The following was presented in acceptance of the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, presented at Longwood College, Farmville, Virginia, September 20, 1991. The Dos Passos Prize is awarded to a writer in mid-career for a distinguished body of work; previous recipients include Graham Greene, Paule Marshall, Robert Stone, and Tom Wolfe.
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When a writer accepts a literary prize, the writer should not, like Lear’s daughter, be insufficiently grateful, nor so enamored of accolade that, like the tetrarch Herod, he’s immediately consumed by worms. Nor should a writer on these occasions forget friends and colleagues who have labored without notice over the years, or who have received a good degree of notice but remained unlaureled, at least partly for reasons I hope to address. And so, since it would be redundant and unmannerly to present a case for my own work on this occasion, I would like to speak for those disenfranchised others as I offer some reflections on the writer after whom the Dos Passos Prize is named and oh this dark time in American letters.
Whatever our feelings about the fictional techniques of Dos Passos, we have to view them as elements of a larger, individual vision rather than novelties. Mere novelty, Samuel Johnson says somewhere, thumping the table to wake Boswell up, is ignorance. Dos Passos’ techniques by now have been absorbed into the mainstream of American writers as diverse as Brooks, Capote, Doctorow, Isherwood, Oates, and both Tom Wolfes. What the “newsreel” or “headline” technique or “I am a camera” mode brought to modern writing was a sense of immediate engagement with the existing world.
There is the imperial trend in modernism, present in Joyce, Pound, Stein, Woolf, and others, that threatens to refine away the dirty world and its workings into artful constructs of language. The jolt of Dos Passos’ work, arriving at the time that it did, served as a corrective to that, and had the effect of keeping modern fiction, as well as other genres of modern writing, more earthbound and mundane, and thus more honest. Honesty, along with the intellectual vigor necessary to sustain it, is indeed the hallmark of Dos Passos’ writing and lived life.
He observed that in the United States, in the latter part of the 20th century, it is the art of politics, not the humanities or the arts, that governs everyday life. This seems on the surface a dark conclusion, and it is no secret that Dos Passos is at least as well-known for his sociopolitical views as for his literary techniques. In proper publishing circles, in fact, it is possible to hear his views dismissed in one word: conservative.
Dos Passos’ brand of conservatism is identical to the conservatism of the writers of the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. He did not want individual liberties to be infringed upon, and he began his career cherishing the views we now find enshrined at PEN—the acronym for that political congregation of poets, essayists, and novelists. Dos Passos did not become crystallized in his thought, however, or isolated within an “artistic” community. He began to write his way toward an alternate outlook that offered, as he saw it, the most humane and reasonable solutions to the social problems confronting Americans. He had not found such solutions in the socialism he once espoused, as the Eastern bloc of the world lately has not.
It takes not only intellectual vigor but mg and their effects can be seen in writ- courage to alter one’s views, particularly when it means going against the grain, to and this Dos Passos did, putting up with dismissal by critics and the academy even the loss of old friends, such as Hemingway. He was scorned in the same way and for the same reasons that Politics in one of the most courageous and profound figures of the last half of the 20th American Letters century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, was scorned in America during its liberal 70’s—for his politically incorrect views.
It doesn’t matter that the words of both have proven prophetic; their views did not and do not mesh with the views ascendance within America’s literary-publishing complex, the academy, or the extended media. If the humane arts (rather than the military or martial or other arts) have less and less governance over our attitudes, as they do, it is because those arts are more and more governed by internal politics.
This was what Dos Passos’ warnings were about.
The quality or relevance of literary work nowadays can be less important than the views expressed in it or the people you know. And just as bad or worse (it’s difficult to judge with the dark growing darker) is the academy’s refusal to carry on discourse with ideologies or views alien to its entrenched Marxist-humanism (no oxymoron that), and the reluctance of the literary-publishing complex to take note of, much less put into print or support, the work of anyone whose views are not quite correct.
If anyone is unsure of what I’m saying, I’ll say it more openly, because the attitude that needs to be identified has made its way from the literary arena to grant-giving foundations to the media, and from the best universities and colleges into every branch of public education: it is the attitude that says I must agree with the prevailing view, or adhere to its theories and politics and agenda, in order to be properly acceptable, if acceptable at all. This attitude is, in substance, intolerant; it is prejudicial, and suggests the beginning of a new era of cultural imperialism. What is taking place in literary and academic circles as a matter of course is exactly what Dos Passos warned against and feared. It would not be prudent of me to accept an award that bears his name, I feel, without a reminder of what he stood for, on behalf of those disenfranchised others who have no forum, due to the present-day, exclusionary trend that is undermining American letters.