Across genres: John dos Passos`s Brazil on the move A

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Across genres: John dos Passos`s Brazil on the move A
Across genres: John dos Passos’s Brazil on the move
A pluralidade de género em Brazil on the move, de John dos Passos
Fernanda Luísa Feneja1
ABSTRACT: This article analyses how John Dos Passos’s Brazil on the Move (1963) exemplifies
the conventions of travel writing, on the one hand, and how it departs from them, on the other, in its
representation of a foreign country and of its culture. I intend to discuss the relevance of this
combination of literary genres in this book, considering the writer’s background, his writing
techniques and the ideology/ies underlying his work.
Key-words: travel writing – literary genre – cultural representation – the self and the other
RESUMO: Este artigo analisa de que forma o livro de John Dos Passos Brazil on the Move
(1963) é paradigma das convenções da literatura de viagens, por um lado, e como se distancia
delas, por outro, ao representar um país estrangeiro e a sua cultura. Pretendemos refletir
acerca da importância de tal ecletismo genérico nesta obra, tendo em conta o percurso do
escritor, as suas técnicas de escrita e a/s ideologia/s subjacentes à sua obra.
Palavras-chave: narrativa de viagens – género literário – representação cultural – o eu e o
John Roderigo Dos Passos became conspicuous in the American literary scene in the
twenties, following the publication of Manhattan Transfer, in 1926. Although before that he
had already published a few works, namely One Man’s Initiation (1920) and Three Soldiers
(1921), which focus mainly on the war experience and on its devastating impact on the
individual, in Manhattan Transfer he attempted most successfully at the innovative writing
style that he later improved in U.S.A. (1930, 1932 and 1936). Not only did these novels deal
with the thematic concerns of the decade, but they also converged with the modernist impulse
in the arts, by means of their technical originality.
Because both academic and literary criticism have long acclaimed Manhattan Transfer
and U.S.A. as Dos Passos’s best works, he is mostly referred to as a modernist novelist.
Doutorada em Literatura Americana (2007), mestre em Estudos Americanos (2000) e licenciada em Línguas e
Literaturas Modernas, Estudos Ingleses e Alemães (1986). E-mail: [email protected]
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However, throughout his life-long career, he tried to keep his creative independence from any
literary labeling, both through his reflections on that issue and, most importantly, through the
literary production itself. In fact, on the one hand his works also display aesthetic features
shared by naturalistic and realistic trends. And, on the other, his bibliography covers a wide
scope of literary genres and modes, ranging from the novel to poetry, plays, historical
narrative, biography2, and autobiography3.
Brazil on the Move (1963) adds to such an eclectic production apparently as a book of
travelling or a journey narrative. Dos Passos’s biographers, Townsend Ludington (1980) and
Virginia Carr (2004), explain how the writer became so interested in this country so as to
write a book about it. He travelled to Brazil on three different occasions, in 1948, 1958 and
1962, respectively. The first trip was part of a working expedition to a few countries in South
America to study the impact of communism and of dictatorship in that part of the globe. He
spent a month in Brazil, which he extensively travelled through and became fascinated by, as
he stated in a letter to Claude Bowers: “Brazil is enormous and poor and interesting” (CARR,
2004, p. 469). The material he collected there was used in an article in the December 1948
issue of Life magazine, “Pioneers in Brazil” (468-9). Dos Passos would return to Brazil in 1958
on an invitation by the “Instituto Brasil-Estados Unidos”. Although this trip included a
number of lectures at Brazilian universities and a few articles, as a way to pay for the longer
stay – he called it a “working holiday” 4 (516) –, he already had in mind the idea of writing a
book based on the journey (514). Brazil on the Move was published in 1963, after one last trip
the year before, and the narrative covers episodes from all the three stays. Paragon House
republished it a few decades later as the first paperback edition, in its “The Armchair
Traveller Series”, in 1991.
The Ground We Stand On (1941), The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson (1954), The Shackles of Power:
Three Jeffersonian Decades (1966) are some of his historical writings. The Garbage Man, Airways, Inc., and
Fortune Heights are three plays, published in 1934.
Jay Pignatelli, the main character in Chosen Country (1951) is considered the fictional representation of John
Dos Passos himself.
Meshew quotes Fussell on how travel and work are intertwined: “Travel is work. Etymologically, a traveler is
one who suffers travail, a word deriving in its turn from Latin tripalium, a torture instrument consisting of three
stakes designed to rack the body. Before the development of tourism, travel was conceived to be like study, and
its fruits were considered to be the adornment of the mind and the formation of judgment” (MEWSHAW, 2005:
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Interestingly, the book seems to have regained recent acclaim, partly following its
reedition in Brazil in 2013. As in the United States, this is also the second edition since the
Portuguese translation O Brasil Desperta, in 1964. Also, the Portuguese literary critic
Vamberto Freitas has recently written an article on Brazil on the Move, a reflection he
considers deserving given not only the ancestral ties between Portugal and Brazil, but also the
need to explore Dos Passos’s hypenated status and his later relation to his Portuguese ancestry
(FREITAS, 2012).
In addition to this, the recent creation (in 2013) of a website5 dedicated to John Dos
Passos by his family, is expected to renew public attention to the writer’s work and trigger the
reedition of some of his works, as his grandson, John Coggin, states in a an interview with
Douglas Trevor:
Certainly, we are excited to promote classics like U.S.A. and Manhattan
Transfer. In addition, we want to use the site to spread word of John Dos
Passos’s obscure but strong works like Brazil on the Move. Many out-ofprint works are deserving of fanfare. Our hope is to return some titles to
print. We believe that the official John Dos Passos website can act as a
catalyst for a revival of interest in his work. It’s an exciting time for the
John Dos Passos legacy” (TREVOR, 2013).
Townsend Ludington, who gives more attention to Brazil on the Move than Virginia
Carr, refers to it as a “book of reportage about Brazil”, largely based on the notes made by the
writer during his trips and on the materials he collected (1980, p. 488). Linda Wagner
considers that, together with The Portugal Story (1966) and Easter Island (1971), it is a book
“about places” (1979, p. 147). Both terms seem to unmistakably converge with the
overarching definition of travel writing, which literary dictionaries define broadly as the
description of any author’s journey to a distant place, traced back to Great Antiquity with
Herodotus’ trip to Egypt and other parts of Africa (c. 485-425) (WHEELER). Cuddon, in
turn, calls “travel books” all sorts of writing that, for a variety of reasons and purposes, deal
with accounts or records of “sojourns in foreign lands” (1991, p. 995), which partly explains
the richness and variety that he ascribes to the genre (1002).
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Research on travel literature, however, has raised important questions concerning its
delimitation as a literary genre. Some major studies are those of Casey Blanton (2002) and
Tim Youngs (2013). While both concur in the idea that travel writing is quite a hybrid and
complex genre, comprising diverse influences such as those of fiction or journalism, each of
them puts forward relevant arguments in terms of the conceptualization of this type of
In her seminal work Travel Writing. The Self and the World (2002), Blanton maps out
the history of travel writing, from its early origins to the present, and analyses a number of
selected works that span the whole timeline of human history. She thus classifies travel
literature into two different, though overlapped, types: (1) the impersonal journey narrative,
with a linear structure that clings to the chronological order of the itinerary itself; and (2) a
second type, which relies more noticeably on elements borrowed from fiction, such as a rising
and falling action, conflict, or character. She concludes that what can be considered nowadays
“travel literature” results largely from a balance between the impersonal and the personal
types, which testifies to the afore-mentioned genre complexity and impurity (4-5).
Nonetheless, travel writings are always writings of place, in other words, representations of
place and the fixing of “the contours and colours of a particular region of the globe” in our
minds (2002: 106).
Youngs, in turn, sets out to define the term by linking it, on the one hand, to the
narrative categories of time and space, and, on the other hand, to the idea of identity: selfidentity and the other’s. As Blanton, he considers its eclectic character, namely the integration
of features from fiction, but draws primarily on Peter Hulme’s6 criterion that the writer must
have travelled to the places he describes (pp. 5-8). This aspect is of paramount importance
because it places travel narrative outside the scope of fiction.
While an overview of the chapters of Brazil on the Move most obviously sets the book
in the category of non-fiction, it still hints at some genre imprecision. In addition, as we shall
see later in this essay, its complete reading raises a number of questions that, in my view, go
beyond that of genre and correlate with Dos Passos’s path both as a writer and as an American
Youngs co-published The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing (2002) with Peter Hulme.
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Brazil on the Move opens with a brief Brazilian legend about the country and the
people, which serves as introduction to the characterization that follows. Throughout this first
chapter, Dos Passos describes the country’s atypical geography, its natural wonders and flaws,
and mentions the Portuguese settlement and colonization. Although knowledge of this issue
proved crucial and even prompted his later interest for his ancestry, eventually leading him to
the writing of The Portugal Story, it is only superficially exposed. Besides the simple style
and language, it seems to lack a deeper and critical insight, namely as regards the process of
colonization. Jandyra Cunha, who studies Dos Passos’s vision on Brazil from the standpoint
of linguistics, considers that he sticks to the official versions taught to school children in the
fifties, which befitted his conservative political perspective at the time. Therefore, he pictures
the Portuguese settlement as a peaceful process, accepted almost as a natural phenomenon by
the colonized people (2000).
Despite the fact that Dos Passos had previously written a few books on American
history, and that his major fiction works successfully intertwined fiction and historical
representation, in this first chapter of Brazil on the Move history provides no more than the
framework for the cultural portrait of the Brazilian people. In particular, Dos Passos contends
that the racial mixture of the Portuguese settlers can be traced back to the nation’s formative
years, including Celts, Visigoths, Burgundian French, Moors, Phoenician, or Carthaginian.
Along with interracial marriage and progeny, Portuguese culture and language testify to that
interaction, which also accommodates religious exchange, for example between Moors and
Catholics. These traits, according to Dos Passos, distinguish Portugal from other European
colonizing nations, and were taken by fifteenth century settlers to Brazil, where they
expanded this matrix of racial interaction, this time with the native people (1991, pp. 2, 3).
Because of this, Dos Passos calls Brazil the “Melting Pot of the Americas”, which is also the
title of this first chapter. Yet, such a choice goes beyond the ethnographic portrait of the
people. Imported from the American context, the expression “melting pot” is a metaphor for
the composition of America, based on diversity, and expresses the idea of fusion of all
cultures, thereby giving birth to a new one, the American (PIRES, 1996, p. 277). Regardless
of the controversy that the term also entails7, it remains linked to the idea of cultural
Criticism of the concept relied heavily on the idea that the fusion of all cultures, expressed by the metaphor of
melting metal, did not respect the particular characteristics of each culture, implicitly running counter to the
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pluralism, closely linked with cultural tolerance. This conceptual connection also underlies
Dos Passos’s reflections on the Brazilian people: “Along with racial toleration, religious
toleration has been the rule (1991, p. 11). And again, he believes this feature to have been
inherited from the Portuguese: “Perhaps the thread of racial and religious and political
tolerance that keeps reappearing in their history has something to do with the success of the
Portuguese as colonizers” (…) “Seafaring peoples tend to get their prejudices rubbed off” (23). It is interesting to note that another European traveler to Brasil, in the late thirties, the
Austrian writer Stefan Zweig8, celebrates the mixture of races and the incredible identity
pattern that was born out of such an interaction, openly opposing the belief in the correlation
of culture and race (1955, p. 20); his perspective thus converged with the anthropological
theories of Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, who put forward the concept of
cultural relativism, where culture correlates with learned behavior, human creativity and
spiritual liberty, and the need for tolerance (PIRES, 1996, p. 68).
Dos Passos’s appreciation of this feature of the Brazilian people not only conforms to
this pattern, but it is also consistent with his previous approaches to issues such as race,
nationality, religious beliefs or gender in his early fiction, in which he consistently represents
the diversity in American society and crudely exposes how they illustrate the betrayal of the
American Dream.
Only after having traced this profile of the country does Dos Passos start the description
of his journey. This second chapter resembles a travel diary, consisting of Dos Passos’s
chronological telling of his wanderings from the moment he first landed in Rio de Janeiro in
1948 to the trip to Belém with Bernardo Sayão in the second chapter. A comprehensive look
at the lexical field provides immediate evidence of this. Apart from verbs of movement,
almost all of them in the past simple tense, such as “landed”, “turned off the road”, “returned
over”, “got settled”, a handful of diverse expressions belong in the same semantic field:
“roads”, “hotel”, “lodging”, “on the way back”, “my next expedition”, “trip”, “airport”, “by
that time we had arrived”, we “walked back to the station” (13-27), to cite but a few.
However, such a linguistic framework, as simple as it may be, provides the unavoidable
concept of cultural pluralism. Other expressions came out as a result of this discussion, aiming to preserve each
culture’s own identity: stew, salad, salad bowl, for example (Pires, 1996: 280-1).
Stefan Zweig eventually moved to Brazil, Petropolis, in the early forties. Deeply depressed with the evolution
of World War II and the rise of anti-Semitism and of intolerance, he would commit suicide, soon followed by his
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resource for the travel-writer to gain insight into the visited place. Again, the categories
overlap, as this record is, after all, a writing of place. And place, incidentally, is a prime
narrative category: as Reis and Lopes state, while in fiction it consists of the physical
elements that make up the scenario where the plot develops and the characters give life to it,
in travel writing all the narrative is defined either by the novelty of space or by its
rediscovery, widening the traveller’s horizons and triggering his own change (2002, pp. 135,
Nevertheless, the chapter is far from being a pure narration of the journey or the sole
description of places, as both of them are consistently intertwined with examples of diverse
contents, ranging from information about public services to scattered cultural and historical
references. For example, the physical description of public facilities, such as the Health
Center in Rio Doce, belongs in a broader account of the Brazilian public Health Service (1925); the overnight at Governador Valadares allows for a political discussion at the restaurant,
on the issues of American imperialism and the American cooperation with Brazil (36-7).
Every now and then the narrative offers a touch of the Brazilian way of life, either from the
narrator’s point of view or from his interlocutors’ and guides’. This mosaic pattern, which
persist throughout the whole book, informs the reader about the Brazilian bureaucracy, the
people’s hospitality, the economic activities, the “sociology of the favelas” (32), the
transportation system, Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture, writers, to cite a few. In Chapter VIII,
for example, Dos Passos makes acquaintance with Gilberto Freyre, who becomes his host for
an entire day, providing him with the opportunity of a cultural immersion in the background
of Freyre’s writings, namely the colonial Brazilian setting of sugar plantations (180). Other
chapters (III and VI, in particular), depict the development as Brasilia as a symbol of the
nation’s progress and modernity:
Dr. Israél points through the window. ‘Brasília.’ He smiles and shrugs and
frowns all at once. The shanty town unfolding below is known as Cidade
Livre, the free city, a straggle of frame buildings painted in a dozen colors
on either side of a broad dusty road. He insists on calling it ‘provisional
city’. In two or three years it will have done its work. They will tear it down.
‘The real city will take its place’9 (DOS PASSOS, 1991, p. 75).
Architecture plays an important role in Dos Passos’s work: In Manhattan Transfer, for example, the issue of
modern architecture is discussed in terms of the destructive power of the city over the individual, while one of
the biographies in Dos Passos’s The Big Money is Frank Lloyd Wright’s.
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Such a comprehensive insight into the portrait of a nation places Brazil on the Move far
beyond the characteristics of a travelogue, which, broadly speaking, consists of a piece of
writing about travel, or of a travel diary. The traveler’s impressions and experience, albeit
present, most often play the role of a watermark in the sociocultural representation of the
country, complying with the idea that culture encompasses products of human thought such as
customs, belief, art, music, made by a particular group of people at a specific time, a shared,
common patrimony10 that the reader feels as the core of the book.
Because examples of thematic diversity abound throughout the book, it is important to
mention that, in a way, its structure seems to retain features from Dos Passos’s synoptic style,
which he thoroughly applied, especially in U.S.A. and in Manhattan Transfer. The reader is
offered a collage of different episodes that may consist of simple journey narratives, of
ideological discussions, of historical accounts, of historical facts, of more poetic description
of places, of description of people or of social events. Cunha considers that this panoply often
makes the book resemble a series of field notes devoid of any organization criterion (2000).
But, for Wagner, the use of these writing techniques, such as the juxtaposition of different
elements or of contrasting language, pervade all his writings, including the last ones. She
contends that in his books of place, as she labels Brazil on the Move, he resorts to the same
devices and style: focus on character rather than event, attention to physical detail,
juxtaposition of segments, use of vernacular (1979, p. 147).
The Brazilian people are given special attention in the cultural synopsis of the country,
used, as Wagner contends, as “repeatedly, the vehicle for Dos Passos’s comments about the
country” (1979: 148). In this respect, such a representation is also informed by an
anthropological perspective, focused on the study of all forms of behavior of groups of
people. This concern may explain why the chapter title, «The People the Lord Put There»,
These are general, comprehensive dictionary definitions that define the concept but do not explore correlated
questions: Longman Dictionary of Language and Culture. 4 th impression. Harlow: Longman, 2000, 314, and
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. 6th Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000,
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resumes the opening legend, drawn from the following excerpt: “Is it fair, Lord,” asks the
archangel, “to give so many benefits to just one country?” “You wait”, said the Lord Jehovah,
“till you see the people I’m going to put there” (1).
Back in the second chapter, Dos Passos’s description of the working class gives not
only a portrait of their social and working conditions, but also of the cultural, ethnographic
That was my first sight of the Brazilian working man in the mass, of the
longsuffering happygolucky nomadic tribes who spread over the vast extent
of the country moving from plantation to mine to lumbermill or construction
camp, illnourished, ridden with illness, enduring cold and heat and hunger,
tightening their belts, and singing their sambas and breeding their children
and somehow getting the work done (DOS PASSOS, 1991, p. 41).
This combination of poverty and innate joy that seems a characteristic of Brazilians is
resumed in other parts of the narrative, including its ending, where Dos Passos describes the
atmosphere of a political campaign in Mossoró, in which tension soon gives way to singing
and dancing:
A dangerous tension seems to be building up. Suddenly a samba band begins
to play. (…) In three minutes half the people are dancing. The oratory fades
away. No more traffic jam. The floats are moving. The meeting turns into a
sort of carnival parade with samba schools dancing ahead of the floats, each
behind its own banner. TOO YOUNG TO VOTE, reads one. Songs take the
place of speeches. Children, teenagers, old men and women, everybody is
No more tension. (204-5)
In his article on Brasil on the Move, Vamberto Freitas highlights this concluding
episode, also pointing out the dancing and the joy, among such poor people, as a feature of the
Brazilian people. From his point of view, this last description reflects the atmosphere of fight
and ambiguity faced by Brazil at that time (2012).
Other scattered, short references of socio-cultural or ethnographic contour appear
throughout the narrative, such as the use and explanation of the unique Portuguese word
Saudade (180), itself a symbol of Portuguese identity, or the embedded habit of addressing
everyone who looked educated as “Doutor” (110). In Cunha’s opinion, the inclusion of other
Portuguese words, namely in greetings or of farewell, conveys more vividly the idea oof
Brasilian hospitality and joy (2000).
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Dos Passos’s concern with people in the narrative takes different forms. Besides the
sociocultural, ethnographic portrait of Brazilians as a people, focusing on their cultural
identity by showing their common beliefs, arts, or customs, he also resorts to individuals, both
common people and personalities of the cultural, political or cultural realms. Examples of
both cases rely on the interaction between local people and the narrator, but in the second case
Dos Passos also uses pieces of biography, some of them intertwined with the historical
narrative of certain episodes. For instance, the second chapter gives extensive attention to
Bernardo Sayão, to his life and work, as well to his qualities.
Such strategies of depicting people illustrate simultaneously the two types of travel
writing defined by Mary Pratt in terms of the type of traveler-narrator: the impersonal one, the
“manners and customs” figure, relying mostly on information and description of sights and
sites, and the sentimental one, concerned with people as individuals and involving interaction
between narrator and indigenous people (MILLS, 1993, p. 75).
As Pratt also contends, the first type produces information while “land-scanning” and
by self-effacing, while the second one “must be associated with the critical sector of the
bourgeois world, the private sphere, home of the solitary, introspecting Individual” (Mills,
1993: 76).
Although Pratt’s conceptualization belongs in the context of imperialism and
colonization, it remains applicable to contemporary travel writings, as is the case with Dos
Passos’s. But, also in terms of this particular aspect, he reconciles both types, adding to the
hybrid character of the narrative.
In another excerpt, a reference to a particular characteristic of the Brazilians as a people
accommodates political discourse:
‘We Brazilians,’ the younger man burst out, ‘are a people of noble impulses.
We hate war and militarism. We believe in progress. We are a people of
grandiose illusions.That is why the Communist movement here is like your
Mr. Wallace’s party in the States’ (DOS PASSOS, 1991, p. 45).
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Political references and commentary are embedded in historical narrative. Significant
episodes of Brazilian recent history are told in the very same concise, story-telling style.
Although Dos Passos keeps an apparently objective perspective in most situations, restricted
to the local people’s perspectives and sometimes supported by the nature of events
themselves, as well by particular politicians’ actions, criticism of Dos Passos has placed his
views on Brazilian politics and ideology in the context of his later conservative stand. Freitas
mentions that when Dos Passos travelled to Brazil in the sixties, his political mindset as
regards internal affairs was already unmistakably Republican, which determined his support
to the social-democrat cause in Brazil (FREITAS, 2012).
Actually, the seventh chapter in Brazil on the Move is notably political. Although the
chapter opens with a typical sentence of travel narrative (“The first thing I saw when I stepped
out of the hotel our first morning in Manaus was a curlyheaded young man” – Dos Passos,
1991: 137), it soon departed from such a genre, setting out to cover the 1962 campaign, in
which two major trends opposed: the one supporting Fidel Castro and Communist Powers,
and the other one supporting the United States and its Alliance for Progress (139-140); further
to this, it describes with most detail the public and political path of anti-Communist journalist
Carlos Lacerda, whom Dos Passos met personally. So far, however, political bias on Dos
Passos’s behalf is not evident in the open expression of his views, but rather on the selection
of information reported and on the writing style. Even devoid of openly expressed support,
Carlos Lacerda’s portrait is given a positive, sympathetic representation:
At forty eight he is just reaching political maturity. His is the most
compelling presence on Brazilian television. He somehow finds words every
voter can understand to explain the difference between the reorganization of
society under freedom and the Communist or Castro way. The direct
approach, the straight talk, the burning dedication of the dark eyes behind
the shellrimmed glasses still hold his audiences spellbound” (177-8).
As Freitas notes, Dos Passos assessment of Brazil was highly shaped by the United States
political, social and economic reality, which makes him draw consistent comparisons between
the two countries. Incidentally, this was one of the aspects that let to criticism from Leftists in
Brazil, as regards Dos Passos’s perspective expressed in Brazil on the Move (2013). Explicit
comparisons actually appear throughout the narrative, in different situations and in relation to
very diverse topics: from the analogy between the presidential palace in Brasília, another icon
of modern architecture, and the Capital Hill in Washington (77), to the reflection on the
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socioeconomic status of black people both in the US and in Brazil (182) or the Brazilian high
students’ knowledge of American writers, which Dos Passos infers as superior to that of their
American counterparts as regards Brazilian literature (182-3), to the comparison of both
working classes (183), or the comparison between Carlos Lacerda and Patrick Henry (149), a
major figure of the American Revolution famed by his speeches.
In addition, the characterization of Brazil is also informed by a few references to the
external affairs involving the two countries: American financial support to Brazilian
manufacturing during the war (151), the successful cooperation between Americans and
Brazilians as regards the Public Health Service, despite and Brazilian disappointment at the
US (37), Getúlio Vargas’s prohibition of Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches to be printed in
Brazilian newspapers (148), American support to Carlos Lacerda’s anti-Communist campaign
Although in previous chapters Dos Passos seems never to openly take a political stance,
as I mentioned above, towards the end of the book, whose last chapters already correspond to
his third visit, his approach becomes more personal and committed:
“Among the Americans I find a great deal of gloom. The Alliance for
Progress seems stalled. Among the Department of Agriculture people to be
sure there’s a talk of a real breakthrough in rainforest agriculture. If it’s true
it’s the most exciting news since chloroquin. So much to be done… If it
weren’t for the Communists.
For the first time, in all my batting around Brazil, walking with a group of
Americans at lunchtime into a restaurant, I see real hostility in the faces of
people at other tables.” (182).
And from then on overt criticism is expressed:
… the anti-communists mostly have to work gratis. The Communists get
paid in various ways (…). “The Communists are struggling against
imperialism and exploitation: how can an idealist oppose them? The
Communist imperialism and Communist exploitation they read about in the
newspapers does not impress them. The Berlin Wall; they shrug it off. The
development of the demagoguery of Revolution in Mexico should have
proved a corrective, but the lesson has been lost (184).
It is important to recall how Dos Passos’s political path at home deserved harsh criticism, too;
he was even accused of having become a cynical supporter of vested interests (Hicks, 1971:
107) as he progressively departed from his leftist and anarchist beliefs in the early years of his
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career, to which he adhered especially when he supported the cause of Sacco and Vanzetti11,towards a Conservative mindset. Granville Hicks, who calls him a writer of change, contends
that he was himself a victim of change (1971, p. 106). The execution of his friend José Robles
during the Spanish Civil War, supposedly at the hands of the Spanish Communist Party, is
often referred to as the drive for this change, making him reassess ideologies vis-à-vis politics
and partisanship.
Reacting to Malcolm Cowley’s reference to José Robles as a “fascist spy”12, Dos
Passos’s article in the New Republic discloses what he had found out about the mysterious
execution of his friend, and clearly expresses his disappointment with communism:
My impression is that the frame-up in his [Robles’s] case was pushed to the
point of execution because Russian secret agents felt that Robles knew too
much about the relations between the Spanish war ministry and the Kremlin
and was not, from their very special point of view, politically reliable. As
always in such cases, personal enmities and social feuds probably
contributed (DOS PASSOS, 1988, p. 194).
Nevertheless, his disillusionment with American Communism had started in the
thirties, as he grew aware of Stalinist terror in Russia and dissatisfied with Marxism and with
the organized left in the US (Rosen, 1981, pp. 76-77) as, in open opposition to them, he
defended “total freedom of speech and thought” (78).
However, and regardless of his late political commitment – for example, he supported Joseph
McCarthy – Dos Passos’s political positions seem dominated by his own morals and ideology,
as several studies have pointed out: David Sanders argues that his anarchism consists, after
all, in his persistent belief in self-government (1971, p. 135), while Eisinger contends that he
is able to reconcile traditional liberalism and his late conservatism (1971, p. 145); Hicks also
concludes that Dos Passos is critical of any form of totalitarianism, rather defending the
people who any way or the other are victims of power, be it political or economic such as big
corporations (1971, p. 121): and Nanney argues that even in his radical years, he kept his
independence from organized political movements such as the Communist Party. His
Dos Passos committed strongly to the cause of the two Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti, accused of
robbery and murder and eventually executed. This was a controversial issue that aroused the support of the Left
(Nanney 1998: 176).
In his review (New Republic, 99, July 1939) of Dos Passos’s novel Adventures of a Young Man (1939),
Cowley echoed the belief that José Robles had been arrested as fascist spy published.
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affiliation was to social ideas and his commitment to fighting injustice, namely that suffered
by individuals as victims of corporate capitalism (1998, pp. 176-7). Significantly, in his
article “The Death of Jose Robles”, Dos Passos puts forward an Emerson-like explanation that
reads also as a statement of belief as regards the individual and the humanist approach that
pervades his whole writings:
Understanding the personal histories of a few of the men, women and
children really involved would, I think, free our minds somewhat from the
black-is-black and white-is-white obsessions of partisanship (1988, p. 195).
Dos Passos’s final commentary on the role of communism in Brazilian society, in the
last part of Brazil on the Move, which I have just mentioned, testifies to the importance of the
individual over the system and to the belief in freedom and democracy above all. As early as
in chapter one, besides claiming the Brazilian spirit of tolerance, he rounds it up with a simple
sentence about a Jewish rabbi who had settled in Brazil: “He spoke with pride and gratitude
of his Brazilian citizenship. Only in Brazil had he come to understand the meaning of
freedom” (12).
In an interview with Douglas Trevor in 2013, Dos Passos’s grandson, John Coggin, says:
I think if my grandfather were alive today, he would be reading widely
about Brazil. He always had great hopes for the country. His admiration for
the country is vividly expressed in his 1963 work, Brazil on the Move.
While he would be sad to see the Amazon rainforest deteriorate, he would
be glad to see the nation in the world limelight at last (TREVOR, 2013).
Actually, Dos Passos’s second visit to Brasília accounts for his bedazzlement before the
grandiloquence, the innovative creativity, the modernity of the city. For all the genial impetus
underlying its construction, both the architectural breakthrough and the political support that
allowed it, Brasília stands for the country’s commitment to progress, a symbol of the nation:
in the first chapter that he dedicates to it, Dos Passos calls precisely it “A Nation in Search of
a Capital”.
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In addition, the incursions into Brazil’s West (Chapter II), Monte Alegre and Maringá
(Chapter IV), and Amazon (Chapter V – “Through Brazil’s back door”) reinforce the idea of a
country under massive construction and development: diverse economic paths, a national
construction site, industry and progress conquering the wild as in the American conquest of
the West. From Bernardo Sayão’s projected agricultural colony to the coffee plantations in
Maringá and the development companies, to the “rainforest economy” along the Amazon,
from Peru to Manaus and Belém, it is the idea of newness and of a fresh start that appeals to
Dos Passos in his readings in Brazil.
This aspect in a way reflects the American ideal of conquering the wild and
permanently starting afresh, the myth of Adam and the ever-present belief in the capacity to
restart that is traced back to the foundation of America and that informs American cultural
identity. John Coggin refers precisely to the analogy that, in some aspects, Dos Passos saw
between the two countries: “Brazil resembled the U.S.A. in some respects. He hoped that
Brazil would avoid some the mistakes that America made” (TREVOR, 2013).
Dos Passos’s perspective on Brazil, be it in terms of explicit, objective comparisons as
the ones mentioned above, or in terms of his beliefs and ideologies, is always framed by the
conception of the traveler as someone who approaches the new and the different. Classifying
the visited place with words of this sort correlates with the notions of identity and otherness,
of sameness and alterity. Luísa Leal, studying the role of literary references by educated
travel writers, contends that any cognitive subject needs two fundamental skills to apprehend
what is unique in a country completely different from his own: self-relativisation and
rationalization. By this she means that what the traveler already knows about the visited
places, his “cultural luggage”, establishes the link between the subject and his perception of
the new place (Leal, 2000: 238). Pageaux, in turn, explains how the concepts of identity and
otherness can only be understood in the framework of the social imaginary. Picturing the
foreign thus belong in this definition. The image results from the awareness of the self as
regards the other, or the acknowledgement of “here” vis-à-vis “there” (2004, pp.136-7). These
poles represent some distance between two distinct cultural realities:
O imaginário social a que nos referimos está marcado – vemo-lo – por uma
profunda bipolaridade: identidade versus alteridade, em que a alteridade é
encarada como termo oposto e complementar relativamente à identidade. O
imaginário que colocamos como termo da nossa investigação é expressão, à
escala de uma sociedade, de uma colectividade, de um conjunto social e
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cultural, desta bipolaridade
(PAGEAUX, 2004, p. 137).
Incidentally, the myth of the frontier, which I alluded to above, accommodates, according to
Pageaux, the relationship between the self and the other, and illustrate how they correlate in
terms of identity and of a heterogeneous culture (162).
Paz and Moniz, when defining travel literature, also mention the dialogue between the
Self and the Other, in which both experiences and expectations are shared and which makes
possible the process of knowledge, both of one’s identity and of the Other’s (1997, p. 224).
The most evident trait of Brazil on the Move is very likely its lack of formal unity. The
very fact that it consists of a written record of three different journeys, made under different
circumstances and spanning a time period of fourteen years, may in part explain this. As I
pointed earlier, its content is varied and includes types or genres as diverse as mere travel
records, description of landscapes (both urban and natural), biographical records, authentic
dialogues, historical narrative, ethnographic details, cultural references, bits of economic
analysis, rapportage, or political commentary.
Language and style, however, do not correlate clearly with such a wide genre, and also
thematic, variety. Whatever the topic, the tone is simple and light, even in historical accounts,
clearly departing from academic patterns – an option Dos Passos would keep in The Portugal
Story, which he decided to write following his trips to Brazil and as the expression of his late
interest for his Portuguese ancestry. As for dialogues, they record the vernacular language and
the colloquial tone, and in a number of examples work as the narrative device to convey the
people’s perspectives on economy or politics, a feature that summons up “the speech of the
people” used by Dos Passos to define U.S.A.14
Considering the theoretical framework on travel writing mentioned above, Brazil on the
Move, regardless of its structural and thematic diversity, conforms to Blanton’s classification
This social imaginary is defined by a strong bipolarity: identity versus alterity, the latter being the opposing
and complementary pole of identity. In our research, the social imaginary, in terms of society, is the expression
of the collective, of a social and cultural set, of this bipolarity that we consider fundamental (my translation).
The 42nd Paralell, “ U.S.A” (Boston, New York: 2000, xiv).
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of personal travel narrative, defined by the borrowing of elements from fiction, namely, in the
case of Dos Passos, the use of story-telling, and by the rupture with a linear, chronological
structure as the one used in the impersonal travel narrative. But, in accordance with the
overlapping of both categories that Blanton believes to apply to most examples, as well as
with the hybrid character that superimposes over this genre, Brazil on the Move is, most
notoriously, a book about places, it is the representation of a place in a wide range of
dimensions. Using Blanton’s expression about travel writing, Dos Passos too caught “the
spirit of the place”. Furthermore, his representation of the place results primarily from the
encounter with the Other that has also been mentioned as a characteristic of travel writing.
The self is the traveler, and his observation of the foreign and the written record of it becomes
the expression of a cross-cultural encounter. Dos Passos’s readings in Brazil are shaped by his
path as a writer and as a citizen, and are informed by his own national and cultural identity
with his homeland. More than establishing parallelisms between the two countries, which he
also does, his “cultural luggage” is embedded with his particular ideologies and beliefs.
Wagner goes further than this as she contends that “Dos Passos’s later books of travel share
more than technical mannerisms with his late fiction and history” (148). As regards Brasil on
the Move, she notes, Dos Passos transmits his moral principles, for example through the
choice of characters like Bernardo Sayão, whose moral qualities he praises (148).
A consistent study of Dos Passos’s work, taken globally, pins down a number of traits,
both in terms of writing techniques and of ideas, that form what can be considered his pattern,
the features that define him as a writer despite all the variety that pervades his literary
production. Therefore, it is important to note, as a final point and considering the arguments
above, that even a non-fiction work with such distinct features, as is the case of Brasil on the
Move, is in keeping with that defining pattern. Precisely because of its uniqueness, it makes
the persistence of those traits all the more relevant, adding to the continuity of Dos Passos’s
artistry and to the consistency of his beliefs across genres and throughout his whole literary
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Data de recebimento: 12/04/2014
Data de aprovação: 05/11/2014
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