The World at the End of a Line

The grandson of one of American literature’s Lost Generation novelists reflects on his namesake’s love of the sea

Dos Passos in Provincetown in June 1942. He first visited in 1916, and in 1929 he and his wife moved into the house at 571 Commercial Street. (Associated Press)
Dos Passos in Provincetown in June 1942. He first visited in 1916, and in 1929 he and his wife moved into the house at 571 Commercial Street. (Associated Press)

John Dos Passos was the author of the U.S.A. trilogy, Manhattan Transfer, and Three Soldiers, among many other books, for which, in 1957, he was awarded the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was also my grandfather. I never met him—he died 13 years before I was born—but I have been able to get a sense of his formidable spirit from old family photographs. In one of my favorites, taken when he was in his 60s, he is in a boat on the Potomac River near Dos Passos Farm in Westmoreland County, Virginia. The river is wide there, near where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay, and my grandfather is holding up a pufferfish, inflated in full glory before the camera. His smile swings for the fences and reminds me of something he wrote in a 1918 letter to a friend: “While we live we must make the torch burn ever brighter until it flares out in the socket.”

In the beloved mythology of America’s Lost Generation writers, the pastime of fishing seems wholly owned by Ernest Hemingway. As Jack Hemingway, Ernest’s oldest son, wrote in the foreword to a collection of his father’s writing about the sport, “In our family not only fly fishing but all sporting forms of fishing were a sort of religion.” Hemingway first learned to fish as a boy, during the summers he spent at his family’s property on Walloon Lake in Michigan. Fishing fed his appetite for adventure and, after he became famous, his public image. Among other places, Key West became a central location in Hemingway lore, but it wasn’t until 1928, on my grandfather’s recommendation, that he first visited the place. The good fishing and easygoing culture there suited him perfectly. He was on his second marriage by then, to Pauline Pfeiffer, whose uncle bought the couple a house in Key West in 1931. Hemingway loved to share the grit and spectacle of sportfishing with friends. He even took Max Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s, out on the Gulf Stream, a warm, fast-moving Atlantic current that Dos Passos once described as a “magnificent and mysterious phenomenon, always changing and always present like a range of mountains.” In the spring of 1930, Hemingway, Perkins, and a few other friends spent two weeks in the Dry Tortugas, a small island chain about 70 miles west of Key West. There they slept in a shed, subsisted on liquor, canned goods, and Bermuda onions, and spent their days fishing and shooting birds. The straight-laced Perkins, accustomed to wearing a suit and fedora, grew a beard and, said his fellow adventurers, looked like a “rebel cavalry captain.” A few years later, Hemingway bought the Pilar, a 38-foot motorboat designed for saltwater fishing, aboard which he stowed a Thompson submachine gun and other firearms for killing sharks. (He once managed to shoot himself in both legs with a .22 Colt pistol when his bullet hit the Pilar’s brass rail and ricocheted in pieces. The shark escaped.) When later in life Hemingway’s writing hit a slump, it was the ocean that gave voice to one of his most highly regarded books. The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952, received specific praise from the committee that awarded him the Nobel Prize in Literature two years later.

Dos Passos loved and extolled the sea every bit as much as his friend Hemingway. From 1928 to 1935, before their friendship frayed under the strain of the Spanish civil war, the two men often fished the waters near Key West together, catching tarpon, sailfish, marlin, wahoo, mahi-mahi, and tuna. The tropics were also the doctor’s prescription for Dos Passos’s recurring bouts of rheumatic fever. They usually brought along a couple of bottles of champagne, but by custom these remained untouched until the first fish was caught. Everyone on Hemingway’s boat received a nickname: “Dos” or “Muttonfish” for Dos Passos, “Hem” or the “Old Master” for Hemingway, “Old Bread” for the boat’s engineer, and “Saca Ham” for the cook. Conversation on these expeditions remained light. “It was a delight to be able to chatter amiably on all sorts of topics without tripping over that damn Party line,” wrote Dos Passos in his 1966 memoir, The Best Times. Hemingway was as competitive at fishing as he was with everything, but nobody got too sore. “Hem was the greatest fellow in the world to go around with when everything went right,” Dos Passos wrote. Hemingway once invited Arnold Gingrich, the editor and cofounder of Esquire, to go fishing with the gang. “The man was in a trance,” Dos Passos remembered. “It was a world he’d never dreamed of. He was mosquito bitten, half seasick, scorched with sunburn, astonished, half scared, half pleased. It was as much fun to see Ernest play an editor as to see him play a marlin.”

