John Dos Passos

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John Roderigo Dos Passos (January 14 1896September 28, 1970) was an American novelist and artist.


  • Humanity has a strange fondness for following processions. Get four men following a banner down the street, and, if that banner is inscribed with rhymes of pleasant optimism, in an hour, all the town will be afoot, ready to march to whatever tune the leaders care to play.
    • "A Humble Protest," Harvard Monthly, 1916
  • Organization kills.
    • Diary, Oct 1 1918, reproduced in The Fourteenth Chronicle: Letters and Diaries of John Dos Passos, ed. Townsend Ludington
  • One of the most extraordinary things about industrial society of the present day is its idiot lack of memory. Tabloids and movies take the place of mental processes and revolts, crimes, despairs pass off in a dribble of vague words and rubber stamp phrases without leaving a scratch on the mind of the driven instalment-paying, subway-packing mass.
    • "Sacco and Vanzetti," review of Eugene Lyons's The Life and Death of Sacco and Vanzetti, Nov 1927
  • The only excuse for a novelist, aside from the entertainment and vicarious living his books give the people who read them, is as a sort of second-class historian of the age he lives in. The "reality" he missed by writing about imaginary people, he gains by being able to build a reality more nearly out of his own factual experience than a plain historian or biographer can.
    • "Statement of Belief," Bookman, Sept 1928
  • The mind of a generation is its speech. A writer makes aspects of that speech enduring by putting them in print. He whittles at the words and phrases of today and makes of them forms to set the mind of tomorrow's generation. That's history. A writer who writes straight is the architect of history.
    • Introduction to 1932 Modern Library edition of Three Soldiers
  • Walt Whitman's a hell of a lot more revolutionary than any Russian poet I've ever heard of.
    • Response to the questionnaire "Whither the American Writer?" in Modern Quarterly, Summer 1932
  • The business of a novelist is, in my opinion, to create characters first and foremost, and then to set them in the snarl of the human currents of his time, so that there results an accurate permanent record of a phase of history.
    • "The Business of a Novelist," review of William Rollins's The Shadow Before, 1934
  • In the last twenty-five years a change has come over the visual habits of Americans . . . From being a wordminded people we are becoming an eyeminded people.
    • "Grosz Comes to America," Esquire, 1936
  • A satirist is a man whose flesh creeps so at the ugly and the savage and the incongruous aspects of society that he has to express them as brutally and nakedly as possible to get relief.
    • "Grosz Comes to America," Esquire, 1936
  • There is a part of me in every character, naturally. That's why novelists rarely write good autobiographies. You start one and it becomes another novel - bound to.
    • "An Interview with Mr. John Dos Passos," New York Times, Nov 23 1941
  • Great works of the imagination are not produced quickly nor do they take quick effect on the popular mind.
    • Remark at the International PEN Club conference, Sept 11-13 1941, reproduced in John Dos Passos: The Major Nonfictional Prose, ed. Donald Pizer
  • There are too many "creative writing" courses and seminars, in which young wirters are constantly being taught to rewrite the previous generation. They should be experimenting on their own. Every writer faces different problems which he must solve for himself.
    • "Conversation with Dos Passos," New Leader, Feb 23 1959
  • If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works, with all the misconceptions, the omissions, the failures that any finished work of art implies.
    • "Looking Back on U.S.A.," New York Times, Oct 25 1959
  • For something like forty years I've been getting various sorts of narratives off my chest without being able to hit upon a classification for them. There's something dreary to me about the publisher's arbitrary division of every word written for publication into fiction and nonfiction. My writing has a most irritating way of being difficult to classify in either category. At times I would find it hard to tell you whether the stuff is prose or verse. Gradually I've come up with the tag: contemporary chronicle.
    • Presentation at Carleton College, Nov 30 1960
  • I think the satirist is always basically optimistic. The satirist's complaint about society is always that it doesn't measure up to a fairly high ideal he has. I think that even the bitterest satirist, even a man like Swift, was probably rather an optimist at heart.
    • Interview, Feb 3 1964, reproduced in Talks With Authors, ed. Charles F. Madden
  • [Hemingway] always used to bawl me out for including so much topical stuff. He always claimed that was a great mistake, that in fifty years nobody would understand. He may have been right; it's getting to be true.
    • Discussion session with students at Union College, Oct 16 1968, reproduced in John Dos Passos: The Major Nonfictional Prose, ed. Donald Pizer

Manhattan Transfer (1925)


