Biography of John Passos

John Dos Passos was born John Roderigo Madison in Chicago on January 14, 1896, the illegitimate son of Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison, from Petersburg, Virginia, and John Randolph Dos Passos, a corporation lawyer in New York. In his infancy, John traveled with his mother throughout Europe: he later described this period of his life as something of a "hotel childhood." As a result, French was his first spoken language.

He returned to the United States at the age of five, still living with his mother, whose health had begun to deteriorate due to a stroke two years before. The following year, it was back to Europe, where his mother felt more comfortable. At this point, John came down with rheumatic fever (most likely), an illness with which he would have to cope again and again throughout his life. He attended school in England, then traveled back to America to enroll in Choate.

A good student, though alienated from his peers by his foreign accent and mediocre athleticism, John edited the school newspaper, graduated a year early, and entered Harvard in 1912, after a year of travels in France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. There he wrote for The Advocate, befriended e. e. cummings, and developed an interest in modern art, ballet, opera, and a voracious appetite for great literature.

In 1915, John's mother died. By now having adopted the name John Roderigo Dos Passos, Jr., after his father, he was nonetheless crushed, and almost refused to complete Harvard. Shortly before graduating cum laude, he began work on Streets of Night, an autobiographical novel which would not be published until 1923; soon after the graduation, he wrote the seminal essay "Against American Literature" for The New Republic.

War fever was now mounting, and following his father's sudden death, Dos Passos joined the effort in Europe, serving in an ambulance unit in France and Italy. His political leanings were nonetheless beginning to drift leftward, and he confided in a friend: "The war is utter damn nonsense -- a vast cancer fed by lies and self-seeking malignity on the part of those who don't do the fighting."

In 1920, he published his first novel, One Man's Initiation, based on wartime experiences. A second war-related work followed: Three Soldiers, published in 1921 and a resounding success. After traveling to Istanbul and the Sea of Marmara, where he was struck by the horrors of the Turkish-Greek War, and writing a collection of poetry, Dos Passos began work on Manhattan Transfer. Before it was published, in 1925, he suffered a renewed bout of rheumatic fever. Though the book did help seal his literary reputation, spurred largely by the enthusiastic praise of the likes of Sinclair Lewis, Manhattan Transfer received mixed reviews by and large.

More travels followed, in Morocco, Mexico, and Europe. His politics, meanwhile, grew more impassioned. He joined Upton Sinclair, Floyd Bell, Dorothy Parker and others in a campaign to stop the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. He was arrested and jailed after a protest march in August of 1927, days before the two men were electrocuted. He wrote articles for the left-wing journal The New Masses, and published his monumental U.S.A. trilogy in the 1930's: The 42nd Parallel in 1930, 1919 in 1932, and The Big Money in 1936.

The 1930's also witnessed, however, the beginnings of Dos Passos's disillusionment with leftist politics. While working on a documentary about the Spanish Civil War, later to become the Joris Ivens masterpiece The Spanish Earth, he found himself at odds with colleague and friend Ernest Hemingway, who wished to concentrate primarily on the war itself, rather than the Spanish people. He became increasingly aware of the various factions within the supposedly idealistic Spanish Republicans, and his friend Jose Robles was arrested by Republican security forces and secretly murdered by Communists for spying. Both enraged and bewildered, Dos Passos discussed Communist duplicity and brutality with George Orwell before returning to America and publishing the article "Farewell to Europe!" in Common Sense.

His 1939 novel Adventures of a Young Man further angered Communist sympathizers, and by 1948 Dos Passos had staked out his new political territory, with the Life article "The Failure of Marxism." A year before, his wife Katy Smith was killed in a car accident, a crash which also cost him his right eye. The Grand Design was published in 1949, followed by Chosen Country in 1950, a novel which infuriated Ernest Hemingway.

Prospect of a Golden Age (1959), Midcentury (1961), and The Best of Times: An Informal Memoir (1966) are some of Dos Passos's other major works. He died in 1970 of congestive heart failure. His final novel, Century's Ebb, was published in 1975.


Study Guides on Works by John Passos

Manhattan Transfer is a seminal American novel, and yet it is not widely read. John Dos Passos is perenially overlooked in the literary canon in favor of his contemporaries Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Dos Passos was friends with...