Unlike Hemingway, Dos Passos practiced moderation in most things and valued ideological nuance and evolution. The friends operated at different speeds: Hemingway raced; Dos Passos cruised. Take, for example, the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Dos Passos enjoyed the experience primarily for the spectacle, the food, and the drink. Hemingway saw it as a test of manhood. There “were too many exhibitionistic personalities in the group to suit me,” Dos Passos wrote. “The sight of a crowd of young men trying to prove how hombre they were got on my nerves.” Likewise when it came to fishing, Hemingway and Dos Passos had different motives. Dos Passos fished “for the pot”—to catch lunch or dinner. For that reason, he disliked fishing for tarpon, which figured among Hemingway’s favorite quarry, no matter the theatrics involved in fighting them. “I hated to see the great silver monsters lying in the dust on the wharf,” he wrote. “They aren’t fit to eat. About the only use is for mounting. Some people make knicknacks out of the dried scales. Sheer vanity catching tarpon.” Dos Passos looked to the sea as a salve for his spirit. It was in 1924, during a break from writing one of his best novels, Manhattan Transfer, that he discovered Key West. He understood that islands in general—and by extension, the sea—tended to refill his cup of inspiration. He called his happy affliction “islomania.”

Maritime heritage runs deep in the Dos Passos line, which began on the small Portuguese island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean, due west of Morocco. My great-great-grandfather Manoel Joaquim dos Passos was born there in 1812, at the edge of sea trails cut by Portuguese explorers. He emigrated to America in 1830. My great-grandfather John Randolph Dos Passos was mad about the sea. He bought a 100-foot steam yacht after he earned a fortune as a lawyer. He named it the Gaivota—Portuguese for “sea gull.” The Gaivota had three staterooms below deck, quarters for a crew of four, as well as a sitting room, library, galley, and dining room. For many years, he sailed it from its berth in Washington, D.C., to the family farm in Westmoreland County, a seven-hour journey. John Randolph “liked to talk of being descended from a mythical Portuguese pirate,” according to my grandfather. Once aboard the Gaivota, among family and friends, he donned his yachting cap and assumed a swashbuckling, carefree personality, “the Commodore.” He called his young son “Monsieur Singe,” or “Mr. Monkey.” He called his wife, Lucy, the “Princess.” The Commodore danced to records on deck. Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore was his favorite. “Once we got past Indian Head everything pleased him,” my grandfather wrote. “He knew and loved every creek and every sand tipped point of pines on the Potomac River. He delighted in catching or not catching fish when we went out with handlines in the dinghy.”

John Randolph carefully supervised my grandfather’s education and passed on his affinity for things nautical—for example, Captain Frederick Marryat’s Mr. Midshipman Easy, an 1836 naval novel set during the Napoleonic Wars. Dos Passos, then age eight, read the book repeatedly, and any other sea story he could find. He devoured R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Herman Melville’s Typee, and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. An antique, 17-volume collection of Captain Marryat’s adventures, in the author’s limited edition, still occupies a shelf in the library at Dos Passos Farm.

