Once the lights were off in the Cople Primary School auditorium, leaving just a few stray leaks of Sunday afternoon sun, the tape recorder began and the voice of John Dos Passos, dead nearly 13 years, spoke. It was the voice of an old man, talking about his childhood vacation days here on the Northern Neck, remembering "sitting in a row of men on some rickety porch after the supper dishes had been cleared," listening to them tell stories.
Listening to his voice were some of his friends and neighbors, now joining others as performers and audience for the Westmoreland Players' production of "U.S.A.," the play based on Dos Passos' most famous work.
His widow, Betty, and stepson Christopher Holdridge were there. Teddy Carden was there; she and her late husband Ben had shared many cocktails and holidays with "Mr. Jack" and "Miss Betty," and she had given the Westmoreland Players $1,000 to help finance the show. Walter Norris, whose son was playing the drums, had delivered Mr. Jack's mail to the small country post office. The Rev. Jim Guy, who had been host to Mr. Jack's ashes for two days before the burial at the Yeocomico Episcopal Church in 1970, ran the sound effects.
It was a celebration of a man in his own place, if not his own time. Some had not even known during the last 21 years of his life that he spent here that he was a writer--at least one thought he was a farmer who wrote "on the side"--not knowing that he was a friend of people like Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald and a part of the literary tapestry of the 20th century.
It took 13 years for the county to honor one of its notable members, but that Virginia reticence is a kind of compliment too, making no attempt to exploit his fame. There are no John Dos Passos Motels here, nor has his house been made into a museum. "Historyland Highway," which bisects the peninsula, has no marker referring to Mr. Jack.
In his 50-odd novels and nonfiction books, Dos Passos rarely referred to Westmoreland County. He talked about the "tobacco-exhausted land of the Northern Neck" in "The 42nd Parallel," part of the "U.S.A." trilogy, and in other of his "Camera Eyes" that record impressions of the area:
that August it never rained a drop and it had hardly rained in July The truck garden was in a terrible state and all through the Northern Neck of Virginia it was no use pulling cornfodder because the lower leaves were all withered and curled up at the edges only the tomatoes gave a crop.
when they weren't using Rattler on the farm you'd ride him (he was a gelding sorrel threeyearold and stumbled) through the tall woods of white pine and the sandbed roads on fire with trumpetvine and through swamps dry and cracked crisscross like alligator hide
past the Morris's house where all the Morris children looked dry and dusty and brown.
and round along the rivershore past Harmony Hall where Sydnor a big sixfoot-six barefoot man with a long face and a long nose with a big wart on his nose 'ud be ashamblin around and not knowin' what to do on account of the drought and his wife sick and ready to have a nother baby and the children with hoopin' cough and his stomach trouble
and past Sandy Pint agin past the big pine . . .
His friend Fitzgerald must have visited at some point, because in "Tender Is the Night" Dick Diver's father is buried in the "low-forested clayland of Westmoreland County." "These dead, he knew them all," Fitzgerald wrote, "their weather-beaten faces with blue flashing eyes, the spare violent bodied, the souls made of new earth in the forest-heavy darkness of the seventeenth century."
The hard, weatherbeaten faces are still there, but the look of the populace has been altered, not only by a class of indigenous professionals, but by an influx of "come-heres": vacation-home owners, refugees from the city, and the young and the old retirees, who have the time, interest and energy to take over the politics and worry about things like cultural activities.
Dos Passos' father, John R., was a "come-here," but better accepted than most because of his geniality and his generosity. He was the son of a poor Portuguese immigrant who became a noted corporate lawyer. One day he sailed up to the Northern Neck in his 100-foot steam-powered yacht and before too long had acquired 7,000 acres of farmland, some of it at 50 cents an acre. He wanted to be buried there, he once wrote in a letter, and wanted a "funeral festival held at Sandy Point with beer, punch and the eating auxiliaries" served to all the neighbors and friends. But the letter was not opened until it was too late.
Dos Passos himself went to Spence's Point as a boy on vacations, after long years of a gypsy childhood in Europe, where his mother, who was not married to his father until their son was 14, fled to escape the social difficulties of her situation. Later he was sent to Choate School and Harvard.
For most of his life, Dos Passos traveled the world. But he chose to spend his last two decades at Spence's Point, writing (18 books in that time), gardening, becoming a father for the first time, fishing and enjoying his distance from the New York "literary cocktail party set."
