribute his lifelong sense of rootlessness."
Eventually the family settled in Virginia. His father paid for his education and he was sent to The Choate School inWallingford, Connecticut in 1907. He also traveled with a private tutor on a six-month tour of France, England, Italy, Greece, and the Middle East to study classical art, architecture, and literature.
John Randolph Dos Passos Jr., married Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison in 1910. It was another two years before he acknowledge him until two years later. In 1912 he attended Harvard University. Dos Passos was keen to take part in the First World War and in July 1917 he joined the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. Over the next few months he worked as a driver in France and Italy.
Afterwards drew upon these experiences in his novels, One Man's Initiation (1920) and Three Soldiers (1921). This established the "pre-dominant anti-war and semi-anarchist themes of his radical period." In 1922 Dos Passos published a collection of essays, Rosinante to the Road Again, and a volume of poems, A Pushcart at the Curb. However, his literary reputation was established with his well-received novel Manhattan Transfer (1925).
As well as writing plays such as The Garbage Man (1926), Airways (1928) and Fortune Heights (1934), Dos Passos contributed articles for left-wing journals such as the New Masses, that was under the control of the American Communist Party.
In 1927 he joined with other artists such as Upton Sinclair, Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ben Shahn, Floyd Dell in the campaign against the proposed execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. This included the writing of Facing the Chair: Sacco and Vanzetti (1927).
Dos Passos traveled to Harland County with a Communist-initiated delegation to investigate the condition of striking miners. While in Kentucky he was arrested and charged with "criminal syndicalism". In the 1932 Presidential Election he publicly endorsed William Z. Foster, the American Communist Party candidate.
The 1930s saw the publication of his USA trilogy: The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936). Dos Passos developed the experimental literary device where the narratives intersect and continue from one novel to the next. The USA trilogy also included what became known as newsreels (impressionistic collections of slogans, popular song lyrics, newspaper headlines and extracts from political speeches).
Dos Passos was active in the campaign against the growth of fascism in Europe. He joined other literary figures such as Dashiell Hammett, Clifford Odets, Lillian Hellman and Ernest Hemingway in supporting the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. He went to Madrid where he met Marion Merriman. Later she recalled: " I was fascinated by Dos Passes, whom I had always thought was a better writer than Hemingway. John Dos Passes was, without question, a seasoned writer of the prose of war. But as a man, he didn't impress me. I thought he was wishy-washy. I couldn't make out everything he was saying, but his message was clear - for whatever reasons, he wanted out of there, out of Hemingway's room, out of bomb-shaken Madrid."
Dos Passos was disillusioned by what he saw in Spain and in 1938 he commented: "I have come to think, especially since my trip to Spain, that civil liberties must be protected at every stage. In Spain I am sure that the introduction of GPU methods by the Communists did as much harm as their tank men, pilots and experienced military men did good. The trouble with an all powerful secret police in the hands of fanatics, or of anybody, is that once it gets started there's no stopping it until it has corrupted the whole body politic. I am afraid that's what's happening in Russia."
His new political views were reflected in his novels, The Adventures of a Young Man (1939) and Number One (1943). He now moved steadily to the right, becoming an associate of The National Review and the Young Americans for Freedom. He also campaigned for Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. Other books by Dos Passos include the novels, The Grand Design (1949), Chosen Country (1951) and Midcentury (1961), a biography, The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson (1954) and an autobiography, The Best of Times: An Informal Memoir (1966).
John Dos Passos died in Baltimore, Maryland, on 28th September, 1970.
The Body of an American
There is perhaps no finer tribute to American veterans than John Dos Passos's "The Body of an American," the concluding chapter of 1919, part two of the U.S.A. trilogy (1930-36):
Whereasthe Congressoftheunitedstates byaconcurrentresolutionadoptedon the4thdayofmarch last-authorizedthe Secretaryofwar to cause to be brought to theunitedstatesthe bodyofanAmericanwhowasamemberoftheAmerican expeditionaryforceineuropewholosthislifeduringtheworldwarandwhoseidentityhasnot beenestablishedforburial inthememorialamphitheatreofthenational cemeteryatarlingtonvirginia
In the tarpaper morgue at Chalons-sur-Marne in the reek of chloride of lime and the dead, they picked out the pine box that held all that was left of enie menie minie moe plenty of other pine boxes stacked up there containing what they’d scraped up of Richard Roe and other person or persons unknown. Only one can go. How did they pick John Doe? . . .
how can you tell a guy’s a hundredpercent when all you’ve got’s a gunnysack full of bones, bronze buttons stamped with the screaming eagle and a pair of roll puttees?
