JOHN DOS PASSOS is a writer who, like Sinclair Lewis and John O'Hara in their salad days, has occasionally seemed major but who now appears minor by any reasonable measure -- and a writer who is more often mentioned by literary scholars as representing this or that group or trend than read by those scholars -- or by anyone else.
In the last several years have come two full-dress biographies of Dos Passos, of which the present book is the longer and more detailed. The author of this big new biography has also written a long life of Carson McCullers, The Lonely Hunter (1975). Virginia Spencer Carr writes in the established mode of academic literary biography, stressing facts large and small and marshaling those facts in a straightforward chronological scheme. Since Dos Passos was associated at one time or another with a vast number of artists, including Picasso and Stravinsky, the cast of characters is necessarily large. The author does little to make any of them, including Dos Passos' closest friends and his wives, come to life. This failing typifies literary biography as it is now published.
The virtues of this biography result largely from Carr's carefully establishing the facts of Dos Passos' visible progress through the world, including his many travels. If you want to know what he was doing or writing at a given time, you will find that information here; but if you are concerned about the connection of his writing to his life or about his relations with other people, especially his literary relations, the given situation almost immediately becomes problematic. There is little in the way of unfolding patterns or of an overall design in this biography.
The book is long on fact and short on interpretation. But it is also blessedly free of psychological jargon and speculation. Since Dos Passos' mother and father did not get married to each other until he was a senior at Choate and since he was still an orphan and a bastard in many respects even after their deaths, it would be easy to make heavy weather of his early life. He was also a lifelong victim of myopia and of general ill health, struggling with the effects of near blindness and of recurring troubles with bronchial infections and rheumatism. In these and other matters the author presents the details with little or no comment.
THE FIGURE who emerges from this welter of information is thoroughly human and is a sensible and likable and even admirable person. He stands in stark contrast to the egomaniacs among the artists who were his acquaintances and friends such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Hart Crane. Dos Passos lived his life and wrote his work in a direct understated fashion, shying away from the public: he was neither a self-publicist like Hemingway nor a social butterfly like Fitzgerald nor a precious arty type like Cummings.
What strikes me most forcibly about this long and crowded life that was acted out on a stage that was often political -- at first socialist and then Marxist and finally increasingly conservative -- is that Dos Passos was almost invariably representative, rather than atypical, of his group at its best at any given time -- first as a Harvard esthete, then as a member of the Lost Generation, then as a social- protest writer, and later as a conservative spokesman. Even at his best, such as in Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A., he fell short of achieving real greatness. This is true even though he was always his own man and was never a camp follower.
Throughout his life John Dos Passos continued to change with the times but never quite caught any given moment in our history with the exactness of Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Wolfe at their finest. He was far better educated and had more diverse talent and experience than any of these writers, but the very diversity of his interests and the very depth of his humanity may have prevented his achieving greatness. He was ultimately, even in his best experimental writing, a jack of all trades and a master of none.
Carr's biography leads us to ponder a long life well lived, but not to reread the work that constitutes the real achievement of that life.