The novelist John Dos Passos (1896-1970) gave us one of the great fictional treatments of the United States coming of age during the early twentieth century in his trilogy U.S.A., which consists of The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). The trilogy follows a series of characters through the early years of the century. Eventually some of the stories run parallel to each other or the lives of characters converge. Throughout the trilogy there is a theme of disenchantment with the American experiment, a sense that the American dream is something bought and sold, a feeling that America betrays many of its citizens.
One of the pleasures of reading his disillusioned epic trilogy is not only its vast canvas, its range of characters, and its evocation of American life, especially in America’s brutal but vibrant cities, but also the different kinds of narrative techniques he employs.
In addition to the straightforward stories of his characters, whose lives stretch from the early 20th century to the 1920s, Dos Passos has three other kinds of narrative structures shaping the experimental canvas of U.S.A. One of these is called Newsreel. The Newsreel sections feature headlines, quotations, snippets of popular song and excerpts from advertisements, newspaper reports and political speeches. The Newsreel sections provide the reader with context and a feel for the life of the times in the years covered in the novels. Another technique is “The Camera Eye”: autobiographical stream of consciousness sections in which Dos Passos relates memories of his own life roughly synchronous with these same time periods, making himself a kind of character in the trilogy as well.
The third device in the tapestry of U.S.A. is short biographies of prominent Americans, a number of them from the Midwest, including Robert LaFollette, Thorstein Veblen, William Jennings Bryan, and the subject of the excerpt in this post: Eugene Debs, labor leader and five-time Socialist candidate for President from Terre Haute, Indiana.
Dos Passos had his own Midwest connections, although he was very much a wanderer throughout America and Europe for decades before establishing a home in Provincetown, Massachusetts and later Virginia. Dos Passos was born in Chicago. He has his own entry in the Dictionary of Midwestern Writers, published by the Indiana University Press in 2001. His entry notes “most of his best writing made use of Midwestern settings and characters. Significantly, his great panoramic trilogy U.S.A begins and ends in the Midwest. In fact, the Midwest always seemed to function for him as a touchstone of the American culture.” As befits a novelist who traveled far and wide in his own country, Dos Passos’s work does indeed have no shortage of “Midwestern settings and characters.”
One of the central characters in his WWI novel Three Soldiers is an Indiana farm boy. Two of the main characters in The 42nd Parallel–the aviator Charley Anderson and the labor organizer Fenian McCreary– are from North Dakota and Chicago respectively. Midwestern references appear frequently in the Newsreel sections, and nine of the twenty-six capsule biographies are of Midwesterners, a roll call that includes Thomas Edison and Orville and Wilbur Wright as well as those mentioned above.
Dos Passos was born in 1896, the illegitimate son of John Randolph Dos Passos, a Union Civil War veteran, wealthy corporation lawyer and first generation Portugese-American, and Lucy Addison Spriggs Madison, a woman of old line Virginia stock. There are three distinct aspects of Dos Passos’ family history that left an imprint on his career. His mother’s southern heritage in Virginia and Maryland—her father was an engineer with the Confederate army– and his father’s Gilded Age corporate life and Civil War service were part of an inheritance that helped shape a lifelong exploration of American history, experience and politics. Dos Passos would eventually become a historian as well as a novelist and settle in later years on a family farm in Virginia, writing books about the Founding Fathers and the early years of the republic.
The second aspect, stemming from the European-Hispanic heritage of his father, was a longstanding interest in countries such as Spain, Portugal and Brazil, countries he would visit and write about during a career of more than fifty years. There is a cosmopolitanism about Dos Passos that informs his explorations of America. He was a lifelong traveler who knew his own country well, but he was equally familiar with countries around the globe, often staying in one place for only a few weeks at a time. The third is that Dos Passos’ father was also a writer with an interest in language. John Randolph Dos Passos wrote several books on the law as well as a political treatise.
There is another important dimension of Dos Passos’ life that warrants mention here: his status as outsider and sympathizer with unpopular causes, which seems to stem from issues of personal identity. He was an illegitimate child in an age when this was a social stigma. He never had a real home growing up. Dos Passos’ father was athletic, hearty, outgoing. The son was artistic, myopic, and introverted.
