John Dos Passos – A Necessary Addition to the 21st Century American Literature Syllabus
I got interested in John Dos Passos’s work during my Master’s program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga when Dr. Aaron Shaheen required that his students read The 42nd Parallel in a class on modern American nationalism. Being a young, inexperienced graduate student, I had never heard of Dos Passos before. I had no idea that he once ran with Hemingway and Stein and Fitzgerald, nor did I know that during his career he was considered one of the most innovative and important modernist writers. I considered myself a Faulknerian first and an Americanist second, and did not foresee the shift I was about to experience.
When I read The 42nd Parallel, I was drawn to Dos Passos’s different narrative techniques that were so blatantly and inherently modernist, but I was also impressed by the forward-thinking descriptions of women’s issues, minority rights, and working-class hardships. I asked Dr. Shaheen why, if our discipline is so concerned with being a forward-thinking and progressive field of study, had I never heard of Dos Passos before? I was planning a Master’s thesis on Faulkner and had seen Hemingway on many syllabi during my time as an English student, and the hierarchical, prejudicial narratives their stories contain don’t seem in line with what our field is so overtly concerned with examining. I think his response was something like, “It’s baffling, isn’t it?”
Sure, our field points out that these worldviews are flawed, but too often we as scholars try to write off the problems in these authors’ worldviews as being symptoms of a backward culture or the result of an undesirable upbringing. I don’t advocate leaving authors like Hemingway and Faulkner behind, of course. They have had a huge impact on American literature, and they deserve their place in the cannon. The glaring question was: If we have this author at our disposal who wrote progressively about the issues we’re so concerned with today, why wouldn’t we utilize him in the classroom and in the academic journals?
Two years after my first experience with Dos Passos’s writing, I organized a panel at the American Literature Association convention called “Reconsidering John Dos Passos” which included buy dostinex australia Aaron Shaheen and Townsend Ludington, one of Dos Passos’s biographers. By that time, I was disenchanted with Faulkner, fed up with the machismo of Hemingway, and thirsting for an opportunity to examine modernist writers who could stand up against 21st century expectations of gender relations, minority groups, and class differences. The panel was very well attended and the lively conversation that followed the papers reflected—just as I hoped it would—Dos Passos’s relevance to the progressive focus of our contemporary field. At the reception afterwards, Aaron and I talked about how necessary it is for students to understand Dos Passos’s contribution to modernism and how we, as scholars, shouldn’t be so quick to skip his work simply because he’s not fashionable to put on a syllabus anymore.
Within a year, Aaron and I had co-founded the John Dos Passos Society.
While there are many explanations for Dos Passos’s fall from the academy (his radical shift to right-wing politics being one of them) the bottom line is that the 21st century is a fine time for a Dos Passos renaissance. In the three years that have passed since that first panel at the American Literature Association convention, the John Dos Passos Society has sponsored two panels on teaching Dos Passos’s work, in which scholars have discussed using his writing in traditional graduate and undergraduate classrooms and also in less traditional settings, like high school dual enrollment and prison classrooms. We’ve also sponsored panels on Dos Passos’s relationship to Hemingway, his treatment of gender and sexuality, his treatment of form, his representations of Europe and America, and his importance to modernity. I’m glad to know that he’s starting to re-enter our critical conversation about modernity and modernist writing, and that the John Dos Passos Society panel record reflects so clearly his importance in the American modernist cannon and his usefulness on syllabi of all sorts.
Victoria M. Bryan is a co-founder of the John Dos Passos Society and the Society’s current Secretary-Treasurer. She is a 4th year Doctoral Candidate in American literature at the University of Mississippi and is writing her dissertation on representations of burial and deathways in interwar American literature. For information on the John Dos Passos Society, please visit the website: http://jdpsociety.blogspot.com/