Reconsidering “They Are Dead Now”

At the recent American Literature Association annual conference in Washington, DC, Victoria M. Bryan–co-founder of the John Dos Passos Society–delivered an innovative speech on John Dos Passos’s “They Are Dead Now.” Her talk below eloquently asks us to consider the relevance of the JDP canon to the prison classroom. Enjoy:

Close Reading They Are Dead Now in the Prison Classroom


Victoria M. Bryan


            In the fall of 2013, I started teaching a composition and literature course for the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative, a nonprofit that pairs Nashville State Community College with Charles Bass Correctional Complex to offer college credit to inmates. I used Dos Passos’s “They Are Dead Now” – a poem published in New Masses in 1927 about the Sacco and Vanzetti executions – to open and close the course. (the poem can be found here: My intention was to show them how much progress they had made during our fifteen weeks together. Because the content spoke to these students so powerfully, I found this poem useful in introducing students to how form can add to content rather than distorting it.

            On the first night of class, I handed out the poem and gave them some basic background on Dos Passos and the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and asked them to read the poem once just to understand what was going on. I encouraged them to tell me WHAT the poem includes, and we got a list together: prison, prisoners, rich people, law enforcement, Boston, etc. I then asked that they read it again to form some ideas about HOW and WHY Dos Passos included those things. Discussion of the juxtaposition of imprisoned individuals and rich masses took up the majority of our conversation that day. They focused on questions like “Who is really dead? The rich masses or the men who have been assassinated but whose stories live on in this poem?” While they were ready to discuss the content, the first and last lines of the poem “This is not a poem” (1) and “Make a poem of that, if you dare!” (30), which deal almost completely with form, floored them.

            I battled with this throughout the semester. The jargon of poetry discussion wasn’t going to be useful to them after this course. I was much more concerned with teaching them how to use words like “socioeconomic” and “hierarchy” than I was with giving them words like “line break,” “enjambment,” or “free verse.” I didn’t want to strip their language and make them discuss these reading assignments in a prescribed way. Instead, I wanted them to have words that would be useful to them after this class—specifically when they go in front of a parole board, get out on probation, and start looking for jobs. I wanted to give these guys the tools to think through the way the world is set up to keep marginalized groups marginalized—not so that they would stay marginalized, but so that they would recognize roadblocks for what they are and try to push past them.

            When we encountered this poem on the last day of class, I expected the conversation to be more buy cabergoline in canada advanced, but their ease with discussing the poem’s form was notable. Whereas the line about spending 23 hours on a cot in a cell and the references to greasy prison denim had resonated with my students before, on the final night of class, I noticed my students grabbing their own prison denim and using it to emphasize their readings of the poem, or pointing over their shoulders towards their pods (cells) to focus on the feeling of being trapped that Dos Passos creates in this poem. These gestures brought their bodies and their environment into their relationship with the text.

            Further, they were much more comfortable approaching the first and last lines of the poem. Whereas they had focused on message at the beginning of the course, this time they were interested in decoding why Dos Passos would deny his own form. One student proposed that the final line shouldn’t be read as “Don’t you dare turn this into something a menial as a poem” and could instead be read as “I dare you to turn something this important into something that students will still be reading and analyzing in 100 years or more, because this is important and it deserves prolonged attention.” Another student was quick to suggest that the poem doesn’t deal with literal death, but with figurative death, arguing that the poem addresses a person’s impact on the world, treatment from others, and action taken in the face of a difficult situation that can determine whether or not you are actually living. He did this by citing the lines about the “frockcoated dead” (21), “silkhatted dead” (20), and “white collar dead” (20) who “hop in an out of automobiles” (22) in the cold Boston streets. He argued that the voices that come together to “burst the eardrums of Massachusetts” (29) were the voices of those like Sacco and Vanzetti who had to fight for their voices to be heard. He cited specific lines from the poem to suggest that hard-fought voices are often louder than voices given at birth.

            We often hear about bootstraps and hard work being tools for getting from square one to an intended destination defined by stability and comfort and safety, and Dos Passos’s literature helps us remember that “square one” for some people is just in a very different place than “square one” for others. One of our most important responsibilities as academics is to use our privilege (even if that privilege is only the privilege of being educated) and skills to teach others how to empower themselves through writing and critical and close reading, and to pass our complex understandings of important social texts to others who can use that understanding to approach the text productively and channel that text’s message into our daily interactions. What better place to start than with the writing of activist writers like John Dos Passos? And what better audience than one made up of students who can use our knowledge and guidance to empower themselves and re-enter society and seek avenues previously obscured or unavailable to them?