My grandfather spent much of his childhood at that farm, steeped in the maritime culture of the rural Virginia peninsula known as the Northern Neck. He and his father swam in the Potomac, even in the icy winter months. When he was a boy, one could still buy oysters at two dollars a barrel from the decks of the fishing schooners docked in Washington. Aboard the steamboats that, at the time, still cruised the Potomac, galleys served up plates of steak, Virginia ham, fish, crab, oysters, Maryland terrapin stew, planked shad, and biscuits. According to Dos Passos’s nonfiction collection State of the Nation, published in 1944, the inside of the old Three Rivers steamer smelled of “old paint and musty old settees upholstered in red velvet and of crabshells and oysterbarrels and fertilizer, and steam and grease from the huge slow engines; and with it came the memory of how the river freshness came in the window after you left Alexandria.” He listened to the oystermen, crabbers, and fishermen of the Northern Neck tell their stories “on some rickety porch after the dishes had been cleared off the supper table on a hot August night when the dry-flies shrilled.” Typically, the storyteller “didn’t explain who the people were he was telling about. You were supposed to know that.”

For a time, my grandfather so loved the sea that he even considered pursuing an appointment to the Naval Academy. He abandoned the idea after learning that his nearsightedness disqualified him. But his immersion in seafaring culture continued during the 18 years that he lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts. My grandfather and his first wife, Katy, settled there in 1929, at 571 Commercial Street, right on the harbor. Their home was once a ship chandler’s shop; the basement stored fishing nets and other gear. During storms, they felt the clenched fist of the Atlantic knock on their doors and windows. “There’s a fierce gale blowing and a terrific sea smashing against the bulkhead,” Katy once wrote, “and rain pouring down, and the whole house shakes with the waves.”

Katy Dos Passos, née Katharine Foster Smith, met my grandfather through Hemingway, whom she and her brother Bill had known since they were children frequenting the same summer resort in northern Michigan. Katy and John fell in love in spring 1928, reveling with Hem’s Key West mob. “From the first moment I couldn’t think of anything but her green eyes,” Dos Passos wrote in his memoirs. Katy made her living writing for magazines, and she and my grandfather bonded over writing, art, culture, and travel. They formed a love language all their own. She fondly called him “Muttonfish” and “ape.” He called her “Possum.” When he was lonely during long travels away from Katy, he signed letters to her, “Desolape.” When he was frustrated, he signed, “Desperape.”

Katy shared my grandfather’s luminous sense of wonder at the world, which lives in her many letters. In summer 1935, she wrote to American expatriate painter Gerald Murphy, applying her exuberant wit to a recent trip to the Bahamian island of Bimini: “It’s a fantastic place—a crazy mixture of luxury, indigence, good liquor, bad food, heat, flies, land apathy and sea magnificence, social snoot, money, sport, big fish, big fishermen, and competitive passion.” In the same letter, she wrote, “The big fishermen work over catching the big fish like Russians on a subway—they’ve got it all charted and organized and they’re all out for records, and madly jealous of each other.” The sharks, she noted, “come like express trains and hit the fish like a planing mill—shearing off twenty-five and thirty pounds at a bite.” John and Katy married in August 1929 and soon afterward moved into 571 Commercial Street.

He listened to the oystermen, crabbers, and fishermen of the Northern Neck tell their stories “on some rickety porch after the dishes had been cleared off the supper table on a hot August night when the dry-flies shrilled.”

The newlyweds were already well acquainted with Provincetown culture. Katy had lived in various other houses there since 1924 with her brother and old friends Edith Foley and Stella Roof. Foley later married bookseller Frank Shay and took his last name. The foursome, who called themselves “The Smooleys” in a play on their surnames, wrote for magazines and lived well. Bill regularly made his own popular liquor, which he called “The Boy.” “Tis only a boy,” explained Edith, “but it has the strength of a man.” Painter Eben Given, a neighbor and friend of the Smooleys, recalled: “Ring a bell or whisper ‘party’ and a hundred people sprang up like dragon’s teeth out of the ground.” My grandfather’s first visit to Provincetown was even earlier, in 1916, on a walking tour of Cape Cod shortly before he graduated from Harvard. Charmed by the place, he returned in spring 1926, seeking a brief seclusion for writing. “I’ve taken enormous walks and lived on rice and codfish tongues and I feel like a new man,” he wrote to a friend.