Houghton Mifflin, 1983, ISBN 0-395-08375-3

  • With a long slow stride, limping a little from his blistered feet, Bud walked down Broadway, past empty lots where tin cans glittered among grass and sumach bushes and ragweed, between ranks of billboards and Bull Durham signs, past shanties and abandoned squatters’ shacks, past gulches heaped with wheelscarred rubbishpiles where dumpcarts were dumping ashes and clinkers, past knobs of gray outcrop where steamdrills continually tapped and nibbled, past excavations out of which wagons full of rock and clay toiled up plank roads to the street, until he was walking on new sidewalks along a row of yellow brick apartment houses, looking in the windows of grocery stores, Chinese laundries, lunchrooms, flower and vegetable shops, tailors’, delicatessens. (pp. 23-24)
  • Pursuit of happiness, unalienable pursuit... right to life liberty and... A black moonless night; Jimmy Herf is walking alone up South Street. Behind the wharfhouses ships raise shadowy skeletons against the night. "By Jesus I admit I'm stumped," he says aloud. All these April nights combing the streets alone a skyscraper has obsessed him, a grooved building jutting up with uncountable bright windows falling onto him out of a scudding sky. Typewriters rain continual nickelplated confetti in his ears. (p. 365)
  • And he walks round blocks and blocks looking for the door of the humming tinsel windowed skyscraper, round blocks and blocks and still no door. Every time he closes his eyes the dream has hold of him, every time he stops arguing audibly with himself in pompous reasonable phrases the dream has hold of him. Young man to save your sanity you've got to do one of two things... Please mister where's the door to the building? Round the block? Just round the block... one of two unalienable alternatives: go away in a dirty soft shirt or stay in a clean Arrow collar. But what's the use of spending your whole life fleeing the City of Destruction? What about your unalienable right, Thirteen Provinces? His mind unreeling phrases, he walks on doggedly. There's nowhere in particular he wants to go. If only I still had faith in words. (pp. 365-366)
  • Before the ferry leaves a horse and wagon comes aboard, a brokendown springwagon loaded with flowers, driven by a little brown man with high cheekbones. Jimmy Herf walks around it; behind the drooping horse with haunches like a hatrack the little warped wagon is unexpectedly merry, stacked with pots of scarlet and pink geraniums, carnations, alyssum, forced roses, blue lobelia. A rich smell of maytime earth comes from it, of wet flowerpots and greenhouses. The driver sits hunched with his hat over his eyes. Jimmy has an impulse to ask him where he is going with all of those flowers, but he stifles it. (p. 403)
  • He is walking up an incline. There are tracks below him and the slow clatter of a freight, the hiss of an engine. At the top of a hill he stops to look back. He can see nothing but fog spaced with a file of blurred archlights. Then he walks on, taking pleasure in breathing, in the beat of his blood, in the tread of his feet on the pavement, between rows of otherworldly frame houses. Gradually the fog thins, a morning pearliness is seeping in from somewhere. Sunrise finds him walking along a cement road between dumping grounds full of smoking rubbishpiles. The sun shines redly through the mist on rusty donkey-engines, skeleton trucks, wishbones of Fords, shapeless masses of corroding metal. Jimmy walks fast to get out of the smell. He is hungry; his shoes are beginning to raise blisters on his big toes. At a cross-road where the warning light still winks and winks, is a gasoline station, opposite it the Lightning Bug lunchwagon. Carefully he spends his last quarter on breakfast. That leaves him three cents for good luck, or bad luck for that matter. A huge furniture truck, shiny and yellow, has drawn up outside.
    "Say will you give me a lift?" he asks the redhaired man at the wheel.
    "How fur ye goin?"
    "I dunno. . . . Pretty far." (pp. 403-404)
  • How did they pick John Doe?

Make sure he aint a dinge, boys, Make sure he aint a guinea or a kike, How can you tell a guy's a hundredpercent when all you've got's a gunnysack full of bones, bronze buttons stamped with the screaming eagle and a pair of roll puttees? ...and the gagging chloride and the puky dirt-stench of the yearold dead...

  • The Body of an American, **1919* [1932]
  • All right we are two nations.
    • The Big Money* [1936]

Quotes about

  • In The 42nd Parallel John Dos Passos traced the dazzling career of Keith and United Fruit: “In Europe and the United States people had started to eat bananas, so they cut down the jungles through Central America to plant bananas, and built railroads to haul the bananas, and every year more steamboats of the Great White Fleet steamed north loaded with bananas, and that is the history of the American empire in the Caribbean, and the Panama canal and the future Nicaragua canal and the marines and the battleships and the bayonets.”
    • Eduardo Galeano Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1997)
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