Century’s Ebb: The Thirteenth Chronicle
by John Dos Passos.
Hardcover, 474 pages.
Publico ergo damnatus. —John Dos Passos, May 23, 1970
Reviewed by Pedro Blas González
John Rodrigo Dos Passos (1896-1970) is a writer with an expansive view of man, of human reality. Besides being a literary craftsman, he is a historiographer of American culture and values. While his grasp of the details of human life, man’s opinions, values and convictions is admirable, Dos Passos’ work is grounded in the author’s deference for the big picture. Of the writers who are loosely grouped as belonging to the Lost Generation—writers who came of age during World War I—Dos Passos’ literary vision is arguably the most expansive.
Dos Passos is best known for his novels Three Soldiers, Manhattan Transfer, and the U.S.A trilogy: The 42nd Parallel (1930); 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). He called his novels “contemporary chronicles”—and Century’s Ebb, published posthumously in 1975, is subtitled “The Thirteenth Chronicle.” It is Dos Passos’ final literary testament of American democracy, her culture, and the decadent zeitgeist he believed was emerging in the nation. Like many of his other novels, Century’s Ebb chronicles America, her people, customs, and character through a large swath of the twentieth century. Most importantly, the novel is Dos Passos’ poignant portrayal of the corruption of American innocence by the impetus of sinister ideological forces, especially after World War II.
Century’s Ebb begins by probing the mind and sexual exploits of a well-to-do mama’s boy named Danny DeLong. Danny, who is about to go to prison for corrupt financial dealings, recounts his story in characteristic Dos Passos non-linear fashion. Danny’s mother, who has been reading Freud and Havelock Ellis, makes Danny and his sister consult a psychologist in order to teach the children the latest theories of human sexuality. Dr. Ruby, “a small skimpy man with a wisp of pale beard and yellow eyes,” tells the boy’s mother that the youngster is “inhibited and might get a complex that would ruin” his life. Dos Passos here foreshadows his discontent with the tenor of morals and values that would become entrenched in American culture after the 1960s as morality was psychologized away in favor of letting out one’s “real self.”
Danny goes on to say, “All this permissiveness was new then. I’d pull my line about how we must let out our natural urges or else we’d get inhibitions and complexes. You bet I worked out a hotter line than Dr. Ruby.” Danny’s reckless abandon with young women forces him to drop out of sight for a while. What better way to attain secular redemption than to embrace a popular cause? “Mom had been all worked up for months about the Fascists attacking the Spanish Republic … If anybody told her they were Reds she’d jump down his throat,” Danny explains. Danny surrenders his energy to the fervor of international communism in the Spanish Civil War. He sails to Spain and quickly discovers that the war “wasn’t just one civil war; it was two or three different civil wars all going on at the same time.” (The most insightful novelistic treatment of the Spanish Civil War is Spanish writer Jose Maria Gironella’s The Cypresses Believe in God.
Century’s Ebb, like Dos Passos’ other work, offers an expansive view of man. The author’s unquenchable zest to understand human experience is why in his mature works Dos Passos laments the politicization of all aspects of human life by Marxist ideologues as leading to the castration of the imagination and the destruction of probity. Dos Passos was himself a victim of ideology’s clipping the wings of independent-minded writers who do not toe the party line. After the publication of Adventures of a Young Man (1936), the first installment of the District of Columbia Trilogy—which was followed by Number One (1943) and The Grand Design (1949)—Dos Passos was ostracized by Marxist literary elites: “Adventures of a Young Man upset the applecart. The Commies decided I was a goddamn reactionary and let loose.” In 1936 Dos Passos went to Spain to take part in the creation of a documentary about the war. His leftist idealism was shattered in 1937 when his friend José Robes, a Spanish-born Johns Hopkins University professor, was murdered by Soviet intelligence agents who distrusted Robles, even though he was a communist. This traumatic event enabled Dos Passos to place the events of the Spanish Civil War, and the motives of Soviet Communism, in perspective.
Dos Passos’ work explores American themes. He is an informative and educational writer whose writing was attuned to the fragility of open societies, especially American society and culture, that other writers neglected or never suspected. Dos Passos’ uncanny vision to understand the undercurrents of American society made it possible for him to accurately predict her future. His work should be featured on the shelves of collections of what is now called American Studies. Today, only radical ideologues are so foolish as to reject the mountain of data available for study and reflection on the panoramic influence of Marxism-Leninism in the twentieth century. Dos Passos is one of many conscientious writers who retained the scent of truth in a time when others opted for fashionable moral duplicity.
