“75 at 75: Writers on Recordings,” a special project from the 92nd Street Y in celebration of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s seventy-fifth anniversary and beyond, invites contemporary authors to listen to a recording from the Poetry Center’s archive and write a personal response. Here, Lydia Davis reflects on John Dos Passos’s reading from January 18, 1965, which was introduced by her father, Robert Gorham Davis, Columbia English professor and literary critic.
Offered the rich array of events recorded in the decades-spanning Unterberg Poetry Center archive, I was immediately drawn to comment upon John Dos Passos reading at the 92nd Street Y, before knowing what he had read or how interesting the evening was or wasn’t. I was drawn to it because the one who introduced him that evening—January 18, 1965—was my father, Robert Gorham Davis, then a literary critic and professor at Columbia. I had another strong reason to want to revisit Dos Passos, and it was that one of his books, most likely Manhattan Transfer or part of the U.S.A. trilogy, was the first book that appealed to me, at age twelve or fourteen, purely for the quality of the writing. I have tried and tried, without success, to find what I remember as those limpid, incantatory opening paragraphs. It was perhaps my first “grown-up” book (if I don’t count Mazo de la Roche’s rather steamy Jalna series). To be intrigued by more than plot and character, by the language of the writing itself, was the beginning of my slow awakening to the power of writing. And, of course, it changed the way I read a book—no longer mainly for the story, for an escape into another world, but now also for the way the sentences were formed, the kind of language that was used.
The Dos Passos book, whichever one it was, was also the first, or early, in the long list of books that I never finished reading. A book whose story captivated me, I would finish. A book which, on the other hand, excited or inspired me by the way it was written, I usually would not. I would read just enough to absorb the nature of the book, understand the approach, become excited by the texture of the writing, and then I would put the book aside. I don’T think this was mere laziness, or distraction. There is a real difference between a book unfinished and a book read to the end. A book read to the end gives one a clear idea of the whole of the book, the overall structure and full content, and that is one sense of a book, a more complete sense, you might say. But a book unfinished allows you to feel you are forever afterward still inside that book, that you are part of it, live in it, continue the experience of it, and that its further continuation and conclusion remain forever mysterious. In a sense, you do not have to read more—you have already learned a good deal, enough to change your thinking about the possibilities of writing, in this case the writing of fiction. Dos Passos himself says, at the 92nd street Y, how the effect of an influence, of something new in literature, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, is “instantaneous.”
Before his reading, on this winter night in 1965, he talks about his development, how he was stimulated by his time in Paris and by his exposure, there, to modernism and the avant-garde in art, dance, music, and writing. He talks about Rimbaud and “rapportage,” the idea of a writer recording life as a filmmaker recorded it, his ambition, once he bent to the task of writing, to be “desperately experimental.” He decided against, for himself, the approach of such “subjective” novels as Ulysses and its precursor Tristram Shandy, being more drawn to the “chronicle novels,” the works of Thackeray, Stendhal, War and Peace—historical events as told through the lives of individuals. He determined that in the case of his own novels, “everything must go in.” “They were never supposed to end,” he said.
What he reads aloud on this evening are “portraits” from the U.S.A. trilogy and Midcentury, as well as some of the smaller, impressionistic Camera Eye sections. The latter are rhapsodic, eloquently repetitive, sensually descriptive, whereas the portraits—biographical accounts of Isadora Duncan, Eleanor Roosevelt, James Dean—are quite straightforward, written in highly factual short sentences. He reads fast, with conviction and intelligence, stumbling occasionally, offering moments of humor, most involving human foible, at which his audience laughs quietly and sympathetically. His accent sounds both vaguely British and vaguely Southern, though he was born and raised in Chicago and traveled widely across Europe as a young man—he drops his r’s and his delivery has a refined or elevated lilt to it.
There is an engaging question-and-answer period after the reading, with thoughtful audience questions, both literary and political, chosen and asked by R.G. Davis. Davis’s delivery is carefully enunciated, measured, and steady. Dos Passos, on the other hand, has quite noticeable difficulty in offering fluent answers. He makes many rapid-fire beginnings, stutters and stumbles, sometimes does not conclude at all, letting his voice trail off, sometimes at last manages a quickly articulate conclusion. Among his remarks: life is difficult; people need a way to externalize; the aim of any work of art is to reach some kind of catharsis.
