Professor Aaron Shaheen at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga knows a thing or two about celebrated American author John Dos Passos, since he teaches college classes about him.
“When one thinks of the American modernist pantheon — and who doesn’t at least three times daily? — I suspect the usual names rise to the fore: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot,” Shaheen says in a recent oped written for a literary journal in New York.
“[But for] reasons not always so clear, the name that is often either left off this list, or is at least put on its second tier, is that of John Dos Passos (1896-1970). Dos Passos’s marginality is all the more surprising if one considers the level of sophistication and innovation behind his contributions to modernism,” Shaheen added.
Now comes news that John Dos Passos Coggin, the American grandson of Dos Passos, is keeping the memory and works of his famous grandfather alive with a dedicated website and a series of international conferences and academic papers.
Dos Passos was a pioneer and his works should not be forgotten, especially in this Age of Trump. For instance, the “camera eye” sections of the Dos Passos novels comprising the ”USA” trilogy were every bit as instrumental in rendering the experience of modernity as Hemingway’s “iceberg” technique or Stein’s literary cubism, according to Shaheen.
“Hemingway’s and Stein’s larger-than-life personalities helped them live beyond the novels they wrote. In that crowd, how could the mild-mannered ‘Dos,’ as he was often called, compete?” Shaheen asked.
In 2011 the life and writings of this frequently neglected American writer experienced a modest resurgence when Victoria Bryan and Professor Shaheen founded the John Dos Passos Society. They initially set limited goals for the organization — the publication of an annual newsletter, a showing at the American Literature Association Conference each May, and the occasional correspondence with other, relevant author societies.
”But in its first full year of existence, the society garnered enough interest and memberships that it began planning, at first idly and then intensely, an academic conference to be held in Chattanooga, Tennessee, (where I’m on faculty at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, which Dos Passos saw up close as an ambulance driver on the Western Front.,” Shaheen wrote in his oped.
What has propelled the success of the society and, more generally, the growing international enthusiasm for Dos Passos? Shaheen says: “One must first concede that in much of Europe — Spain and Portugal in particular — the author never really went out of fashion. For instance, in Spain his novel “Manhattan Transfer” (published in 1925) has been in print ever since it was first translated into Spanish in 1929.”
But perhaps the most crucial element in this success comes in the form of the author’s grandson, John Dos Passos Coggin, himself an author, who at the time of the society’s formation in 2011 had dedicated much of his own energies, along with his mother, toward keeping his grandfather’s legacy alive.
Bearing a striking resemblance to his grandfather, Coggin has done so not only though the website www.johndospoassos.com and his frequent participation with the society, but also though various efforts to keep Dos Passos’s writings (particularly from mid-century forward) accessible to the world public either in print or electronic form. Much of the grandson’s motivation and support has no doubt come from his mother Lucy, who from the ancestral home in rural Virginia is the chief executor of the Dos Passos literary estate.
While planning for the 2018 Portugal conference is underway, the society recently sponsored a discussion titled “Dos Passos Today” at the American Literature Association annual conference in Boston. The author once recalled how Ernest Hemingway used to “bawl [him] out for including so much topical stuff” in his novels. But as the Boston panel showed,, the writer’s emphasis on history and politics, even from an earlier time, offers insight into how we live our lives today.
Discussion topics ranged from the writer’s presence in contemporary Brazilian politics to his appropriation in the rhetoric of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“The Boston routable shows Dos Passos’s unnerving prescience,” Shaheen wrote. “One can’t help but sense a manic energy in his writings. His observations in his fiction and non-fiction alike track the rise and decline of mass movements on both the Left and Right.”
So in this Age of Trump, let’s remember the life and times and works for a great American writer, John Dos Passos, and keep his memory alive in the coming decades.
“Dos Passos is prophetic,” Shaheen says. “The choices we make — in our personal friendships, our politics, our finances, or even our consumption habits — often seem to carry the simultaneous promise of liberation and imprisonment, of a beginning and an end.
For more information see: www.johndospoassos.com