"You tend to come back where you started from, unless it was terribly unpleasant where you started from," said local resident Jackie Murphy Whittaker, in an unpublished interview with Dos Passos' daughter, Lucy. "Of course, all of us who were born and raised here, we know it's God's country . . . we joke about come-heres now. But 40 years ago it was no joke! He was one of not too many who were acceptable to the local populace. A lot moved here and were very lonely. Folks wouldn't have anything to do with 'em. Or if they did they certainly didn't want to treat 'em like they did each other.
"But he--it just wasn't mentioned he wasn't born and raised here. His father --he was a come-here. But Mr. Dos Passos was just kind of home folks."
"He wanted to strike down some roots," said Elizabeth Holdrige Dos Passos, who married "Mr. Jack" in 1949, two years after his first wife had been killed in a car crash, in which he lost an eye. She was a 40-year-old widow with a 7-year-old son, Christopher, and in 1950 Lucy was born. "He wanted to start a whole new way of life."
While the children were in school they commuted to the farm on weekends from Baltimore, a 3 1/2-hour drive Spence's Point (President Monroe's grandmother was a Spence) is not "the white house" of Dos Passos' childhood, but a brick place dating from 1805 that he started reconstructing in the 1930s. Dos Passos and his half-brother inherited the land from their father, but for years had differences over the use of it. Finally in 1948 they settled the disagreements by splitting it up, with Dos Passos taking the waterfront acreage and agreeing to pay his brother for the difference in value. There are 1,665 acres left, 350 farmed by a local man in corn, soybeans and wheat, which at this time of year roll out in a plush green carpet all over the county.
"We had a large garden," said his widow. "We used to have a lot of visitors." Now she is 74 and after a lifetime of caring for others she lives alone, executor of her husband's vast literary estate as well as the earthly one. "I'm generally pretty busy," she said.
"Miss Betty" is known and respected in the area, even though she is, as she put it, "a damn Yankee . . . I just keep my mouth strictly shut, which always helps.
"Bald eagles live just over that pine grove," she said. "It's really quite a beautiful place."
Mr. Jack was seen around the county, at parties and meetings of the farm bureau, people recall. The women's club asked him to speak once, promising to provide a good dinner, and he obliged. "I remember they didn't drink," said Betty Dos Passos.
Once, she said, he and Ben Carden got involved in raising money for a new school gymnasium. "We put on a dinner here and invited men we thought would kick in," she said. "It was a terrific dinner. Then at cigar time Ben and Mr. Jack brought up the subject of the gymnasium. The faces got very long. Ben spoke up first and said he'd give such and such amount, and Mr. Jack pledged likewise. Then there was a terrible silence.
"One other man said he'd give something. But he never did. We heard from the grapevine later that at least one other man thought it was outrageous to invite people for dinner and then ask them for money for the gymnasium. Of course that was years ago . . ."
The visits from their well-known friends went largely unnoticed. Edmund Wilson and his wife came--once--in a taxi from Massachusetts. And for several weeks they entertained a Hollywood scriptwriter who wanted to make a movie out of "U.S.A.," an alcoholic they were afraid would be a corpse if he stayed too long. He came to work every day with a bottle of Vat 69 wrapped discreetly in newspaper, and he'd give Lucy 50 cents to bring him the bottle. They became quite fond of him, but the movie was never made.
Mr. Jack wrote in the morning, and spent the afternoon gardening or painting. Three or four times a week they'd go over to the Cardens' about cocktail time. One local story has the Cardens' maid looking out the window and exclaiming, "Lord, here come the Jacks again!"
Otis Douglas III was 16 and a friend of Christopher Holdridge's when he met Dos Passos. The two boys harbored grand literary ambitions, and spent long days in Christopher's bedroom, "chain-smoking and talking about writers and writing and books and, as Mr. Jack once said, telling each other how smart we were."
Douglas is now a professor of English at Longwood College in Farmville, Va., but he still comes back to Westmoreland County most weekends. He wrote a short memoir of those boyhood days that was reprinted here in the "U.S.A." program:
". . . we had an abundance of that essential intoxication of the spirit required of a writer. And the reason we seldom ran short of this intoxication is because, I'm ashamed to say, we swiped it by the bottleful from the back of the shelf in Mr. Jack's liquor cabinet . . . it was necessary that we steal mostly liqueurs and such, which nobody was likely to miss. When drunk in any quantity, these super sweet beverages gave a slightly yellow cast to our skin. I remember once we drank a whole bottleful of creme de menthe and spent a long surrealistic afternoon talking about writing with yellow faces and green tongues.
