Jason Cannon on Discovering Dos Passos

Jason Cannon, PhD candidate at Texas Christian University.

Jason Cannon, Ph.D. candidate at Texas Christian University, recently presented at the First Biennial John Dos Passos Society Conference in Chattanooga, TN. Read his interesting thoughts below on discovering Dos Passos and studying Adventures of a Young Man (1939):

I first encountered Adventures of a Young Man while researching literature written about the Spanish Civil War for a project on George Orwell. Little did I know that reading about the 1937 encounter between Orwell and John Dos Passos in the lobby of Barcelona’s Hotel Continental would lead to my discovery of the District of Columbia trilogy, in particular Adventures of a Young Man. It tells the story of an idealist young man, Glenn Spotswood, who is continuously caught up in the machination of the Communist Party. Staggered by disillusionment, Glenn volunteers to fight in Spain where his hopes of finding like-minded comrades are dashed.

The political aspects of the novel have been well documented by critics, but its cultural themes remain underexplored. In his 1939 review for the American Mercury, James T. Farrell wrote, “The fact is that there is much less difference in Dos Passos’s manner between this book and his trilogy (U.S.A.) than some, for reasons of their own, have tried to make the public believe. The novel is still another biography of America.” Published in 1939, Adventures of a Young Man is best known for its politics that marked the end of Dos Passos’s relationship with the political left.

However, in addition to politics, I would argue Dos Passos uses the novel to examine cultural dynamics, in particular the eroding authority of American fatherhood during the 1930s. The character of Herbert Spotswood captures the essence of these tensions. In July 1932, educator Mary Elisabeth Overholt wrote a column for Parents’ Magazine about the state of fatherhood in America. Her piece was the second edition of a new monthly feature in the magazine, an advice column for dads called “For Fathers Only.” The printing of the column in a national publication informs us of the cultural conversations about fatherhood taking place at this point in American history. “I think the only times my father has ever noticed me and addressed a remark to me personally was when he was criticizing me for something,” one young woman told Overholt. Another young person said, “Dad? Oh Dad doesn’t give a whoop about what we do so long as we don’t get in jail or cost him something.”

Overholt’s interviewees point to their fathers’ inability to cultivate companionship as a source of relational tension. When compounded with the dynamics of the changing economic culture, fathers found themselves wrestling with changing expectations of fatherhood. In his book Manhood in America, Michael Kimmel states that during the Great Depression, “Unemployed men lost status with their wives and children and saw themselves as impotent patriarchs. And the consequences for men were significant” (199). Dos Passos captures these dynamics in what Farrell called his latest “biography of America.”

In an early scene, Herbert is walking with his young son, Glenn. The boy “had a stitch in his side from trying to keep up with Dad’s long steps.” Herbert is unhappy with Glenn because he was fighting in school. Dos Passos writes, “Dad’s glasses were so thick that the way the light struck them it looked like he didn’t have any eyes behind the glasses. He was saying slowly that Mother had said Glenn had gotten into a fight sticking up for a smaller boy, and that is what a Christian Gentleman’s duty to protect the weak, but it was just as well not to do it in school hours when it was against the rules.” Herbert’s self-absorption blinds him from seeing Glenn is too little and frightened to understand. This is compounded by Glenn’s inability to tell his side of the story due to his shame at being in trouble. He was standing up for a boy being picked on by bullies, and then falsely accused of wrongdoing. He was trying to live out the “Christian purchase cabergoline online Gentleman” principles set by his mother, Ada, but Herbert will never know that because he does not ask and Glenn does not yet have the courage to stand up for himself. Without realizing the damage he was causing, Herbert has begun whittling away his authority.

Several years later, a devastating tragedy strikes the Spotswood family. Glenn’s mother dies of cancer. Staggered, the three Spotswood males, including Herbert, Glenn, and his older brother Tyler, come home from her funeral and literally sit in the dark. Glenn tries to be helpful by frying some eggs for dinner. Dos Passos writes, “Dad couldn’t eat anything but he drank a couple of cups of tea. Then, while the boys ate, he began to talk in his slow even lecturer’s voice about how happy their two lives had been when she was perfectly well, before the Caesarean she had in Cleveland when Glenn was born. Of course that probably hadn’t been the cause of the cancer, but she’d never been so well after it, that was a certainty.” Glenn absorbs this comment without a reaction, but the boy declines to go along with his father when Herbert’s complaining turns to his ouster from his teaching position at Columbia as the erosion of his authority picks up steam. “Dad was saying that those years in Cleveland had been the most hopeful time in his life, he’d felt full of faith in himself and the great new age that was opening for America and he’d been able to make great audiences feel that way too. Then had come the appointment to Columbia University. Dad’s voice got hoarse … Glenn felt his mouth hardening with dislike as he looked across the table at his father’s pale lumpy face with its scraggly mustache trimmed a little uneven and the thin nose with the enlarged pores down the sides … He’s only thinking of himself, Glenn was thinking.”

Glenn is now able to see past an idealized version of his father to experience the real man. His father has not consoled him for the death of his mother but somehow found a way to, at best, partially blame him for her cancer. Herbert also insists on – inappropriately to his sons – take time on the day of the funeral to grieve the loss of employment. When he announces to the boys that the annuity Ada received is being taken away by her family over political disagreements with Herbert’s views the boys have had enough. “I don’t give a damn one way or the other,” says Tyler. Herbert’s silence marks a complete loss of his authority. Tyler then announces he is going out for a walk. Glenn goes too, and, with that, the father’s authority for its own sake is gone.

What makes Herbert Spotswood such an interesting character is how well he reflects the state of American fatherhood during this time period. Many men struggled to financially support their families and connect with their kids. Herbert was the demographic for a new bestselling sensation written by Dale Carnegie called How to Win Friends and Influence People. Published in 1936, the book contains a special message that warns fathers against constantly finding fault with their children. The commercial success of Carnegie’s book reveals that American fathers were struggling. This seems like a book that should interest Herbert, if he can humble himself enough to listen to it. The point is not about the quality of Carnegie’s suggestions, but that they link the struggles of this particular character with those in the contemporary culture. Adventures of a Young Man tells us much about what Dos Passos thought about politics, but the exploration of the more neglected cultural dynamics of the novel can also provide us a better understanding of his take on additional aspects of American life.

Jason Cannon is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Texas Christian University. His research interests include the Cold War, John Dos Passos, and sports history.