Adventures of a Young Man

by John Dos Passos [ Harcourt, Brace, $2,50]
JOHN DOS PASSOW’S new novel is perhaps the most thoughtful and realistic portrait of the radical movement that has so far been produced by an American writer. His book breaks sharply with what might be called the rhapsodic tradition of left-wing literature a literature which in recent years, having lost its original social impulse, has tended to identify itself with special and highly ambiguous political interests. But Dos Passos, fortunately, is no eager and naïve newcomer, no belated enthusiast recruited on Broadway or in Hollywood by the high-powered cultural lobbyists employed by Mr. Earl Browder’s organization or by one of its innumerable holding companies. On the contrary, he is as critical of communists as he is of capitalists; and, above all, he knows that if the novelist—in this period of doctrinal bluster and passion—is to maintain his integrity he must not permit the requirements of a cause or a party to submerge his primary job of observing human beings and human situations efficiently and scrupulously. In Adventures of a Young Man, as the title
indicates, Dos Passos reverts to a form of the novel suited to telling the story of one person and to seeing the world exclusively through his eyes. It should be noted, however, that Dos Passos is still more of an historian than he is a biographer. For the ‘young man’ of this latest novel is, again, not conceived as a character but as a social type, and the meaning of his story is not to be sought in the slight individualized experience that it contains but rather in its quality as a modern political fable.
Glenn Spotswood, the son of a pacifist professor, is a typical member of the post-war generation. He is intellectually formed in an age when the recoil from the madness of the World War swung many idealistic young people into the orbit of radical activity. One woman he admires tells him about Freud, while the wayward Gladys Spingarn informs him about Lenin. A revolutionary neophyte, he dreams that ‘he and Gladys would be a part of the new world Lenin had discovered the way Columbus had discovered America.’
After some rough experiences in Texas he returns to New York to join the Communist Party and train himself as a labor leader. He is one of the organizers of a violent and dramatic strike in the Kentucky coal fields, and this strike completes his disillusionment by enabling him to observe at first hand the dishonesty of his Communist chiefs. Cutting loose from the party, he is isolated, abused, and threatened by his former friends. In the end he leaves the country to fight on the side of the Loyalists in Spain, where he is killed when Fascist bullets and the Stalinist secret police combine to do away with him.
This sober yet moving narrative is written in a brisk, idiomatic style, and its varied episodes, drawn from both private and political life, are skillfully compounded. It presents in a condensed form a whole cycle of ideas and events that less discriminating writers usually treat in a romantic or rhetorical fashion. Like Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine, it subjects the radical movement to a moral judgment, exposing its dogmas and illusions. Fanatics will dislike the book and damn its author; others, appreciating its sincerity and understanding, will have cause for gratitude.