John Dos Passos
USA, a View from Left Field
John Dos Passos was the most daring literary writer of his day. In situation and in language, he far outshocked even Sinclair Lewis. And unlike Lewis, Dos Passos gives no hint of satire: he remains the quintessential exponent of early 20th Century literary realism. He presents his characters as the real life people of his day, and in the trilogy USA, Dos Passos' major contribution to American literature, he visits every social class and every region of the country as well as ex-patriot communities in Europe. The scope of his ambition is awesome: he meant to draw on the entire cultural landscape of the country, its people, its types, its customs, its social and political movements. To a large extent he was successful, and he does it with language that in our time of a somewhat reformed American culture, is certain to offend. Wop, spic, chink, kike, nigger-Dos Passos' characters utter them all.1 The language spoken by his characters may not be politically correct, but it is historically correct, and to see it in print is to remind us what a nasty country this once was and how extensive and widely accepted was language heard today only among ill-bred adolescents. Dos Passos makes such terms more offensive by presenting them with the immediacy of indirect dialogue and stream of consciousness writing which tends to draw the author into this travesty of language. We wonder as we read, did Dos Passos share the attitudes of his trash talking characters? It may seem so- his presentation is that casual, that natural, that effective. He does not create authorial distance between himself and his vulgar people. Perhaps no greater compliment can be paid a writer of fiction than to suggest his work appears autobiographical, that he associates so intimately with his characters that they must be drawn from his own life experience. But a look into Dos Passos' personal life shows that he probably had no more than an observer's acquaintance with the cultures he records in his novels. Ideologically speaking, he came from quite a different world, playing for the first half of his life from a position in far left field. His personal political morality was that of the progressive left and it was this faction's social ethics that informed his writing, clearly demonstrated by his empathetic treatment of the working class, of the organized labor movement, and of minority issues exemplified, to take just one instance, by his biting depiction of anti-semitism.
His early political novels, and in particular USA, exposed the rot at the core of the American soul. Nothing casts so harsh a light on the cultural arrogance of America than to hear commoners and the elite alike refer to minorities in the overtly derogatory terms Dos Passos so generously sprinkles across his texts.
John D. Dos Passos (1896 - 1970) was the illegitimate son of John R. Dos Passos, the son of a Portuguese immigrant cobbler who rose to become a noted Wall Street lawyer and powerful industrialist, and Lucy Sprigg, a Southern aristocrat who became John R.'s long time lover. The father never publicly recognized the son-his obituary in the NY Times lists his only son as Louis, a child from a legalized union. The father's legal neglect did not, however, prevent him from paying for little John's education, and what an education the boy got: Ten years in Brussels and London, the Friends School in Washington, D.C., Choate, Harvard- nothing was too good for the brilliant illegitimate son the father could not quite admit to. After graduating from Harvard, Dos Passos volunteered for ambulance service in World War I and stayed on in Europe to become part of the Lost Generation, hanging out mostly in Paris with soon-to-be-famous artists and writers. Hemmingway was a good friend-until their bitter breakup over differing takes on the Spanish Civil War. Hemmingway remained a vocal supporter of the left while Dos Passos had already begun his steady drift to the right where he lodged in mid career to remain until his death. He would write over twenty novels (and paint over 400 pictures) but all of his early works, and especially his masterwork, USA, are far left in inspiration and stocked with characters active in the radical labor movement and the Communist Party.23
The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, the three novels that make up USA trilogy, were meant to be read as a single novel, and Dos Passos uses many of the same characters and the same collage technique-perhaps cubistic would be a more accurate term-to describe the structure of all three. Each chapter begins with a Newsreel, a page or two of headlines taken from contemporary newspapers and lyrics excerpted from popular songs. This is followed by the Camera Eye, random stream of consciousness observations which more often than not add little to the narratives-you can make of them whatever you wish-succeeded in turn by an episode featuring the ongoing story of one of the characters, which itself may be interrupted to give a short biography of a major public figure of the time, accounts that are always of interest and well presented. All three works of USA are episodic, a dozen major characters coming and going, some with connections to others in the trilogy, others who stand alone. There is no single character dominant in all three works to tie the trilogy together. Dos Passos' vision of his era becomes the unifying factor.
