JOHN DOS PASSOS: A Twentieth Century Odyssey by Townsend Ludington

JOHN DOS PASSOS: A Twentieth Century Odyssey

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A fair, if often apologetic, ""authorized"" biography--with little weight as a literary study or intellectual history. Ludington admits that ""what is remarkable about Dos Passos' fiction is not its uniformly high quality. The novels are uneven, some mediocre. Rather this achievement is how much of American society he encompassed in them as he probed the national scene."" He concludes with a designation of Dos Passos as a ""disillusioned moralist. . . satirist""--with the emphasis, you sense, on ""disillusioned."" Dos Passos treats Ludington, then, to an uncomfortable ride. Born the bastard (though later enfranchised by marriage) son of a prosperous New York trust lawyer and a genteel Virginia woman, Dos Passos went to Choate, to Harvard, to Spain after graduation: a proper youth for someone of his caste. As a Red Cross ambulance driver in France during World War I, he stored up material for his first war fiction; on returning to the States--after a hapless stab at being a foreign correspondent in the Middle East--he developed both that material and himself within political (Left) and artistic (Hemingway, the Murphys, the Fitzgeralds) circles he would spend the rest of his life rather gracelessly seceding from. As with Orwell, going to Spain for the Civil War was the sour-er: Dos Passos watched the betrayal (and secret death) of a close friend--and was never the same. A galled comprehensiveness became his artistic mania; and a high-quality trilogy (U.S.A.) was followed by a poor one (District of Columbia). Militantly anti-Communist, Dos Passos then devoted the rest of his literary life to the wide-angle-lens grumble. Always Puritan, as noted by Edmund Wilson (one of Dos Passos' few longtime friends to stick with him even into the puerile conservative era), always detached, he seemed to be in perpetual search for an embattled minority to cleave to (and eventually give up): in the Twenties and Thirties it was the Worker and the Artist; in the Forties, the democrat; in the Fifties and Sixties, the crackpot Right. Rattled by this fickleness, Ludington to his credit remains in the saddle as a faithful Sancho all the way, but Dos Passos' own story is sad--and ultimately shallow. Serviceable enough for the records, then, but lacking in grab or depth.

Pub Date: Oct. 31st, 1980
Publisher: Dutton