John and Katy thrived among Provincetown’s seaside artists and writers. The Great Depression made little difference to them, since life in Provincetown was always cheap. “I used to tell people,” my grandfather wrote in his memoirs, “I had been just as broke before the stockmarket crash as after it. My books could hardly have sold less anyway.” John sailed his dinghy, swam, gardened, and worked on his U.S.A. trilogy, the first volume of which, The 42nd Parallel, appeared in 1930, earning him popular and critical acclaim. Katy cowrote two books, Down the Cape: The Complete Guide to Cape Cod (1936) and The Private Adventure of Captain Shaw (1945), with Edith Shay. Sometimes my grandfather traveled alone, giving Katy and Edith the time to research and write their books. Edmund Wilson and his young daughter Rosalind spent summers in nearby Wellfleet on the Cape and joined the Dos Passos circle of close friends. Most friends called Edmund “Bunny,” his nickname since boarding school, but John and Katy, who had an irreverent rapport with Wilson, also warmly called him “Antichrist.” Rosalind frequently visited the Dos Passoses “if things got complicated at home,” she wrote in her memoirs, and considered the house on Commercial Street to be a “surrogate home.” The couple “had a very happy marriage and gave other people happiness and laughter through it.”

Dos Passos, circa 1960, holding a fully inflated pufferfish, on the Potomac River near his family’s farm in Westmoreland County, Virginia (Courtesy of the author)

My grandfather maintained a close bond with the Portuguese fishing community. His own heritage “was evident in his looks and put his relationship to the Portuguese in Provincetown on a different level than the other later arrivals of the writing set,” Rosalind wrote. Today, Provincetown is clean, polished, and ready for boatloads of summer tourists. Its gardens teem with daylilies, lavender, and hydrangeas. But in my grandfather’s time, the town often reeked of fish guts. Provincetown fishermen, many of Portuguese descent like Dos Passos, landed mackerel, whiting, haddock, cod, and flounder. Starving artists could go to the wharf and pick out dinner from a bucket of throwaway fish. Edmund Wilson later described rowing out to check fish traps in Provincetown harbor one night in 1930: “We visited a series of four traps—the laborious pulling up of the nets: the butterfish, great flapping silver flakes … a big goosefish: the old Portuguese fisherman held him up for us to see his great gullet with the limp slimy squids drooling out of it, brutally grasping him with his thumb and finger in the fish’s dull eyes, then flung him overboard.”

The seamen in Provincetown, like those Dos Passos had known as a boy in the Northern Neck, cultivated a rich oral tradition. One salty tale, from Jeremiah Digges’s 1937 book Cape Cod Pilot, tells of Captain John Santos, a

feller that had his leg et off by a shark on the Western Banks. But I can remember him, back when I was a boy, and how proud he was of the new jury-leg they rigged him up with. It was a sight, I tell you, to watch him dance a chamarita [a style of Portuguese folk dance] with that leg and not nick the floor once. Carried around furniture polish just like the doctor carries iodine, in case of a cut or scratch, and one time he copper-bottomed her to make sure the worms wouldn’t get to him before his time.

My grandfather developed a reputation in town as a fine seafood chef, which may have helped him win credibility among the Portuguese. One dish, which he called Arroz Valenciana, consisted of young chicken, lobster, crab, clams, mussels, green peas, rice, garlic, saffron, bay leaf, and olive oil. He also made Spanish mussel soup with saffron. He gathered the mussels himself. Like many of the Portuguese, he prized garlic in cooking and applied it generously. He claimed that garlic had “every vitamin known to man.” One Provincetown cookbook, published in 1947, lists “Lobster a la Dos Passos,” which involves baking a lobster stuffed with pieces of Portuguese bread mixed with melted butter, lots of chopped chives, lemon juice, a pinch of cayenne, marjoram, and some Worcestershire sauce. The same book includes my grandfather’s recipes for “Zucchini with Herbs” and “Green Peppers Saute.”

