A Reviewer's Notebook - 1966/11
NOVEMBER 01, 1966 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
John Dos Passos is one of those persons who learned the hard way. But he learned. His book about his younger years, The Best Times (New American Library, $5.00), is a record of his travels and friendships up to the mid-nineteen thirties, and they were the "best" years only in the sense that the author was young and adventurous and the "times" were not yet sullied by the worst of wars. From the standpoint of philosophical and political understanding they were not- good years at all, for during the whole long interwar period John Dos Passos was still under many illusions. He had to outgrow many places and friends in order to discover that freedom was right where he had left it as a boy, in the America of his father’s time, which was before the lures of socialism had captivated the generation that came of age around 1917.
The book begins with Dos Passos’ effort to make his father’s "figure stand up out of the shades." Old John Dos Passos Senior comes alive because his son has letters to quote from in building up the portrait. Under the intensity of the prose one senses the love-hate attitude that governed young Jack’s relations with his father. It must have been a most difficult childhood, for John Dos Passos was born late in both his mother’s and father’s lives, and his parents, as Dos Passos delicately puts it, were not able to "regularize" their son’s "civil status" (i.e., legitimatize him by getting married) until he was in his teens. The sad thing about the parents’ marriage, which followed a long love affair, was that Dos Passos’ mother, who had looked forward to a few years of peaceful family life, succumbed to a mortal illness in which she had to be cared for like a child. When he was sixteen and living through the stale heat of a Washington, D.C., summer, Dos Passos was left alone for a period with his mother. He had to do the marketing and pay the household bills, and clean up after a drunken cook. In the earlier years of his youth Dos Passos was tucked away in English schools before prevailing upon his father to let him come home to America, where he went to Choate and Harvard.
A Stern Father
The conditions of Dos Passos’ childhood made him a curious but somewhat aloof spectator of life. He admired his father’s individualistic character, but the old man was obviously a bit overpowering. The father was a Gold Democrat, a corporation lawyer, and a hater of Theodore Roosevelt. His fee for legal advice to the Havemeyer interests on forming the "sugar trust" was reputedly the largest on record.
Dos Passos pictures himself as coming home from school and offering "some ill-founded opinion." His father would forthwith irritate the boy’s "budding ego" by taking off his glasses and asking: "Is that remark the result of experience or observation?"
So the son fought a hidden duel with his father until the old man died. Years later Dos Passos came to appreciate his father for having dared to be himself. Dos Passos Senior was actually a man of great foresight. "Suppose the Allies do destroy German militarism?" he asked. His answer to his own question was that "another power or syndicate of nations stronger than the Germans will be born from the ashes of Prussia."
Probably John Dos Passos was luckier than he knew in having lived through a very special childhood. He read prodigiously in the long, lonely stretches. His sense of being "different" made him reflective. The periods he spent abroad gave him a taste for travel. And the recollections of his father’s "eighteenth century" mind eventually drew Dos Passos back to the Jeffersonian years of the American Republic, with the result that he could reject the socialism of his twenties without too much spiritual travail.
Searching for a Cause
It was a long time, however, before John Dos Passos was willing to admit to himself that "politics in our day is more destructive than fifteenth century religion." He could only sense this on the occasions when the orthodox Leftists, following the "party line," tried to provoke him into making an unqualified declaration in favor of communism. As an ambulance driver in France Dos Passos was against "imperialist" war. But he couldn’t follow the Frenchman Louis Aragon and become an out‑and-out Marxist. Working with collectivist theater groups in New York City, Dos Passos couldn’t quite bring himself to toe the line in his own plays. His novels, though sociological in their scope, were most vivid when individualistic heroes were on stage.
Dos Passos couldn’t even give himself to Bohemia. He stood a little apart from the roisterers of the Left Bank cafes. He went to the Near East, to Iran, to the Bedouin deserts, and to Soviet Russia, but, though he reveled in the colors, the sounds, and the scents of exotic places, he never quite "identified" with any of the movements he wrote about in his "painter’s eye" prose. In Russia he was impressed by the ironists, such as the man who considered "Peter the Great, who brought order out of chaos, the first Bolshevik." Dos Passos admired and liked the Russian people, but when an actress friend asked "Are you with us or against us," he jumped on the Warsaw train in the steamy Moscow station without answering. And he says that when he crossed the Polish border—Poland was not communist then — "it was like being let out of jail."
Signs of Maturity
Dos Passos’ friendships with E. E. Cummings and Ernest Hemingway took different courses.
