John Dos Passos and the individual
Yetter, Michael K.
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The career of John Dos Passos, twentieth-century modernist, American fiction writer, can be separated into two distinct phases: the early liberal political writer and the late-in-life conservative Republican political writer. The entirety of Dos Passos's fiction is devoted to two topics: America and the individual. Due to the author's dramatic change in political philosophy, critics are troubled when reconciling these two phases; however, the critical consensus is that the one constant between early and later novels is his devotion to the plight of the individual. Dos Passos himself echoes this assessment. Closer examination of Dos Passos's fiction reflects that this judgment is too simplistic. The author's point of view on the individual should be divided into two categories: the individual citizen and what has been termed the Dos Passosian individual, a significant figure who stands out in society, challenging existing American economic and political structures in an effort to improve the social order for all. Further analysis indicates that the author's thinking about this Dos Passosian individual evolves over the course of his career. First, this representative individual shares characteristics with the early German Romantic poet, a figure who separates him- or herself from the collective, communes with nature, seeking enlightenment, and seeks to educate and inspire individual citizens to seek their own enlightenment. Next, the Dos Passosian individual becomes a modern American Romantic, who shares traits with the early German Romantic poet in seeking inspiration in Nature but is also able to find some degree of enlightenment within the collective. This person then matures into a Democratic Individual, inspired by Walt Whitman, who full embraces enlightenment within the collective tries to inspire citizens to take steps in order to improve economic instability. Finally, Dos Passos's character becomes what this work terms a modern Democratic Individual, a figure who eschews Whitmanian distance from politics to become an economic and political operative and thereby acts upon a civic responsibility to the country and to fellow individual citizens while struggling in the postwar American political landscape.