In the Portuguese community, my grandfather befriended one of Provincetown’s classic characters, John J. Gaspar (1884–1961), a clam digger and shellfish warden from Pico, one of the nine islands of the Azores. But probably the finest fisherman my grandfather ever knew was Charles “Charlie” Atkins Mayo Jr. (1909–1994), a champion tuna angler, conservationist, and Provincetown selectman. Mayo was the ultimate all-weather mariner. He possessed highly accurate instincts for navigation, earned from decades in Cape Cod fog and other hazardous conditions. Mayo spent summers in Provincetown, but when the hard New England winters arrived, he sailed for Florida and the Bahamas. During his more than 70 round trips, he committed that territory to memory—every sandbar, reef, and buoy. He created the sport of fishing for tuna by rod and reel and dominated it completely. He won the annual Governor’s Cup award eight times, for having caught the largest tuna in Massachusetts waters. Probably the biggest tuna landed on one of his vessels, caught in 1948, weighed 751 pounds, and Mayo’s charters were always in high demand. Many a fisherman followed him, trying to ape his technique and replicate his bait. Sports Illustrated reported that so many boats chased Mayo’s to the tuna grounds that the scene “resembled the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary.”

How and when Mayo met my grandfather is unknown, but it was probably in the 1930s after Mayo’s graduation from Dartmouth. They must have become instant friends. The two men shared an interest in politics, writing, and fishing, and both were of Portuguese ancestry. (Mayo’s mother came from the island of Faial in the Azores.) One of the few preserved records of their friendship is their two-week cruise to the Bahamas with family and friends in the spring of 1959. By this time, Katy had died, and Dos Passos had married his second wife, Elizabeth. Aboard the 52-foot chartered powerboat Joanne II were Charlie Mayo, captain; his wife, Isabel “Ing” Stahl; their teenage son Charles Atkins Mayo III, known as “Stormy,” who served as first mate; John Dos Passos and Elizabeth; their eight-year-old daughter, Lucy; their teenage stepson Christopher Holdridge and his friend Bill Orrick; my grandfather’s friend Eben Given Sr.; Eben’s wife, writer Phyllis Duganne; and their son Eben Given Jr.

In those days, the most isolated parts of the Out Islands of the Bahamas—such as Bimini, Andros, and Cat Island—were uncharted. Mayo was one of the few captains who knew how to navigate them. He knew all the fishing holes, too, and where to find the underwater cave systems, which my grandfather later painted in brilliant watercolors. Painting, like writing, was for him a lifelong passion. He occasionally exhibited his work in the 1920s and ’30s but rarely sold a painting. Most of his canvases now belong to his literary estate. My grandfather often depicted scenes from his travels and by the time he died had completed some 350 paintings, most of them watercolors, and 330 sketches in pencil or charcoal. Bimini, an island he knew well from earlier visits with Katy and Hemingway, must have been a particularly special experience for my grandfather. Of the island, he wrote in his memoirs, “We never tired of walking on the beach and watching the high slung land crabs shuttle like harness racers among the fallen coconuts.” My mother, Lucy, remembers approaching Bimini in the Joanne II. The island “looks like a shimmering mirage from a distance,” she said, “until you get closer and notice its palm trees.”

My grandfather struggled with guilt from the accident, as he had been driving when it happened. The setting sun had blinded him, and he drove the car into a parked cranberry truck. He lost an eye. Katy died instantly.

Mayo shared with my grandfather an affection for the Bahamians living on the Out Islands. He had many friends among the Black islanders, who greeted him upon his arrival in port and helped him find fresh bread and conch chowder. Mayo insisted that they join him for dinner on his ship and at his table—an uncommon hospitality in those times. Mayo and my grandfather enjoyed the Bahamians’ lighthearted folk songs, such as “My Mama don’t want no peas no rice / no coconut oil / All she wants is handy brandy and / champagne.”

