Eulalia Piñero Gil on Dos Passos and Spain

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Eulalia Piñero Gil is Associate Professor in American Literature and Gender Studies at the Universidad Autónoma of Madrid.  She is fascinated by John Dos Passos’ insights into Spanish politics, culture, and art. She has researched Dos Passos’ Rosinante to the Road Again (1922) extensively. I am delighted to post here some of the conclusions from her investigations in a new guest entry.

“I’m mad about Spain”: John Dos Passos’ Rosinante to the Road Again

Dos Passos discovered Spain in 1916 when he still was a young man full of illusions and expectations about the Old World. His journey to southern Europe also included his painful experience in France as a volunteer ambulance driver during the First World War. Dos Passos’ antiwar views emerged rapidly in the form of writing and he fictionalized his disappointment in Three Soldiers (1920). In this early novel, the reader has the opportunity of facing the emotional effects of the European confrontation which were devastating for the majority of modernist writers. Thus, they concluded that it was the epitome of the human atrocities, the hideous ugliness and the confirmation that history was coming to an end and, as a consequence, modern life was confused, terrible and futile. Dos Passos’ novel shows a deep sense of loss, despair, disaffection, and a questioning of materialism and the evils of industrialism in American society from its very roots. During that period of his life, the American writer suffered a personal crisis which emerged in part from the alienation from his father’s values, and the sense of displacement he felt from the vital uncertainties of his childhood and early adolescence. Therefore, his discovery of Spain became a sort of positive personal catharsis. Even though his first stay was less than four months “it was a crucial moment in his life. He had learned a great deal, not only about Spain but also about himself” (Ludington, 2003: 316). The Spanish experiences played a central role in Dos Passos’ development of his cosmopolitanism as a writer and, according to Ludington, “Spain was the most important factor among many in shaping Dos Passos’ ideas and forming the way he saw the world” (2003: 313).

The Spanish experience was so powerful and influential in his creative life that he decided to write Rosinante to the Road Again (1922) as a vivid testimony of his unforgettable years in the Iberian Peninsula. Each of the seventeen sections of this fragmented travel book is a detailed impressionistic word painting of Spanish society, culture, art, history, politics and literature. It seems as if Dos Passos really had a deep need to paint the Spanish picturesque images he was fascinated with. In fact, he was also an accomplished painter who created over 400 artworks during his lifetime in which he left with a great artistic achievement many powerful images of the Spanish landscape and monuments. As it can be appreciated in his early watercolors from the Spanish countryside, Dos Passos absorbed from the avant-garde painters of his time elements of Impressionism, Expressionism and Cubism he incorporated into his own personal and intuitive style.

In section XII, entitled “A Catalan Poet,” Dos Passos narrates his sensorial approach to the landscape and peoples from Majorca as if he was painting a verbal canvas. In his cultural immersion on the language and literature of the islands and Catalonia, he even translates into English a selection of poems by the Catalan poet Joan Maragall to illustrate his passionate involvement with the Mediterranean cultures. In the detailed report of the journey, the writer uses the five senses to portray a holistic sensory experience of that encompassing vision:

The daily life, too, to which Maragall aspires seems strangely out of another age. That came home to me most strongly once, talking to a Catalan after a mountain scramble in the Easter end of Mallorca. We sat looking at the sea that was violet with sunset, where the sails of the homecoming fishing boats were the wan yellow of primroses. Behind us the hills were sharp pyrites blue. From a window in the adobe hut at one side of us came a smell of sizzling olive oil and tomatoes and peppers and the muffled sound of eggs being beaten. We were footsore, hungry, and we talked about women and love. (Rosinante, 91)

This is one of the most enriching moments of the book in which the writer needs to share with the reader not only the powerful visual imagery of an unforgettable moment in Majorca but the complexities of a body and soul experience. Moreover, it is a feast for the senses, a verbal canvas, that describes his own sensory approach to the Mediterranean countryside. This colorful section of Rosinante shows Dos Passos’ experimentation and intense interaction with prose, poetry and painting which illustrates the author’s relevant involvement with modernist poetics. In this sense, Ezra Pound’s famous avant-garde exhortation “Make it New” is clearly reflected in the rhetorical techniques employed in Rosinante, as it is an experimental travel book that departs from the classical linear descriptions of this kind of texts and introduces the fictionalization of the protagonists. Thus, Dos Passos’ fictional alter ego in his journey is Telemachus who is a “wanderer in search of a father” (Pizer 1997:144).