. . . and the gagging chloride and the puky dirtstench of the yearold dead . . .
The day withal was too meaningful and tragic for applause. Silence, tears, songs and prayer, muffled drums and soft music were the instrumentalities today of national approbation.
John Doe was born (thudding din of blood of love into the shuddering soar of a man and a woman alone indeed together lurching into and ninemonths sick drowse waking into scared agony and the pain and blood and mess of birth). John Doe was born and raised in Brooklyn, in Memphis, near the lakefront in Cleveland, Ohio, in the stench of the stockyards in Chi, on Beacon Hill, in an old brick house in Alexandria Virginia, on Telegraph Hill, in a halftimbered Tudor cottage in Portland the city of roses, in the Lying-In Hospital old Morgan endowed on Stuyvesant Square, across the railroad tracks, out near the country club, in a shack cabin tenement apartmenthouse exclusive residential suburb;
scion of one of the best families in the social register, won first prize in the baby parade at Coronado Beach, was marbles champion of the Little Rock grammarschools, crack basketballplayer at the Booneville High, quarterback at the State Reformatory, having saved the sheriff’s kid from drowning in the Little Missouri River was invited to Washington to be photographed shaking hands with the President on the White House steps; —
though this was a time of mourning, such an assemblage necessarily has about it a touch of color. In the boxes are seen the court uniforms of foreign diplomats, the gold braid of our own and foreign fleets and armies, the black of the conventional morning dress of American statesmen, the varicolored furs and outdoor wrapping garments of mothers and sisters come to mourn, the drab and blue of soldiers and sailors, the glitter of musical instruments and the white and black of a vested choir— busboy harveststiff hogcaller boyscout champeen cornshucker of Western Kansas bellhop at the United States Hotel at Saratoga Springs office boy callboy fruiter telephone lineman longshoreman lumberjack plumber’s helper, worked for an exterminating company in Union City, filled pipes in an opium joint in Trenton, N.J.
Y.M.C.A. secretary, express agent, truckdriver, fordmechanic, sold books in Denver Colorado: Madam would you be willing to help a young man work his way through college?
President Harding, with a reverence seemingly more significant because of his high temporal station, concluded his speech:
We are met today to pay the impersonal tribute; the name of him whose body lies before us took flight with his imperishable soul . . .
as a typical soldier of this representative democracy he fought and died believing in the indisputable justice of his country’s cause . . .
by raising his right hand and asking the thousands with the sound of his voice to join in the prayer:
Our Father which art in heaven hallowed by thy name . . .
heart pumped blood:
alive thudding silence of blood in your ears
down in the clearing in the Oregon forest where the punkins were punkincolor pouring into the blood through the eyes and the fallcolored trees and the bronze hoopers were hopping through the dry grass, where tiny striped snails hung on the underside of the blades and the flies hummed, wasps droned, bumble-bees buzzed, and the woods smelt of wine and mushrooms and apples, homey smell of fall pouring into the blood,
and I dropped the tin hat and the sweaty pack and lay flat with the dogday sun licking my throat and adamsapple and the tight skin over the breastbone.
The shell had his number on it.
The blood ran into the ground.
The service record dropped out of the filing cabinet when the quartermaster sergeant got blotto that time they had to pack up and leave the billets in a hurry.
The identification tag was in the bottom of the Marne.
The blood ran into the ground, the brains oozed out of the cracked skull and were licked up by the trenchrats, the belly swelled and raised a generation of blue-bottle flies.
and the incorruptible skeleton,
and the scraps of dried viscera and skin bundled in khaki
they took to Chalons-sur-Marne
and laid it out neat in a pine coffin
and took it home to God’s Country on a battleship
and buried in a sarcophagus in the Memorial Amphitheatre in the Arlington National Cemetery
and draped the Old Glory over it
and the bugler played taps
and Mr. Harding prayed to God and the diplomats and the generals and the admirals and the brasshats and the politicians and the handsomely dressed ladies out of the society column of theWashington Post stood up solemn
and thought how beautiful sad Old Glory God’s Country it was go have the bugler play taps and the three volleys made their ears ring.
Where his chest ought to have been they pinned
the Congressional Medal, the D.S.C., the Medaille Militaire, the Belgian Croix de Guerre, the Italian gold medal, the Vitutea Militara sent by Queen Marie of Rumania, the Czechoslovak war cross, the Virtuti Militari of the Poles, a wreath sent by Hamilton Fish, Jr., of New York, . . . . All the Washingtonians brought flowers.
Woodrow Wilson brought a bouquet of poppies.