DOS PASSOS: A Life by Virginia Spencer Carr


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Like Townsend Ludington's The Life of John Dos Passos (1980), Carr's somewhat more scholarly, somewhat less involving biography is strongest in the earliest chapters--when telling the fascinating story of Dos Passos' origins and youth: his odd position as the loved-yet-unrecognized illegitimate son of a distinguished N.Y./Washington lawyer; the international childhood with his exiled mother, bitter but devoted to Dos Passos, Sr., who would eventually marry her (after she'd lost her looks and health); and his bookish years at Choate and Harvard, from aesthete to radical, propelled by the desire for literary fame--a way, perhaps, to overcome his second-class status at last. Once into the WW I years, however, Carr's densely detailed narrative lacks dramatic shape and interpretive depth. She follows him through war-experiences, the expatriate life, travels, and early, often-frustrating attempts at fiction and poetry. The autobiographical parallels in the novels are conscientiously pointed out. Each publication is given serious yet largely uncritical attention, from the overnight-success of Three Soldiers to playwrighting failures to the later, uneven, vastly ambitious output--but no clear sense of Dos Passos' true place in the period's literature emerges. Similarly, Carr fails to illuminate Dos Passos' seemingly passive personal life (two marriages) or his shifting political allegiances: she stresses the individualistic core of his leftwing involvements (""Although he lent his name and gave his pen to a number of different causes, there was never a time that he did not reckon himself an independent radical""); like Ludington, she connects his disillusionment with the Left to the covered-up execution of a friend in 1937 Spain; and the shift towards extreme rightwing stands remains blurry--though an Edmund Wilson theory (a psychoanalytic one relating to Dos Passos' father) is referred to in passing. Throughout, in fact, to an even greater extent than Ludington, Carr has assembled a rather neutral documentary--a technique which worked far better in the inherently emotional case of Carson McCullers (The Lonely Hunter, 1975); here, even the fabled friendship/feud with Hemingway comes off drably. Students interested in the most complete, well-organized gathering of facts, then, will find Carr useful. A less academic audience will do slightly better with Ludington.

Pub Date: Sept. 7th, 1984
ISBN: 0810122006
Publisher: Doubleday