He never broke with Cummings, whom he considered to be the "last of the great New Englanders." But Ernest Hemingway and Dos Passos began to have their differences at the time of the Spanish Civil War. True to his temperament, Dos Passos sided with the anarchists against the Stalinist regulars who wanted to win in Spain only to turn the republic over to communism. Hemingway, less probing in his politics, did not fight the Stalinists.
Speaking of the rift with Hemingway, Dos Passos says that "when the meaning of political slogans turns topsy-turvy every few years, anyone who tries to keep a questioning mind, matching each slogan with its real-life application, each label with the thing itself, has to put up with having old friends turn into unfriends and even into enemies." Maturity, to Dos Passos, meant the inevitable "shedding of friendships." "In an age like ours," so he expands the point, "when political creeds drive men to massacre and immolation, political opinions become a matter of life and death. Differences which, when men and women are still in their twenties, were the subject of cheerful and affectionate argument brew recrimination and bitterness when they reach their thirties."
What Dos Passos doesn’t say is that he kept on growing intellectually where Hemingway did not. But we can say it for him.
THE GENEROSITY OF AMERICANS by Arnaud C. Marts (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966. 240 pp., $5.00)
Reviewed by Richard Christenson
Defenders of the welfare state often base their case on the assumption that few Americans would be inclined to support the necessary educational and welfare needs of our nation, or would lack the means if they had the inclination; government, therefore, has had to step in. Mr. Marts, a professional fund raiser, explodes this assumption. He shows that the helping hand has always been extended in America, that the generosity of individuals worked out solutions to all sorts of problems long before government intervened. His historical research traces our tradition of voluntarism, for carrying out good works by personal giving and private philanthropy.
Although many of his examples are lengthy and of only passing interest to the average reader, the author gives an intriguing account of how effective private philanthropy has been and is even now. The American people gave more than $11 billion last year to finance everything from local universities to national arts and science projects; the generosity of Americans is beyond question. Mr. Marts shows that in contrast to Europe and Asia, where philanthropy is practiced by only a few, American generosity is widespread. Last year over 40 million Americans, individuals and families representing all economic levels, made contributions to various causes. This national characteristic is not something new but was in such obvious contrast to Continental practice that Alexis de Tocqueville praised it in his writings over a century ago.
How much would people give if the progressive income tax were abolished? This is an interesting question. An answer is suggested in the data provided by the author concerning the acceleration of private giving in England during the reigns of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth when the Tudor Charitable Laws were first enacted. It was from this beginning that the generous men and women of England started so many projects to help the underprivileged and poor of the nation that it makes our present war on poverty pale by comparison.
Private philanthropy satisfies something deep in the nature of the giver, Mr. Marts points out. "For some reasons, unseen and even not fully comprehended (like most spiritual motivations), many generous givers develop giving as a habit; a pleasing and satisfying refinement; a meaningful expression of their personality… numerous examples provide eloquent arguments for the critics and seem to show that if anything, giving tends to increase the capacity of individuals to share."
Private philanthropy has also proved to be the most creative and imaginative way of introducing new solutions to social needs: "Private generosity for the public good does [the] pioneering."
The late A. M. Schlesinger, Sr., writes: "In contrast to Europe, America has practically no misers and the consequence of the winning of Independence was the abolition of primogeniture and entail. Harriet Martineau was among those who concluded that ‘the eager pursuit of wealth does not necessarily indicate a love of wealth for its own sake.’ The fact is, that for a people who recalled how hungry and ill-clad their ancestors had been through the centuries in the Old World, the chance to make money was like the sunlight at the end of a tunnel. It was the means of living a life of human dignity. In other words, for the majority of Americans it was a symbolism of idealism rather than materialism. Hence, this ‘new man’ had an instinctive sympathy for the underdog, and even persons of moderate wealth gratefully shared it with the less fortunate, helping to endow charities, schools, hospitals, and art galleries and providing the wherewithal to nourish movements for humanitarian reform which might otherwise have died a-borning."
But now government is deep into fields once the domain of private philanthropy. It seems somewhat contradictory that we would go to so much effort to breathe life into something and get it started privately and then allow government with its historic inefficiency to adopt and support the newborn creature. What would happen today if the government’s role were reduced, permitting people to keep the dollars now taxed away? In such an unhampered atmosphere of freedom the private sector could once again assume its responsibility for generous giving on even a more massive scale than now.