"But these raids on the liquor cabinet required that we slip quietly past the room with the big curved desk where Mr. Jack did his writing. And what I remember most about that room is the quality of the silence that emanated from it. Of course, after the constant yammering that went on in Chris' room, the rest of the house seemed quiet, but I remember that there was something unique and profound and even something a little scary about that silence which somehow was intensified . . . by the intermittent click-click-click of Mr. Jack's two-fingered typing.
"There was some quality to that silence that was just a little too direct, and a little too austere, and a little too lonely to suit my taste. Although I couldn't have told you what that quality was, I had a premonition even then that it might not be entirely like creme de menthe, all sweetness and mint. I knew that Mr. Jack went into that silence for six hours a day, day after day, year after year. At the time, that wasn't the part of the life of a writer that interested me; what I wanted was the sweetness and the ecstasy and so I sneaked on by the silence of his room in order to steal another bottle of it."
Frank Delano was born and raised here. His father owns the gas company. Delano's memories of Dos Passos are also acute. He conceived of producing "U.S.A." here, and it was his intense loyalty that kept the project going.
"When I was in college at the University of Virginia I'd go and talk to him," he said. "He was such a link to all those writers--Fitzgerald and Hemingway and cummings and Ford Madox Ford . . . I'd just drop in and visit. I wanted to talk about writers, and of course he didn't. He'd listen to me. He'd listen to me!
"That was his great talent really, the ear."
Delano was something of a radical in college, during the early '60s, and was confounded by Dos Passos' conservatism, which had evolved from youthful leftist involvements to a vehement anticommunism and embrace of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Delano, who went from college to the Peace Corps in Africa and then to work as a newspaper reporter in Fredericksburg, felt that Dos Passos regarded his political passions with a kind of benevolent disregard, as though assuming that he, too, would grow up and see the light.
The script of "U.S.A.," written with Paul Shyre in the late '50s and produced off-Broadway in 1958, largely ignores the radical thread of the original work, the narratives about the labor movement and the plight of the downtrodden. Delano's colleagues in the Westmoreland Players were not enthusiastic about abandoning their usual Neil Simon fare for "U.S.A.," which looks like a concert reading.
It wasn't until Delano enlisted the help of director Fred Franklin, a bearded high school drama teacher from Fredericksburg, that the players began to get a sense of the dramatic possibilities of the work.
Meanwhile, a Dos Passos Project was in full flower at Rappahannock Community College, a small state-supported institution worried about future funding cutoffs and hoping to enhance its reputation. It all began, really, because Marty Taylor had heard Dos Passos speak when she was a student at Westhampton College.
When she moved to the Northern Neck in 1977 she was surprised to find that "most people in the area didn't think anything about him at all." The idea of a Dos Passos tribute that would also give visibility to the two-year college took hold. She got a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, invited "scholars and humanists" down for a planning session, and hired Sue Semsch to coordinate the activities.
Reading groups were organized in seven counties, organized along four thematic lines. Dos Passos biographer Townsend Ludington, a consultant to the project, held a preliminary seminar for 120 people, and the women of the St. James Episcopal Church sold elegant box suppers with honey chicken and quiche.
The planners wanted William F. Buckley Jr. to come and speak, because Dos Passos had written for the National Review. "When Dos Passos died he'd written this flowery column about him, so I thought he might be glad to come and talk," said Taylor. "Instead he wrote this nasty letter back, telling us to go to our local Dos Passos Center and look up something he Buckley had written. Dos Passos Center! We were the Dos Passos Center!"
They learned that the National Endowment for the Humanities wouldn't let any of its money be spent on refreshments, which turned out to be a major headache. "You can't have a meeting without refreshments," Semsch said. "They like to be able to talk to the speaker and socialize."
The Dos Passos year is ending now, as the farmers are waiting for the fields to dry out so they can plant more, and the fishermen are repairing their nets and boats for the upcoming season. Rappahannock Commmunity College is now known by people who had never heard of it. The Westmoreland Players are in the black, the reviews were good, and everyone thought the show was wonderful.
Frank Delano is looking forward to going back to his 30-foot sailboat, anchored a short drive from his home in Acorn. "You know Dos Passos used to like going for walks in the evening," he said. "He was the one who showed me the Pleiades. Whenever I look up and see them, I think of him."