His father, the son of a poor Portuguese immigrant, advocated for white Anglo-Saxon superiority and wrote a book entitled The Anglo-Saxon Century and the Unification of the English Speaking Peoples (1903). From an early age Dos Passos became familiar with the paternalism of his parents, a paternalism that likely caused him some discomfort given his immigrant origins. There is an interesting part of one of the stream-of-memory Camera Eye sections in The 42nd Parallel in which Dos Passos recalls traveling on a train during his childhood with his mother, most likely in France:
But you’re peeking out the window into the black
rumbling dark suddenly ranked with squat chimneys and
you’re scared of the black smoke and the puffs of flame
that flare and fade out of the squat chimneys Potteries
dearie they work there all night Who works there all
night? Workingmen and people like that laborers travail
you were scared
but now the dark was all black again the lamp in the
train and the sky and everything had a blueblack shade
on it and She was telling a story about
Longago Beforetheworldsfair Beforeyouwereborn and
they went to Mexico on a private car on the new interna-
tional line and the men shot antelope off the back of the
train and big rabbits jackasses they called them and once
one night Longago Beforetheworldsfair Beforeyouwereborn
one night Mother was frightened on account of all the
rifleshots but it was allright turned out to be nothing but
a little shooting they’d only been shooting a greaser that
that was in the early days
No wonder that a young boy born out of wedlock, wandering from one place to another and sporting the decidedly non-Anglo Saxon middle name of “Roderigo” might not only be insecure, but also identify with the outsiders and dispossessed. Might he have even wondered if he was a “greaser” too what with his poor shoemaking immigrant Portugese grandfather and a middle name like “Roderigo?”
He grew up in a series of hotels in the U.S. and Europe, supported from a distance and occasionally visited by his father, attended Choate and went from there to Harvard, from which he graduated. After a short period in Spain studying painting and architecture, he joined the Norton-Harjes ambulance service and traveled to France where he served as an ambulance driver and later in a U.S. Army medical unit. Dos Passos had been writing since his college days and decided to devote himself to literature. He published his first novel, One Man’s Initiation: 1917 in 1920. Dos Passos wandered through Europe and America, a friend of Hemingway and other Lost Generation figures, supporting himself with his books and journalism. His WWI novel Three Soldiers, his first major work, appeared in 1921.
He published a volume of essays, a book of poetry and another novel before his groundbreaking novel Manhattan Transfer appeared in 1925, a sprawling work that told the stories of multiple New Yorkers. It was a bold attempt to capture the vibrant and diverse city in the wild postwar era and marked a major development of Dos Passos’ craft. Other plays, nonfiction works and novels followed, but the next big leap in his career came with The 42nd Parallel in 1930, the first volume of the U.S.A. trilogy, appearing just at the right time as the country had entered The Great Depression. U.S.A. generated plenty of excitement and acclaim.
The trilogy is the high point of Dos Passos’ career. He would continue to publish novels and works of travel and history up until his death in 1970, but his other fiction, although interesting, didn’t have the same power as U.S.A. The trilogy is a robust and unsettling portrait of America coming of age in the twentieth century, and Dos Passos explores the darker and more troublesome aspects of American life and character in these novels.
Dos Passos was a man who always had a strong sense of justice. He was deeply troubled by the inequalities in American life, and successfully portrayed the forces in the nation hostile to freedom and imagination. He was also one of a number of cultural figures who came of age around the First World War, such as Max Eastman and Sidney Hook, who stood on the left but later moved to more conservative positions.
The totalitarian brutality of Soviet Russia, the infighting among Communists outside of the Soviet Union, the debacle of World War II, Communist espionage against the U.S., the rise of the Cold War, and increasing government centralization led a number of former liberals and leftists towards positions further to the right. There’s a case to be made that Dos Passos paid a price in cultural circles and the literary establishment for tilting rightwards, but any who snubbed him, or criticized him for a change in positions, had never really looked closely at the man–he was never a card-carrying ideologue in any organized movement.
The surface narrative is that Dos Passos was a radical left wing novelist who turned rightward after World War II, and that’s the high and low of it. The truth is more complex, as can be seen from the myriad of forces listed above that affected some writers and thinkers by mid century. Dos Passos certainly had strong left wing sympathies early in his life. He protested against the treatment of Sacco and Vanzetti.
