The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

John Dos Passos
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John Dos Passos, article title

More than 60 feet above his head, the brilliant skylights of Baltimore's George Peabody Library provided light for John Dos Passos. He would sit at the library for hours almost every day, quietly, and discreetly, his nose buried in a book. Sometimes students asked him questions, thinking he worked there. On occasion, he helped library visitors find books in the stacks when they seemed lost. He sat at the same walnut desk, working continuously until almost 4:00 p.m. Then he would pack up his belongings and wait patiently by the library window for his wife to arrive. He said later that in one of those Peabody library alcoves he wrote most of The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson.

Dos Passos, whose U.S.A. trilogy is considered one of the most impressive literary achievements of the 1930s, spent his professional life wrestling with the question, "Who are we?" as Americans. He was a political radical, bitter and critical toward this country in his early novels, but increasingly conservative as he got older. Stephen Vincent Benét considered him both "most faithfully the historian of America and Americans" and also "the least flag-waving of our novelists," and Jean-Paul Sartre called him "the greatest writer of our time."

Dos Passos said he moved to Baltimore in 1952 for its great schools for his children, its close proximity to friends, and the many resources available to him at the Peabody Library, the Enoch Pratt Library, and—in nearby Washington D.C.—the Library of Congress. His family's life here was modest. In the 1960s they rented an upstairs room at 1821 Sulgrave Avenue in Baltimore's Mount Washington neighborhood. Passos, who was learning to speak Portuguese, walked the quiet wooded streets of the neighborhood calling it "rues sosegada de Mount Washington"—the silent street of Mount Washington. He and his family lived in other areas of the city, including Roland Park and The Village of Cross Keys (where poet Ogden Nash was his neighbor).

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