John Dos Passos: Biography & Books

Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

John Dos Passos was a political activist and author of over 40 novels, many of which critiqued America during the early 20th century. Read about how his political and personal experiences inspired his work and his country.


John Roderigo Dos Passos was born in Chicago on January 14, 1896. Dos Passos' birth was the result of an affair. His father, married to another woman at the time, refused to acknowledge Dos Passos as his son until he was in his teens. Their struggling relationship would appear thematically in much of Dos Passos' work to come.

Photograph of John Dos Passos
John Dos Passos photo

After traveling the world with a private tutor, studying literature and classics, Dos Passos returned to America to attend Harvard College. He graduated in 1916 and moved to Spain to continue his study abroad. In 1917, Dos Passos volunteered as an ambulance driver during World War I, and by 1918, he had finished his first novel. However, pursuit of its publication would be postponed because he joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps. In 1920, Dos Passos published his first novel, One Man's Initiation: 1917 and decidedly made America his home again. By 1930, his writing had granted him critical and commercial success, as did his other talent - painting. While he never made a living selling his art, Dos Passos did create many of his novels' cover art.

While working as a journalist, Dos Passos witnessed many social injustices in America and grew more and more 'revolutionary' in his political beliefs. All of his experiences and views helped to shape his most famous work, now deemed the U.S.A. trilogy_, a collection of novels that drew from the events of the 20th century.

His cynicism of American politics pushed him towards movements associated with socialism and communism, leading to his move back to Spain. However, after the Soviets murdered a close friend of his and Ernest Hemingway helped them to cover it up, Dos Passos broke from the movement for good. He would later, in fact, completely flip his political beliefs and become extremely conservative, going so far as to promote the infamous Republican presidential candidate, Richard M. Nixon.

On September 28, 1970, Dos Passos died at the age of 74. In 2001, as a tribute to his legacy, an exhibition of his paintings called The Art of John Dos Passos, traveled around the country.


Dos Passos came to be known as an important member of the Lost Generation, a group of artists during WWI who wrote about the disorientation of living through such a war-ridden era. Also a part of the Lost Generation were writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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