He considered himself a pacifist during WWI and joined the ambulance service mainly to see the big struggle firsthand. He was part of “the Dreiser Committee”—a group of writers including Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Lewis Mumford–who went to Harlan County, Kentucky in November of 1931 to investigate the condition of striking coal miners there.
He wrote about agrarian reform in Mexico and covered the Spanish Civil War. He visited Russia. Dos Passos was an eyewitness to reform and protest actions in the U.S. during the Twenties and Thirties.
But he was his own man, deeply concerned about the average citizen and wary of organized power. He never joined the Communist party. A shrewd observer, he was disturbed by the Soviet Union’s purges and jockeying for control of Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. The murder of his friend Jose Robles, apparently by Stalinist agents, soured Dos Passos on the left, and Hemingway’s assertions that Robles was actually a fascist led to a split between the two men–this topic is the subject of the recently published The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos and the Murder of Jose Robles by Stephen Koch. Although Marxist and left wing critics praised his early work, he was never an ideological novelist or “proletarian writer,” and a consistent concern was individual freedom in a world of large organizational and economic systems. This concern resulted in Dos Passos’s uneasiness not only about the excesses of capitalism but the rise of large federal government, big labor, Fascism and Communism. He was in many ways a libertarian, so it’s really not surprising that he wrote some for William Buckley’s National Review after WWII.
Changes in his own life after WWII may also have contributed to his more conservative outlook. His first wife, Katherine Foster Smith Dos Passos, was killed in a car crash in 1947, an event in which Dos Passos lost an eye. He married a woman named Elizabeth Holdridge in 1949 and had a daughter named Lucy, his only child. After long years of wandering across the world, Dos Passos settled down in Virginia and enjoyed his life as husband and family man.
In the early 1940s, Dos Passos began writing works of history, including some on Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, other Founding Fathers and the early years of America, and spoke more for the positive values of his country. I have long had the impression that his Spanish Civil War experience and his reportage of both the American home front and combat operations in WWII, in which he saw firsthand the way Americans worked together to weather the struggle, had the effect of drawing him closer to the better aspects of his country and its people.
His later books, both history and fiction, have value, and I can certainly appreciate Dos Passos’ love of country, but his willingness to take a hard look at this nation as it came of age and the human damage left in its wake contributes a dynamism to U.S.A. that isn’t found in the later work. There’s just no getting around the incredible power of U.S.A., a work that has new relevance given the political climate we live in now, and the continual anxiety that we are becoming a more divided nation of haves and have-nots.
Which brings me to Eugene Debs and Dos Passos. Debs is the subject of one of the many capsule biographies through the course of U.S.A. Many of these stories form a counterpoint to the lives of Dos Passos’ characters. In some instances they are success stories, the tales of people like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. In other instances they are people like Debs and Big Bill Haywood, a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who stood against the industrial order and economic royalism, or they are visionaries and geniuses like Frank Lloyd Wright.
Debs’ story is particularly suited to U.S.A.’s disillusionment, its sense of promise betrayed. It appears early in the first volume of the series—The 42nd Parallel. The story of Debs is a perfect vehicle to convey Dos Passos’ frustration with a country that rejected men like Debs and was more devoted to plutocracy, imperialism and crushing dissent than living up to the promises inherent in its founding.
Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana on November 5, 1855, the son of French immigrants who eventually had some success with a grocery business in Terre Haute. Debs left school at fifteen and went to work for the Vandalia Railroad, scraping paint off of rail cars. He later became a fireman, the worker who shoveled coal into a train engine and oversaw its boilers. He did this for a number of years, then went to work for a wholesale grocer in Terre Haute. Although no longer on the railroad, he became secretary of the local Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He was elected city clerk of Terre Haute and also served one term as a Democratic member of the Indiana state legislature. Debs was the kind of man liked by a lot of people across different social classes, despite his increasingly radical views. There were certainly people across the nation who found him a threat, and some reactionaries who surely wanted him hanged, but he was warm and sincere, and there is a refrain in a lot of the writing about Debs of people strongly disagreeing with the man but liking him personally.
