Why John Dos Passos Matters: Miguel Oliveira


We are continuing our series on “Why John Dos Passos Matters” with a 2nd entry.

Here, Miguel Oliveira–author, scholar, and historian–offers his perspective on Dos Passos’s art in a passage called “John Dos Passos the Cinematographer.” We are pleased to share his contribution and we wish him the best as he tours in support of his new book, John Dos Passos and Migration

In the short essay below, Oliveira smartly praises Dos Passos’s affinity for multimedia storytelling. Is is true that in many of JDP’s works, the reader becomes a consumer of cinematic images as much as a consumer of words on a page. After all, JDP coined the “Camera Eye” narrative technique. Enjoy!


John Dos Passos the Cinematographer

 John Dos Passos’s narrative picture is always in motion. Then, suddenly, it halts, and again the author captures his reader. Memory flashes forwards and backwards, there is an abrupt shift of scenery, a fading-out, or a fading-in, a blurry transition and all is “cut”. The light dims or gets stronger. The action of the full picture is as calm and as hectic as life can be. There’s a long-shot from the distance, a close-up brings us nearer and then, unexpectedly, all dissolves in an ironic statement.

Dos Passos knows how to run satire, sometimes fast and furious and sometimes slow. His soundtrack plays forte, fortissimo and piano, pianissimo at times; Dos Passos is the best conductor one can think of. He brings out life when the camera buy cabergoline powder points at his characters. He operates his lens professionally and films frame by frame. His focus gets sharp while we may observe behind the scenes. Dos Passos records images and brings out bold and pitilessly the American way of life.

The theme is freedom: that’s his vision of America and America becomes the star. It’s a revealing biographic picture with clean speech; Dos Passos is always in command of his words. Carefully and purposefully John Dos Passos makes the casting of his actors and actresses. He puts on their masks and make-up. He puts them in costume, cuts, dyes, and combs their hair and writes down for them the whole exciting screenplay.

Indeed, John Dos Passos is a multifaceted and complete artist. He’s a much admired novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, journalist, and he’s a remarkable painter, too. With U.S.A. (amongst others) he influenced many generations of writers. The trilogy’s sequels were Midcentury and Century’s Ebb; without a doubt the best movies you’ve ever read and certainly the reason why I’ve chosen to work on John Dos Passos’s life, his fiction and non-fiction, for almost a decade. Even though I just finished my new book on John Dos Passos (published in mid-November 2013 under the title of: From a Man without a Country to an American by Choice: John Dos Passos and Migration) there is still so much more about this author that would be worthy of study and discussion.

 Miguel Oliveira, Lisbon