Dos Passos’ work pays allegiance to human liberty. For him, free individuals are the motor of history. Because Dos Passos’ weltanschauung is an expansive reflection on human reality, the characters and historical settings of his novels remind sincere readers of the vast and mysterious canvass that is human existence. The beauty and complexity of human experience, Dos Passos cautions, cannot be circumscribed and politicized by radical ideology. Dos Passos was as interested in the natural world, as he was with human history, social mores, and the psyche’s grasp of place and time. For instance, in Easter Island: Island of Enigmas (1971), the novelist displays mastery of navigation and ethnographical questions as readily as he embraces Easter Island archaeology and the voyages of James Cook.
Century’s Ebb ends with Dos Passos paying homage to the achievements of the Apollo lunar missions. Throughout this grand work, the author juxtaposes biographical sketches of Walt Whitman with what Dos Passos viewed as the unraveling of the virtues and values that enable open societies to flourish. The portrayal of Whitman is the glue that unifies the complex elements of the novel. Through Whitman’s words, Dos Passos brings coherence to the worldview and disposition of the characters. This is another powerful example of Dos Passos’ proficiency in storytelling.
Dos Passos employs in Century’s Ebb his usual Dos Passos literary techniques: the camera’s eye, stream of consciousness, newsreel and newspaper clippings. The effect is a kaleidoscopic glance at the twentieth century, making the reader ponder the nature and power of contradictions. This is what the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset refers to as vigencias—paying heed to existential aspects of human reality regarding customs, beliefs, convictions, and how these reflect a culture.
Dos Passos is that rare writer who understands the temptation of conflating the allure of ideology with reality, and how succumbing leads to certain tragedy. Nowhere is this truer, the author suggests throughout Century’s Ebb, than the arrogance of dead-end ideas and their corresponding pernicious values. Ideas, he tells us, have consequences; baneful ideas have calamitous effects. We can convey this in today’s popular lingo by suggesting that, without the hardware, there is only the illusion of progress.
His character, Jay Pignatelli, an American true believer lawyer who enlists his service to the communist in the Spanish Civil War, becomes disenchanted by the atrocities and hypocrisy that he witnesses in the Iberian Peninsula: “The Russian revolution, instead of being a sudden flare-up like the French, is a long-term proposition that will engulf the whole world and the whole century.” Mr. Pignatelli, of course, did not know about Antonio Gramsci, the rabid genius responsible for the cultural war on Western values and Marxist hegemony, and the nefarious strategists of the Frankfurt School who gave us critical theory. Pignatelli becomes frightened by the sinister patience practiced by those who embrace the long march: “Bolsheviks invented a brand new technique for excising power over mankind. I had suspicions before, but I had to see it working in Madrid and Barcelona to understand the power of terror, continual scientifically implemented terror.”
Dos Passos’ work defends the fortitude of individuals over against the ruinous outcome of collectivization on the human psyche. Undoubtedly, the latter has already proven to be the consumptive estate of the twentieth century. The closing of Century’s Ebb has Dos Passos marveled by man’s technological progress. This is a testament to the expansive view of man in the cosmos that Dos Passos’ writing celebrates. Yet he is fearful of the techniques of terror and mass control that Marxism-Leninism has perfected, which emasculate people in open societies.
Century’s Ebb laments that the future of truth and reason would become the purview of sophists. The latter’s chameleon-like mastery over words is the great weapon of radical ideologues, whose situational morality depends on ends justifying means. A nation’s social-political reality is a bastardly indicator of a the moral health of her people. Of John Dewey and American philosophy, the narrator says: “Slogans were taking the place of thought.”
By the end of his life, Dos Passos was saddened by the prospect that the future of American democracy and culture was becoming radicalized. He echoed Friedrich Schiller’s existential inquietude that “a great moment has found a little people.” Dos Passos’ expansive view of man—his respect for the human person—came into conflict with Marxism and its many derivatives, including the deconstruction of Western thought and values post WWII, which explains continued efforts to blacklist this giant of world literature.
Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.