Debs helped form the first industrial union in the United States: the American Railway Union. The ARU won a victory against James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad in 1894, but was severely damaged after involvement in a dispute between Pullman car workers and the Pullman company, a strike which resulted in President Grover Cleveland calling in federal troops to settle the matter. Debs and other union leaders were charged with interfering with delivery of the U.S. mails, resulting in a six-month jail term for Debs and his fellows.
During that time Debs read Socialist writing and emerged committed to the Socialist cause. He was instrumental in creating what became the Socialist Party in the United States and was a founder of the radical union called the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), popularly known as the “Wobblies.” Debs would later separate from this union given their inclination towards anarchy, violence, and sabotage. The Wobblies became legendary, leaving their mark on American labor history and appearing in various novels and poems. The IWW is referenced often in USA; one of the main characters in the trilogy is an IWW organizer. The union still exists today, but its extreme tactics are a thing of the past. The government cracked down hard on the IWW during WWI and after. Joe Hill, the famous Wobbly activist and songwriter, also has a biography in the USA trilogy.
Debs ran as the Socialist Party candidate in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920. His run in 1920 was conducted from the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Debs had been charged with sedition after making antiwar comments at an event in Canton, Ohio in 1918. Debs was convicted and and sentenced to prison, doing hard time for speaking out against war. President Woodrow Wilson, who seemed to take Debs’ opposition to the war on a personal level, repeatedly denied pleas to commute his sentence. President Warren Gamaliel Harding of Marion, Ohio, Wilson’s successor in the White House, would be the man to commute his sentence and asked Debs to visit him at the White House before Debs returned home to Terre Haute. In contrast to Wilson’s rigidity, Harding welcomed Debs and said upon meeting him, “Well, I’ve heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now glad to meet you personally.”
Debs didn’t have long to live after emerging from prison in Atlanta. The prison term damaged his health, and he died at a sanitarium in Elmhurst, Illinois on October 20, 1926. Thousands paid their respects to Debs as he lay in repose at the Labor Temple in Terre Haute, and the Socialist Norman Thomas, who would run for the Presidency himself, and who was once a paperboy delivering Warren Harding’s Marion Star back in the 1890s, delivered the eulogy.
The biographies in U.S.A. share a kind of tone. There’s a terseness about them, a toughness, kind of like a man of the world who has seen the life of his times and paid a price for it, putting his foot up on the bar rail, knocking back a shot of whiskey and reminiscing about one person or another. Some have more of a rambling, comic feel. They have a distinct typographic appearance on the page, and except for separations for illustrations here in my post, sentence order of the Debs biography is exactly as it is in the novel. The blog format doesn’t permit me to reproduce exactly the indentation used in the books.
One of the most famous biographies is “The Body of an American,” which tells the “story” of WWI’s Unknown Soldier. This is a remarkable piece in which Dos Passos uses the figure of the Unknown Soldier to portray the diversity of the American Expeditionary Force. It’s a tour de force of the biography feature in U.S.A., a justly famous piece of writing, and you can find it online. It will eventually be featured here on Buckeyemuse during this centennial period of America’s involvement in World War I.
There’s an essential truth about Dos Passos’ piece on Debs, although Dos Passos can be challenged to some degree on his idea that Debs was abandoned during World War I. After Debs was imprisoned, a parade composed of socialists, anarchists and other radicals was held in Cleveland on May Day of 1919, an event that became a riot. Debs actually garnered his second largest amount of votes during his 1920 run for President from the penitentiary. Debs’ fellow prisoners cheered him upon his release, and when he came back to Terre Haute after his stint in the pen, thousands gathered to greet him. There were always people who stuck with Debs.
In the years since his death, Debs has continued to inspire politicians and activists. One of the best known figures of our own time who has professed his admiration for Debs is Bernie Sanders, who participated in a 1979 documentary on the Indiana labor leader. The Eugene Debs Foundation, which works to educate the public about his legacy and supports the progressive causes Debs believed in, owns and operates the Eugene Debs Home in Terre Haute, Indiana, which is the subject of an upcoming post here on Buckeyemuse. Debs has much to say to us now, and he always will as long as there is injustice in the world.
