Dos Passos and Democracy

“War is a time of Caesars,” wrote John Dos Passos in The Grand Design (1949). As I study biographical material for my Lisbon speech, I’m noticing material I can use for an essay I’ve long wanted to write about John Dos Passos and democracy. There is very little scholarship about him as a historian or as a democratic theorist. Most literary critics consider him as a solid novelist and a failure at everything else he did in his 74 years on Earth. But I’m finding some good material. In particular, he clearly had a healthy skepticism for cult of personality. He was quite bothered by the peronistas when he visited Argentina in the late 40s.

In the University of Virginia special collections library, I found photo of John Dos Passos with Juan Peron. I assume the photo was produced during JDP’s 1948 visit to Argentina. My grandfather was never a fan of publicity, so I’m guessing Peron demanded that they take a selfie when the writer visited Argentina for field research in 1948. According to biographer Townsend Ludington, the Perons had a slickness and a cult of personality with their anti-democratic methods that Dos Passos despised. JDP even compared Evita Peron’s speeches to Hitler’s.

The collected reportage from that trip to South America, including thoughts on the state of democracy in that region, is found in John Dos Passos’s The Prospect Before Us (1950).