The 42nd Parallel, the first novel of the Dos Passos trilogy, begins with a two page preface warning us that we are about to read a work of social criticism. It is a thematic work (as are all three of the novels) defining the major themes of American culture-progress, politics, labor unions, worker movements, strikes, making it, or not. But The 42nd Parallel even more so than those to follow is a Bildungsroman telling the story of Mac and several other hopeful young Middle Americans (the 42nd parallel belts the nation's midsection). These are all common folk living in boarding houses who hate their jobs while striving to get ahead and the effect their efforts to advance has on their development. The focus in the novel is on those who remain little people, but the finest portrayal is that of J.Ward Moorehouse, the voice of capitalism, who makes it to the top.4 These strivers are all social political naifs-such young people did exist before the rise of Hitler, Stalin and Mao-and most will retain their innocence until they reappear in episodes of the later two novels.
Speech reveals their innocent souls. They speak of going to a `blind tiger,' of coming up with rent for a `flop,' of working in a `soup an' fish' as a `pearldiver,' all slang terms today's reader interprets from context. As in all of the Dos Passos trilogy, it is not so much the characters of The 42nd Parallel that hold our interest, its the immense amount of closely observed detail surrounding their lives-artifacts, cultural traits, language, movements, ambitions and ideas-that make up life in the America of their time. Like the novels of Sinclair Lewis, those of his contemporary Dos Passos constitute some of the very best sources of early 20th Century American history.
In writing the second of the USA trilogy, 1919, Dos Passos uses the same stylistic techniques as he does in book one: Newsreel, Camera Eye, episodic tales of a handful of characters, and his exquisitely done short biographies of famous Americans. His treatment of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and especially, Robert Lafollette, are, as literature, great documentary snapshots rarely found in works of fiction.
If The 42nd Parallel is all about making it, 1919 is all about debauchery. Sex begins on page one with a fuzzy homosexual scene segueing into lots and lots of hetero sex leading to nothing but the clap and lost wages. Broke again, the same character, or another character, begins the story over again in a slightly changed setting, each episode saved by the detail which makes for good social history. There's no satire in this repetitive pursuit of sexual adventures. Unlike Lewis, whose characters are more often classic types, not individuals, Dos Passos' people are ripped right from the roster of everyman America.
The lives of the 1919 characters are far more degenerate than the earlier novel. Much of the narrative takes place in Paris among American soldiers and Red Cross workers, with everyone sleeping with everyone else. This constitutes the action told with lots of suggestive language and situations, pretty racy stuff for a novel published in 1930. But there are just way too many women becoming pregnant on first lay. Pregnancy as a plot mechanism- will she conceive? if so when, and what will he do about it?-is essential to the stories. Climax hinges on it, and the resulting abortion. Dos Passos moves the characters around two continents and a dozen cities with each of them indulging in the same rampant sexual behavior in a changed setting, all to no avail. It is life like it is truly lived-pointless.5**
1919 is in essence an anti-war novel concealed behind a covey of characters largely interested in booze and sex. Although Dos Passos served as a driver in the Ambulance Corps in World War I, his heart was not in the war but in opposing it. He's very good at depicting the anti-pacifist faction of Wilsonian America, portraying Wilson in a light too often given scant space in later academic studies: Wilson the one time liberal who went down in infamy as did his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Wilson, who began as the great liberal hope, pushed so persistently to engage the country in an unpopular war that he self-destructed, as did LBJ. A character in 1919, a reporter, explains why:
Sound familiar? Read on:
Notables, like Randolph Bourne, were making the rounds proclaiming `War is the health of the state,' inciting vast hordes of `love it or leave it' patriots prepared to string up those who opposed the war.If you don't like the stars in Old Glory
"...It's the greatest conspiracy in history." Was. Written seventy years ago, before Vietnam and long before a cynical administration and a cowed media stampeded the country into the Second Iraq War. Makes one wonder: Has anything changed? Is progress possible? Is this why Dos Passos creates characters whose lives are largely futile?
