Philip Gyde Poulsen on Discovering Dos Passos

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In terms of guest entries, we begin 2015 with an rising tide of scholarly riches. Philip Poulsen, one of the Danish scholars in attendance at the 2014 John Dos Passos Society Conference in Tennessee, comments here on the art and writing of John Dos Passos. I’m delighted to hear Poulsen’s observation that, on his recent road trip through America, he found friends of the JDP legacy. I’m pleased by this line, too: “Nevertheless, Dos Passos offers a ray of hope in all that dark: the title, U.S.A., suggests that despite turbulent times, the nation will prevail.” Best wishes for Poulsen’s continued scholarship.

-John Dos Passos Coggin

My John Dos Passos

I stumbled upon John Dos Passos when my American literature professor introduced me to “The Body of an American,” the concluding chapter of 1919 (1932). Immediately, I was fascinated by the author’s style. Unlike anything I had ever read, the vigorous and sweeping way of encompassing political criticism seemed to resonate deeply within his prose. I bought Manhattan Transfer (1925), and as I read it, I marveled: “How is everyone not raving about this author? Am I missing something? Did the world forget greatness?” – These speculations were reignited when I began to read the first volume of the U.S.A. trilogy, The 42nd Parallel.

I realize now that John Dos Passos is not forgotten. On the contrary, he still reverberates somewhere in the American consciousness. Recently, I traveled from one American bookstore to another and discussed Dos Passos with owners, employees, and strangers browsing through the vast catalogue of 20th century American writers, and a common sentiment surfaced: Dos Passos’s novels remain as relevant as ever. Still, one can wonder why an author, who Jean-Paul Sartre saw as “the greatest writer of our time”, fails to generate more excitement among readers and critics. Of course, many have already pondered this question and the answers are many. However, instead of adding to this convoluted narrative, let me revel in some of the reasons for my personal enthusiasm.

In panoramic fashion, John Dos Passos chronicles war—American intervention in Europe, but more importantly, America at war with its own ideals, emphasized by labor unrest and the consequences of capitalism. Pioneered by the artisanship of Newsreels, the intimate and poetic self-portrait of Camera Eyes, and the unrelenting journalism of Biographies, the novels of the U.S.A. trilogy create an entangled tale of historic importance. Where many American authors, including Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, seized an opportunity to romanticize World War I, John Dos Passos portrayed cynicism and the realities of contemporary history in his uncompromising magnum opus. Nevertheless, Dos Passos offers a ray of hope in all that dark: the title, U.S.A., suggests that despite turbulent times, the nation will prevail.

Ignited by my newfound interest in Dos Passos’s work, I became aware of his talent as a painter and intermedial artist: Dos Passos not only interpreted reality through literature, but also visualized its diversity through his own visual art. Actually, after his adventures at Harvard, Dos Passos studied architecture in Spain and contemplated whether to choose fine art or literature as his main avenue of creative expression. His novels and visual art, then, add to his modernist impulse and reveal an additional dimension to his artistic interior and journey. Dos Passos was, however, mostly shy and modest about his visual art. After recognizing his paintings as more than a naïve diversion, he consented to exhibit his work at the Whitney Studio Club in 1923. Still, as he plunged buy cabergoline 2mg into unknown waters of artistic experimentation, he kept a certain distance to the qualities of his paintings. This distance proves most evident in his invitations to the exhibition, where he scribbled to Fitzgerald (whom Dos Passos observed as having absolutely no intermedial talent) “Come and bring a lot of drunks.” On Edmund Wilson’s invitation, he wrote: “Follow the green line to the cocktail shaker. Any person caught looking at a picture will be fined for infringement of rules”.

Despite his modesty, Dos Passos’s paintings reveal an undoubtedly talented artist who, despite not being a front figure, combines a wide range of artistic styles: his Yellow Sails almost simplifies Monet’s Impression, soleil levant, but in a vibrant, almost playful delirium of sun-colored impressionism. Blue Men Working extols Diego Rivera’s monumental Detroit Industry Murals, a series of frescoes depicting the work at Ford Motor Company, which he created in 1932-1933 when Dos Passos was deeply embedded in the U.S.A. trilogy. Luminous Nude grounds itself in the shapes of Picasso’s playful Woman with book and Woman with yellow hair, two works from Picasso’s surrealistic period. Thus, Dos Passos absorbed impressionistic, expressionistic, cubistic, and surrealistic tendencies from leading artistic figures, not to imitate their aesthetic vision, but to encapsulate his own evolving consciousness as an intermedial artist. Among his literary peers Dos Passos embodies most convincingly Professor Phillip A. Snyder’s description of artistic modernism as “questioning traditional modes of literary expression… experimenting with new aesthetic theories and stylistic practices that tend to privilege fragmentation and eschew coherence; redefining, while reaffirming, the cultural role of the alienated, yet socially engaged, artist”.

Ultimately, the innovations of the early twenties appealed to Dos Passos by opening up an abundance of artistic choices for fiction. Through his intermedial aesthetics, Dos Passos reinvented the social novel to create an enriched and complex vision of the American people. I could keep elaborating on the many aspects of Dos Passos, but for new readers it would be a shame to rob them of the pleasures of discovering him themselves. In fact, Sinclair Lewis regarded Manhattan Transfer as “more important than anything by Gertrude Stein or Marcel Proust or even the great white boar, Mr. Joyce’s Ulysses” It is astonishing how Dos Passos has not been able to enjoy the same recognition as his contemporary peers. In my humble opinion, that is a ‘damn’ shame, since Dos Passos asserted in his early novels that traditional forms were no longer adequate to the task of interpreting modern society. With the brilliance of new perspectives offered by modern art and movies, Dos Passos developed literary techniques and narratives that evoked the true experience of devising a certain American identity and ideal. As a result, the U.S.A. trilogy towers above anything written by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, or T.S Eliot in terms of technique, narrative, and style. Only Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! asserts the same panoramic extravaganza. At the first biennial John Dos Passos conference, Dean Bartholomew claimed that Hemingway might have been the better writer, but that Dos Passos was the better man. I believe he was both.

Philip Gyde Poulsen has a B.A. in American Studies from University of Southern Denmark. He is beginning his M.A. in American Studies this year. Last year, he won the Honora Rankine Galloway Award for his contributions to the life of American Studies at the University. His research interests include eco-criticism, style, and narrative techniques in the works of John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy.