Saturday, March 16, 2019

Talk by the Road

John Dos Passos (1896–1970)
From John Dos Passos: Travel Books & Other Writings 1916–1941

Detail from Vista de Toledo [View of Toledo], ca. 1599–1600, oil on canvas by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). Click on image to see entire painting. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which includes this description on its website: “The painting belongs to the tradition of emblematic city views, rather than a faithful documentary description. The view of the eastern section of Toledo from the north would have excluded the cathedral, which the artist therefore imaginatively moved to the left of the Alcázar (the royal palace). Other buildings represented in the painting include the ancient Alcántara Bridge, and on the other side of the river Tagus, the Castle of San Servando.”
By the time he was twenty-five years old, John Dos Passos had traveled twice to Spain: he first stayed for five months in 1916–17, before the American entry into World War I, and he returned for another eight months after the war, in 1919–20. In the years between, he managed the family’s debt-ridden estate after his father died, served as a volunteer ambulance driver in France and Italy during the war, returned to the United States after he was accused of disloyalty and forced to resign, and enlisted in the U.S. Army Medical Corps—only to find out the war had ended the day before he left for Europe.

After his first trip to Spain, Dos Passos—whose grandfather was a Portuguese immigrant—became obsessed with the Iberian peninsula and began using its people and culture as inspirations for his early writings and paintings. During his war service, when he learned that one of his Harvard classmates would be traveling in Spain, he dashed off a letter:
By the way on your wanderings take note of any small cheap cottages you see that might at some future not very remote be inhabited by a band of outcasts, fugitives from injustice, pariahs, a cottage where one could live of olla & huevos [eggs] and follow one's natural avocations of making an ass of oneself on paper and on canvas, in ink, in pencil, in oils, in pastel in print.
This pivotal five-year period—his war adventures bookended by his two trips through Spain—provided Dos Passos with material for his first four books. One Man’s Initiation: 1917 and Three Soldiers, published in 1920 and 1921, are blunt, realistic novels about the war. His only book of poetry, A Pushcart at the Curb (1922), includes depictions of street scenes in Madrid and other Spanish towns. The same year, he extensively reworked the travel writings about Spain he had written for various magazines and published them as Rosinante to the Road Again, which took its title from the name of Don Quixote’s horse. (For more about this period of Dos Passos’s life, see the introduction to “Donkey Boy,” a previous Story of the Week selection.)

Interspersed among Rosinante’s impressionistic essays on contemporary Spanish culture, literature, and politics are eight fictional sketches, six of them with the title “Talk by the Road.” Together, the sketches make up an episodic narrative describing two young travelers walking from Madrid to Toledo, or (in literary critic Donald Pizer’s words) “from the contemporary commercial capital of Spain to its ancient spiritual center.” The two youths, named Telemachus and Lyaeus (another name for Dionysus), discuss and debate the influence on Spanish culture of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the two main characters of Cervantes’s great novel. As Dos Passos himself puts it elsewhere:
And predominant in the Iberian mind is the thought La vida es sueño: “Life is a dream.” Only the individual, or that part of life which is in the firm grasp of the individual, is real. The supreme expression of this lies in the two great figures that typify Spain for all time: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; Don Quixote, the individualist who believed in the power of man’s soul over all things, whose desire included the whole world in himself; Sancho, the individualist to whom all the world was food for his belly.
In Dos Passos’s writings, Quixote represents “the ecstatic figures for whom the power of the individual soul has no limits,” while Sancho represents “the jovial materialists.”

We present as our Story of the Week selection, Rosinante’s first “Talk by the Road” episode, in which Telemachus and Lyaeus encounter on the road two men, one riding on a donkey and the other on a horse, who turn out to be central to the theme of their journey.

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Telemachus and Lyaeus had walked all night. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.