the author's literary flame alive
staff writer and agencies
In recent years the life and times (and novels) of the great American writer John Dos Passos have gotten more media attention worldwide and now his grandson has set up a website to keep the flame alive. There are also literary conferences planned in Boston and Portugal for 2017 and 2018, with more to come.
A panel on Dos Passos is scheduled in late May at a literary conference in Boston.
The John Dos Passos Society, the American academic society devoted to study of his work, is busy preparing for a conference in Boston in May 2017.
In the times we live in now, the popularity of the American writer has gone up, especially after the election of Donald Trump as president in the fall of 2016.
Here is just some of what's been happening in recent years.
Dos Passos has appeared in film, either as a character (in the HBO film "Hemingway and Gelhorn") or as the subject of Sonia Tercero Ramiro's documentary "Robles, Duel al Sol," which recounts the author's friendship with the scholar Jose Robles, the first Spanish translator of "Manhattan Transfer," who was executed under very mysterious circumstances during the Spanish Civil War.
This friendship is also recounted in the recent Spanish-language nonfiction book by Ignacio Martinez titled "Enterrar a Los Muertos" (To Bury the Dead), which has already come out in an English-language translation.
Finally, a book on the friendship between Ernest Hemingway and Dos Passos has recently been published by James McGrath Morris titled "The Ambulance Drivers."
In academia, the John Dos Passos Society, founded in 2011, has given scholars a means to channel their energies. The society held its first conference in 2014 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and its second in Madrid, Spain. The international enthusiasm for Dos Passos has prompted the society to hold its third conference in Lisbon, Portugal in 2018.
A number of events have converged to make Dos Passos seem more relevant than ever, including the 100th anniversary of the First World War, which Dos Passos witnessed first-hand as an ambulance driver near Verdun. Much of his early and mid-career fiction is haunted by this war.
Secondly, Dos Passos understood better than most writers of his age the pervasiveness of technology in the everyday lives, and even the cognitive processes, of humans.
Thirdly, our present political moment has proven Dos Passos to have been unnervingly prescient. Dos Passos's observations, in both his fiction and non-fiction, track the rise of mass conformity on both the left and right.
Since the year 2000, America has seen swift and dramatic political shifts, from the neoconservatism of George W. Bush, to the election of the first African-American president, to the rise of nativist nationalism under Donald Trump.
One wonders if the country really knows what it wants any more than the characters who populate so much to Dos Passos fiction know. These shifts may also reflect that of the writer himself, who by the mid-1930s abandoned his leftist leanings for a more conservative vision, seeing the latter as the better alternative for preserving individual rights in a century increasingly overrun with the collusion of big government and big business.
In addition, the author's grandson, John Dos Passos Coggin, who is a writer himself, has been working hard with his mother and other family members keeping Dos Passos's writings relevant with a dedicated literary website.
Bryan’s initial interest in Dos Passos was sparked as a graduate student when she took a Modern American Novelist course taught by Shaheen.
“We read Dos Passos’s 42nd Parallel, and I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard this man’s name before, much less read any of his work.” Bryan
said, “Here was a writer tuned into the class and race struggles of the early 20th century, and though there are a few problems with how he represents women and minorities scattered throughout his work, he was leaps and bounds ahead of his contemporaries when it came to more complex and interesting understandings of characters who weren’t white males.”As Bryan went on to complete her PhD, her interest in Dos Passos persisted. In 2011 she organized a Dos Passos Panel at the American Literature Association Convention in Boston, MA. Shaheen presented as one of the speakers. It was at this conference that the two were inspired to create the John Dos Passos Society.
In October 2014, UTC hosted the first biennial conference, which featured the author’s grandson, John Dos Passos Coggin, as its keynote speaker.
Ever since Dos Passos’s novel Manhattan Transfer (1925) was translated into Spanish in 1927, the author has been widely read in Spain and other European countries. The international appreciation for his works has lasted to this day.
Ten different nations were represented at the conference, including Brazil, the United States, Portugal, Croatia, Denmark, Sweden, and Spain. The conference received widespread coverage in the Spanish print and digital media, including
awrite-up in Spain’s leading daily newspaper, El Mundo.
She says: "Since our founding in 2011, we’ve grown astronomically. We held our first international conference in 2016, and our membership has grown to almost 100 people. We’re represented at the American Literature Association on a regular basis, and we’re able to sponsor panels at various regional conferences.
She hopes the Boston conference this May will be an invigorating event marked by complex conversation about Dos Passos’s work and legacy.
She adds: "I always enjoy our teaching panels. They introduce so many avenues for bringing Dos Passos into the classroom, which may be one of the most powerful ways to bring an author’s work to a new generation. ''
At a previous conference in Chattanooga, she presented a paper on Dos Passos’s involvement with prison writing and representations of prison during the 20s, 30s, and 40s.
"As I’ve continued researching the topic, I have things I’d certainly change about the paper, but the idea that Dos Passos struggled with how the U.S. prison system worked, particularly in relation to political prisoners, was a huge takeaway from my time in the Dos Passos archives at the University of Virginia in 2014. I was excited to be able to present on those findings, she says.
What was the last article or book by Dos Passos that she read and why?
''I’ve been re-reading the archival documents from UVA on prisons, particularly those that relate to Eugene Debs’ imprisonment, which Dos Passos seems to have been particularly troubled by. (In a somewhat related vein, I’ve been reading Eugene Debs’ Walls and Bars about his political beliefs, his prison time, and his run for Presidential office while incarcerated.) I’m hoping to develop my ideas about Dos Passos and prison writing further for more lengthy writing projects.''
"Dos Passos wrote very passionately about political freedom, and was adamantly opposed to the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. His writing about these topics is powerful. I’ve often used his poem published in The New Masses “They Are Dead Now” in writing and lit classes in prison and in the free world to demonstrate that writing by and about incarcerated people deserves a place in our canon."
When asked what new books she'd recommend and why, she said:
" I’m currently reading Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last. It’s about a devastating financial recession that leads to many losing their homes and livelihoods. The solution to this problem is to allow people to move into posh neighborhoods that have been abandoned, but they only get to live there half the year. The other half of the time they have to live in the local prison. It sounds so dystopian, but for many in our country and around the world, this isn’t so far from reality."