On the other hand, Dos Passos conveys the unease felt by liberals and leftists in the wake of the First World War. The chauvinism, hysteria and fearmongering during WWI had a devastating effect on people fighting for social change in America. The government suppression of radical labor unions and Communist organizations was severe. Progressive forces weren’t completely dormant during the 1920s—there are always people fighting for progressive causes, and the Sacco-Vanzetti case is one example of a cause rousing consciences during the Jazz Age—but the Twenties in the U.S. was a period when conservatism took center stage in politics, despite liberation in mores and personal freedoms. The Great Depression would be very different.
And I believe Dos Passos is right also in that Debs likely frightened a lot of people, and what happened to him was disturbing as well. No matter his good will, his personal sweetness of disposition and friendliness, his long hours of work on behalf of working people, as well as the rights of women and children, the federal government still thought it fit to clap him in prison for speaking his mind in wartime.
So here it is. From John Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel, published in 1930: “Lover of Mankind”:
Debs was a railroadman, born in a weather-
boarded shack at Terre Haute.
He was one of ten children.
His father had come to America in a sailingship
an Alsatian from Colmar; not much of a money-
maker, fond of music and reading,
he gave his children a chance to finish public
school and that was about all he could do.
At fifteen Gene Debs was already working as a
machinist on the Indianapolis and Terre Haute Rail-
He worked as a locomotive fireman,
clerked in a store
joined the local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fire-
men, was elected secretary, traveled all over the country as
He was a tall shamblefooted man, had a sort of
gusty rhetoric that set on fire the railroad workers in
their pineboarded halls
made them want the world he wanted,
a world brothers might own
where everybody would split even:
I am not a labor leader. I don’t want you to follow me or
anyone else. If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out
of the capitalist wilderness you will stay right where you are. I
could not lead you into this promised land if I could, be-
cause if I could lead you in, someone else would lead you
That was how he talked to freighthandlers and gandywalk-
ers, to firemen and switchmen and engineers, telling them
it wasn’t enough to organize the railroadmen, that all workers
must be organized, that all workers must be organized in the
workers’ co-operative commonwealth.
Locomotive fireman on many a long night’s run,
under the smoke a fire burned him up, burned in gusty
words that beat in pineboarded halls; he wanted his brothers
to be free men.
That was what he saw in the crowd that met him at the old
Wells Street Depot when he came out of jail after the Pull-
those were the men that chalked up nine hundred thousand
votes for him in nineteen-twelve and scared the frockcoats
and the tophats and diamonded hostesses at Saratoga Springs,
Bar Harbor, Lake Geneva with the bogy of a socialist presi-
But where were Gene Debs’ brothers in nineteen eighteen
when Woodrow Wilson had him locked up in Atlanta for
speaking against war,
where were the big men fond of whiskey and fond of each
other, gentle rambling tellers of stories over bars in small
towns in the Middle West,
quiet men who wanted a house with a porch to putter
around and a fat wife to cook for them, a few drinks and
cigars, a garden to dig in, cronies to chew the rag with
and wanted to work for it
and others to work for it;
where were the locomotive firemen and engineers when
they hustled him off to Atlanta Penitentiary?
And they brought him back to die in Terre Haute
to sit on his porch in a rocker with a cigar in his mouth,
beside him American Beauty roses his wife fixed in a bowl
and the people of the Middle West were fond of him and
afraid of him and thought of him as an old kindly uncle who
loved them, and wanted to be with him and to have him give
but they were afraid of him as if he had contracted a social
disease, syphilis or leprosy, and thought it was too bad,
but on account of the flag
and making the world safe for democracy.
they were afraid to be with him,
or to think too much about him for fear they might believe
for he said:
While there is a lower class I am of it, while there is a
criminal class I am of it, while there is a soul in prison I am
The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos, introduction by Alfred Kazin, illustrated by Reginald Marsh. Signet Edition, Penguin Books, 1979. Originally published 1930.
Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One–The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001. Entry on Dos Passos by John Rohrkemper.
Eugene V. Debs: A Biography by Ray Ginger (originally published as The Bending Cross in 1949). Collier Books, New York, New York, 1962.
Eugene V. Debs Foundation site, with excellent information on the Debs Home: http://debsfoundation.org/
Wikipedia entry on Eugene Debs.
Site visit to Eugene V. Debs Home in Terre Haute, Indiana on Saturday, June 3, 2017.