Vital Signs

Politics in American Letters

The following was presented in acceptance of the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, presented at Longwood College, Farmville, Virginia, September 20, 1991. The Dos Passos Prize is awarded to a writer in mid-career for a distinguished body of work; previous recipients include Graham Greene, Paule Marshall, Robert Stone, and Tom Wolfe.

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When a writer accepts a literary prize, the writer should not, like Lear's daughter, be insufficiently grateful, nor so enamored of accolade that, like the tetrarch Herod, he's immediately consumed by worms. Nor should a writer on these occasions forget friends and colleagues who have labored without notice over the years, or who have received a good degree of notice but remained unlaureled, at least partly for reasons I hope to address. And so, since it would be redundant and unmannerly to present a case for my own work on this occasion, I would like to speak for those disenfranchised others as I offer some reflections on the writer after whom the Dos Passos Prize is named and oh this dark time in American letters.

Whatever our feelings about the fictional techniques of Dos Passos, we have to view them as elements of a larger, individual vision rather than novelties. Mere novelty, Samuel Johnson says somewhere, thumping the table to wake Boswell up, is ignorance. Dos Passos' techniques by now have been absorbed into the mainstream of American...

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