Mayo and my grandfather would sit and talk late into the night in the Joanne II ’s aft lounge. According to Stormy, they would sip glasses of Drambuie and argue politics. By 1959, Dos Passos had shifted to the right politically, and Mayo always argued from the left, but their friendship never wavered. Further evidence of the cruisers’ good humor was Dos Passos’s prank call to Wilson. On April Fools’ Day, he raised Wilson in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, using the ship-to-shore radio and pretended to be Fidel Castro. According to Dos Passos biographer Townsend Ludington, “Wilson was not amused by the joke and hung up. Dos Passos called again to clear the air, but Wilson hung up on him once more.” Dos Passos seemed to have had a habit of ribbing Wilson about leftist politics. In his book The Thirties, Wilson recalled a similar moment with Dos Passos in 1936. “Rosalind and I had taken the rowboat out and had had a terrible time with it,” he wrote. “I asked Dos what the mysterious force was which, no matter how you rowed, kept bringing the boat back to shore—in spite of the fact that the current was going in the other direction. He said, You don’t think it could be Trotsky, do you?”

Mayo and Dos Passos were more than just fellow adventurers. Mayo supported my grandfather through one of the worst tragedies of his life—Katy’s death in a car accident in 1947. For Wilson, the event marked the end of a golden era for the community of writers living in Provincetown, Truro, and Wellfleet—a community that once included dramatists Susan Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill and the painter Edward Hopper. “Everybody seemed much older, both from strain and from losing Katy,” wrote Wilson, “who had always remained so young. We had all been getting old together, and it was already, I say, a whole life behind us, with many things that we could never have again.” My grandfather struggled with guilt for the accident, as he had been driving when it happened. The setting sun had blinded him, and he drove the car into a parked cranberry truck. He lost an eye. Katy died instantly. My grandfather poured his sorrow into a letter to Wilson:

I’ve thought a great deal about your letter. The thing that has struck me most is the fact that I had been able to live fifty two years without really envisaging the existence of these archipelagos of remorse and boundless continents of grief. I had thought myself fairly well versed in the miseries of life. Suddenly I find I had been completely ignorant of all these things. It makes you wonder how much else there is that you don’t know about.

Wilson visited my grandfather as he recovered from his eye removal and other wounds at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The physical discomfort,” Dos Passos told him, “is rather a good thing—because it keeps my mind off the other thing.” Mayo drove to the site of the accident in Wareham, Massachusetts, to try to re-create the circumstances of the tragedy. Hoping to comfort his friend, he told Dos Passos that he would have hit the truck, too. Mayo also told Dos Passos, “I want you to know my boat is yours if you’ll just let me take you out in it for a day.” So the pair went fishing, hoping to abate a measure of grief. Mayo described the outing, which Mayo’s father joined:

Everywhere Dos looked, he was reminded of Katy—the harbor, the lighthouse, the beach they had walked, the dunes, the weir traps, the smell of the sea. We dragged rigs, but Dos’s arm was still in a splint so he couldn’t really fish. He had a patch on his eye still. We left the boat and came ashore in a dory after being out for several hours. We didn’t talk much, but as my father and I walked behind him away from the water, I was deeply impressed. There was something about the way Dos carried himself and the way he looked at me that made me know he would leave the Cape and never return to live among us.

My grandfather did return to the Cape multiple times to visit friends. He fished more with Charlie Mayo and visited F. Scott Fitzgerald’s daughter, Scottie. But everywhere there were bittersweet landmarks of his years with Katy. Reading this elegiac passage, I am left wishing that Mayo had written more about the sea and its capacity to reveal character. But I am grateful that my grandfather had a friend who, like him, found battles but also peace at the end of a fishing line. There is more to Dos Passos than his books and paintings. There is the spirit behind the letter and the brushstroke—a spirit that found connection, healing, and renewal at sea.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

John Dos Passos Coggin is a writer and a poet. He co-manages the John Dos Passos Literary Estate and serves on the advisory board of the John Dos Passos Society.


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