Another relevant episode in the book is “The Baker of Almorox” in Toledo. That village of La Mancha becomes a metaphor, a sort of utopian Arcadia, and a vehicle for the expression of his essential beliefs: men lived in harmony with nature, fulfilled in body and soul in contrast with “the inhumane butchery and blatant lies of the war” and the evils of “modern industrialization and mechanization” (Pizer 1997: 140).

Moreover, Dos Passos’ was captivated by the baker and his family because he found in them the embodiment of the popular wisdom and dignity in their apparent material poverty. For the American writer, they were immensely wealthy because their lives were harmonious and coherent with their old cultural values: “In him I seemed to see the generations wax and wane, like the years, strung on the thread of labor, of unending sweat and strain of muscles against the earth….Everywhere roots striking into the infinite past” (23).

Dos Passos’ political insight in Rosinante is surprising and his remarkable capacity for showing to the world how centralism was one of the most significant debates of Spanish society in the 1920s can be appreciated in the following words:

Spain as a modern centralized nation is an illusion, a very unfortunate one; for the present atrophy, the desolating restlessness of a century of revolution, may very well be due in large measure to the artificial imposition of centralized government on a land essentially centrifugal (25).

The complexities of Spanish reality were not an inscrutable mystery for Dos Passos, on the contrary, he analyzed the sociopolitical dimensions of the conflicts and identified with them all because he found in its towns and cities a place to develop his beliefs in the social role of the modernist artist in the 1920s. In this way, the old Spanish culture offered the American writer the opportunity to explore in depth the myths of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in order to reevaluate the meanings of the wandering hero from La Mancha and his squire, an aspect that was typical of high modernist poetics.

To conclude, in his quest for the Spanish gesture, Dos Passos was searching how to define his own unstable hybrid identity. His spiritual journey in Spain was not similar to that of the American nineteenth-century conventional travelers or tourists, on the contrary, his way of traveling and visiting Spain was based on his preference for knowing the language, the food, the politics and, over all, the idiosyncrasy and the peculiarities of Spanish culture. As a result, Rosinante embodies Dos Passos’ cosmopolitan modernist quest to internationalize literature, often making powerful connections between his literature and a broad range of past myths, finding a more meaningful modern culture. Likewise, it becomes a sort of paradigmatic modernist epic in the way in which the American writer experiments with the literary motif of the journey as a form of self-exploration. His temporary expatriate condition, and the reality of being an American with Portuguese roots, determined, in some way, his need for a more Edenic culture far from the limitations of the American urban industrialization and materialism.

Works Cited
Dos Passos, John. (1922). Rosinante to the Road Again. London: Onesuch Press, 2011.
Ludington, Townsend. “`I Am So Fascinated by Spain´: John Dos Passos, January 1917.” Nor Shall Diamond Die: American Studies in Honour of Javier Coy. Eds. Carme Manuel & Paul Derrick. Valencia: U. de Valencia, 2003. 303-319.
Pizer, Donald. “John Dos Passos’ Rosinante to the Road Again and the Modernist Expatriate Imagination.” Journal of Modern Literature (1997): Summer 21.1, 137-150.
Eulalia Piñero-Gil is Associate Professor in American Literature and Gender Studies at the Universidad Autónoma of Madrid. She has also taught at Purdue University in Indiana and Saint Louis University (Madrid Campus).

She was awarded a scholarship to study Comparative Literature at Purdue University where she graduated with a Master’s Degree in 1987. Likewise, she was awarded a doctoral grant to research the archive of the American poet Marianne Moore at the “Rosenbach Library and Foundation” in Philadelphia. Her doctoral dissertation, “Marianne Moore’s Poetry: A Paradigm of Female Poetics” (1995), was the first research study devoted to this American Modernist poet in Spain. She was also granted two scholarships by the Canadian Government to research Canadian women’s poetry in 1997 and in 1998. She has co-edited Visions of Canada Approaching the Millennium (1999), and is the author of the critical edition Extraordinary Narrations by E. A. Poe (1999), and the translation and critical edition of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener (2006).

In 2002, she co-edited Voices and Images of Women in 20th Century Theater: Anglo-American Women Playwrights. She has also co-edited Women and Art: Visions of Change and Social Development (2010) and her last co-edited book is Breaking a Sea of Silence: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Gender Violence (2013). In 2012, she translated and edited Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (2012) in Spanish. She has published extensively on American Modernism, comparative literature, women’s literature, gender studies, music and literature, American and Canadian poetry, and 19th Century American literature. She has been a member of the Board of the “European Association for American Studies.” In addition to her activities as a teacher and researcher, she is director of the UAM English Department Gender Studies Seminar. She is currently at work on a monograph on John Dos Passos’ literature about Spain.