2. John Dos Passos
The 7 set of questions listed below were those that the Editors of Philip Rahv’s piece on “This Quarter” sent out to various US writers about the state of writing in the nation. There were 7 questions:
- Are you conscious, in your own writing, of the existence of a ‘usable past’? Is this mostly American? What figures would you designate as elements in it? Would you say, for example, that Henry James’s work is more relevant to the present and future of American writing than Walt Whitman’s?
- Do you think of yourself as writing for a definite audience? If so how would you describe this audience? Would you say that the audience for serious American writing has grown or contracted in the last ten years?
- Do you place much value on the criticism your work has received? Would you agree that the corruption of the literary supplements by advertising — in the case of the newspapers — and political pressures — in the case of the liberal weeklies — has made has made serous literary criticism an isolated cult?
4. Have you found it possible to make a living by writing the sort of thing you want to, and without the aid of such crutches as teaching and editorial work? Do you think there is any place in the present economic system for literature as a profession?
5. DO you feel, in retrospect, that your writing reveals any allegiance to any group, class, organisation, region, religion, or system of thought, or do you conceive of it as mainly the expression of yourself as an individual?
6. How would you describe the political tendency of American writing as a whole since 1930? How do you feel about it yourself? Are you sympathetic to the current tendency toward what may be called “literary nationalism” — a renewed emphasis, largely uncritical, on the specifically “American” elements in our culture?
7. Have you considered the question of your attitude towards the possible entry of the United States into the next world war? What do you think the responsibilities in general are when and if war comes?
Last week I posted Gertrude Stein’s rather barbed answers. Here are the answers given by John Dos Passos:
John Dos Passos
- In relation to style and methods of writing, I hardly think of the past in chronological order. Once on the library shelf Juvenal and Dreiser are equally “usable.” The best immediate ancestor (in Auden’s sense)for today’s American writing is I think a dark star somewhere in the constellation containing Mark Twain, Melville, Thoreau and Whitman.
- The audience is probably the people who read books other than best sellers. I doubt if it has expanded much in the last ten years, though in the preceding five years it certainly expanded. It may very well be shrinking now.
- The critics for the daily press, and all the newspaper writers live in a very special world. I think they are more influenced by the ebb and flow of headlined fashions, and by the varying standards in social prestige of the world than by any direct advertising pressure. Advertising probably determines the space given a book, and in the long run, I think it will be found that various publishers’ lists get respectful attention in direct relation to the financial positions of the concerns. After all, what do you want for three cents? Current newspaper criticisms are interesting to the social historians just as fashion notes are interesting. I doubt very much if they will take their place in the “usable” past. There’s not enough, but there is some first rate literary criticism around that, naturally, is very useful to a writer.
- I’ve managed to do it so far but its nip and tuck.
- isn’t an individual just a variant in a group? The equipment belongs to the society you were brought up by. The individuality lies I how you use it. My sympathies, for some reason, lie with the private in the front line again the brass hat; with the hod carrier against the straw boss, or the walking delegate for that matter; with the laboratory worker against the stuffed shirt in a mortarboard.; with the criminal against the cop. When I try to use my head it’s somewhat different. People are you and me. As for allegiance; what I consider the good side of what’s been going on among people on this continent since 1620 or thereabouts, has mine. And isn’t there one of history’s dusty attics called the Republic of Letters.
- On the whole I’m all for the trend toward American self-consciousness in current writing. Of course any god thing gets run into the ground. I think there is enough real democracy in the very mixed American tradition to enable us, with courage and luck, to weather the social transformations that are now going on without losing all our liberties or the humane outlook that is the medium in which civilisations grow. The reaction to home-bred ways of thinking is a healthy defence against the total bankruptcy of Europe. As I have come to believe firmly that in politics the means tend to turn out to be more important than the end, I think that the more our latent pragmatism and our cynicism regard to ideas is stimulated the safer we will be.
- My attitude towards a war would entirely depend on what I thought its internal results would be, though its hard to conceive of a war that would have good results anywhere. But how would I know when it began? We live in a very odd period in human history and it’s very difficult to make broad generalizations about events or to label them beforehand. Practically, I’d probably try to get back my old job driving an ambulance.
Next Week: Another Writer Looks at the Situation of American Writing.