I have a few of his books here in the house, and I can see, particularly in The 42nd Parallel—the first of the U.S.A. trilogy, published in 1930—what may have awakened me to the power of language as a child. In some sections, there is an almost incoherent greedy devouring of life, broken phrases upon broken phrases, piled one on top of another. The quoted speech is urgent and rings true. In other sections, there are sudden shifts to calm and gentle, a graceful narration of, for instance, a natural landscape, with respectful attention to the creatures and plants that populate it. In the opening of Three Soldiers, his World War I novel, there are descriptions that include smells and colors, that are finely detailed, that use repetition of detail for effect.
I am guessing, now, since I still respond to their beautiful specificity, that it might have been most of all these lyrical, sensual physical descriptions that stopped me, as a child, entranced me, changed my thinking about what a book could offer besides the always-enthralling plot and character. In Three Soldiers, it would have been the opening description of the military drill grounds that includes piles of bluish cinders, a motif that repeats, with the cinders crunching under the soldiers’ feet. In The 42nd Parallel, it is the description of a river. I will quote the whole sentence, because it shows so clearly how Dos Passos proceeds from one focus of interest to another. The first part of the sentence would have been familiar territory for me—characters, a situation, a drama, especially and usually a family drama, mild or heightened. But this sentence proceeds straight and easily from there to something different: the language brings the particularity of the world into sharp focus and displays the capacity of the English language to convey it. Here is the sentence: “Some evenings when Mom felt poorly, Fainy had to go further; round the corner past Maginnis’s, down Riverside Avenue where the trolley ran, and across the red bridge over the little river that flowed black between icy undercut snowbanks in winter, yellow and spuming in the spring thaws, brown and oily in summer.”
My copy of The 42nd Parallel is a 1930 first edition which my father, according to his inscription, bought in March of that year. He was twenty-two years old when he bought the book—just completing his education at Harvard. His early interest in Dos Passos—which may have been connected with his awakening political interests—was sustained over the next decades, in which he turned from writing fiction to teaching and writing criticism. It was thirty-five years later that he introduced Dos Passos. Inserted between two pages of this book, there is a photograph clipped from The Herald Tribune. The caption is missing, but of the three people shown having lunch outdoors—a woman and two men — the one on the right, balding, clean-shaven, white-shirted, leaning forward eagerly into the sunshine, appears to be Dos Passos. I would even hazard a guess, from the clapboard siding in the background and a sloping walkway, that they are in Provincetown, since that was a popular summer destination for intellectuals in the thirties and after. What adds a little historical interest to the clipping and allows me to date it quite closely, is that on the reverse, there is a corner of a photo of Amelia Earhart and a full caption headlined “Ready to Take Off for Europe”: “Mrs. Amelia Earhart Putnam saying good-by to well-wishers beneath the wing of her plane as she prepared to hop off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland on the flight across the Atlantic.” Her flight (her first transatlantic, fourteen hours) took place on May 20, 1932.
To a large extent, Dos Passos seems to have faded from view in the literary scene. I don’t see his name often, in discussions or lists of twentieth-century American authors. Many of the books are certainly good; even his poems are in their own way interesting, I think—plain, straightforward, observant, and not dated. (My father, in a critical study, disagrees, saying that here Dos Passos writes “in a soft and outmoded vein” and that the poems are “mere traveler’s sketches.”) Did his purpose and subject matter in the “chronicles” cause him to seem to us too topical, too local, too much of his time? Or were too many of his later works simply not so good? Or was the problem philosophical, the fact that over the years he had come to embrace a despair that is painful for us to read? Or was it his increasing political conservatism? (To my surprise, his “politics” were referred to quite frankly by R.G. Davis in his introduction as something most of the audience, including himself, would “not agree with.”)
And yet, there must still be readers of his work out there, and even scholars. I know this because I receive regular reminders. My father wrote, for a University of Minnesota series devoted to prominent American authors, a chapbook on Dos Passos which was published in 1962. Every two or three years, even after all this time, my brother receives a royalty statement from the publisher, along with a small check. He then scrupulously sends me a copy of the statement and half the amount of the check. The check is so small—$7, $5.50, in a good year $14—that my brother thinks, reasonably, that we should give up our modest profit and let the publisher keep the money. But so far I have resisted. I like the idea that my father, through his painstaking work on the author so long ago, is still, from beyond the grave, contributing this iota to our support.
Subscribers can read our Art of Fiction interview with John Dos Passos in our Spring 1969 issue. Subscribe today!
Lydia Davis is the author of The End of the Story and multiple collections of short fiction, including Varieties of Disturbance and Can’t and Won’t. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship. She was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award and won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. Her new collection of literary essays will be published in Spring 2019.