Whatever it is, The Theme Is Freedom is dazzling and deep. Who writes like Dos Passos today? Mark Helprin, for one, but not many others.
The collected pieces date from 1926 to the present, i.e., 1956. That is a neat span of 30 years. And, for the anniversary-minded, this is the 60th anniversary of the book. Throughout the book, Dos Passos provides a running commentary, in italics. That is, his mid-’50s self comments on his earlier self. He is sometimes embarrassed, but he would not have republished these pieces if he weren’t pleased with them — as well he should be.
He maintains that, wherever he has been on the political spectrum, his theme has been constant: the freedom of the individual, and therefore of society as a whole. We can argue with him, and claim that he tarried too long with the Left, but he has a case. And, even at his left-most, he was usually awake and skeptical, rather than hypnotized and fanatical.
Here is Dos Passos — the 1950s Dos Passos — on the radical attitude (an attitude that he of course shared):
Capitalism was the bogey that was destroying civilization. Cut the businessman’s profits we said. … We thrilled to the word cooperative. … Capitalism was the sin that had caused the war [World War I]; only the working class was free from crime.And here he is on an interesting correlation of forces:
Greenwich Village wanted freedom and so did the working class. … Greenwich Villagers, mostly the sons and daughters of professional people, clergymen and lawyers and doctors, felt a sudden kinship with the working class. Of all strata of society only the artists and writers and the people who worked with their hands were pure. Together they would overturn the businessman and become top dog themselves. From the alliance between the trade unions and Greenwich Village the American radical was born.Exactly. I know this alliance — or imagined alliance — so well. I saw it in Ann Arbor (my hometown), to begin with.
‐Dos Passos has a memory. The New York radicals have traveled to Passaic, N.J., to protest for Sacco and Vanzetti.
The protest meeting is over and I’m standing on a set of steps looking into the faces of the people coming out of the hall. I’m frightened by the tense righteousness of the faces. Eyes like a row of rifles aimed by a firing squad. Chins thrust forward into the icy night. It’s almost in marching step that they stride out into the street. It’s the women I remember most, their eyes searching out evil through narrowed lids. There’s something threatening about this unanimity of protest. They are so sure they are right.Dos Passos agreed with the protest, mind you. He was part of it. But he was unnerved — “frightened” — by the people. I know these people. I saw them in Ann Arbor. I saw them in many other places afterward.
Today, you can see them on campuses as “SJWs”: “social-justice warriors.” You can see them wherever there is arrogant, intolerant extremism (no matter which direction it’s coming from).
‐Once upon a time, there was tolerance, Dos Passos writes. You could talk to people.
It’s amusing to remember that in those carefree days a Communist party-member and an anarcho-syndicalist and even some sad dog of a capitalist who believed in laissez faire could sit at the same table and drink beer together and lay their thoughts on the line. It wasn’t that you respected the other fellow’s opinions exactly, but you admitted his right to remain alive. Needless to say, this happy state didn’t last very long.
Tuesday, January 29, 2019
There’s something threatening about this unanimity of protest. They are so sure they are right
Dos Passos has been a name that I became aware of in university but with little weight beyond recognition. Jay Nordlinger makes me want to rush out and find a book of his essays. From Doses of Dos Passos, Part I by Jay Nordlinger.