The Big Money, the third novel of the trilogy, is, on the surface, all about the great American pastime of the Twenties-making money. That's what the characters are up to, searching for ways to get rich, really rich; or, if on the left, fighting the rich through strikes, often violent, to secure the lives of the working man. Their quest for the Big Money does not, of course, prevent these characters from indulging in serious drinking bouts-The Big Money opens with a hangover-and lots of casual sex that often as not results in STDs-syphilis, gonorrhea. (For a writer who works with so much social detail, Dos Passos never tells us just what these men and women did about it in the days before penicillin.)
Although The Big Money floats on a sea of booze, Dos Passos does not lose sight of his themes. When the characters are not on a drunk or hunting down sex, they are making the case for liberal versus revolutionary change. The Big Money is an excellent history of the hard core radical labor movement's battle with the rich for control of the system. "We are two nations," a character tells us, rich and poor, and that makes up the material of the novel. In this, the final novel of the trilogy, no one wins. Those who do make it to the top destroy themselves through degenerate living, and those on the left end up as does Mary French, the closing character of the novel, ground down by the lobotomizing group think of the Communist Party. In The Big Money Dos Passos builds a great deal more dramatic thrust into his characters and their stories than in his two previous novels, and all the stories are told with an infinite number of twists and turns, showing the writer's inexhaustible stock of plots. We stay with the characters longer and get a deeper look into their lives. Nonetheless, Dos Passos refuses to manipulate his characters to arrive at a happy, spiritually fulfilling conclusion. But then that is not what we expect from a writer working on such momentous historical material as does Dos Passos.
Dos Passos winds up The Big Money with the self-destruction of the get rich fast capitalist and the refusal of the left wing stalwart Mary French to desert a sinking ship. The trilogy's coda, expertly done, shows a vagabond striker hitching a ride down a highway while overhead an airplane flies a Big Money man across the USA-New York, Ohio, Iowa, Omaha, Cheyenne, Salt Lake, Las Vegas, L.A., all are mentioned-an atlas of America creating an effective symbolic conclusion to this very broad literary work.
For today's reader, the strength of USA lies not in style or Dos Passos' characters or even his stories, but in the themes embedded in this huge 1500 page work and how adroitly he handles them. No other American novel can match the broad social and political canvas Dos Passos paints of early 20th Century America. USA's weakness lies in the episodic structure Dos Passos used to deliver his ideas. The novel-Dos Passos looked upon the trilogy as a single novel that could be read in whole or in part-is far too episodic: Too many characters are around for too short a time for the reader to get to know them and enter into their lives. Characters are introduced in a short episode, are dropped for others, and by the time they reappear in this book or in subsequent books of the trilogy, we have forgotten who they are. Dos Passos ornaments his episodes with a great deal of eclectic topographical flourish, but just as exotic topography can not make a bad poem good, neither does it add much to a novel. The Newsreel and Camera Eye innovations are eye-catching but do little, particularly the Camera Eye insertions, to advance the stories or to fill in the canvas of ideas behind them. Neither does the writer's endless playing around with punctuation and grammar. Dos Passos is fond of running words together (the eye comes to an abrupt halt when lighting upon words such as admirablytailored, builtupseasonbyseason, and the confusing teathings, with the writer ultimately offering up a complete paragraph devoid of spaces between words) which makes one wonder if Dos Passos might have been more at home writing in German. Another time he does without capital letters or any form of punctuation. These innovations are mere novelties; they serve no organic purpose and distract from an otherwise admirable literary work.6 He also indulges in too obvious twists and turns of plot-his soap operatic style-in telling his often engaging stories: another drunk, another girl, another pregnancy, another abortion, another sudden death to be rid of a character no longer of use.
USA is raw stuff. It pulls no punches and makes few compromises with propriety. Dos Passos does not sieve his language through a morally or politically correct filter. He does not cringe from putting the most painful language (painful to us, it's our heritage) into the mouths of his characters. It is this, as much as the unvarnished personal habits of his characters, that adds authenticity to his works. Was any other writer of his time so bold? Not Hemmingway or Fitzgerald, not even Lewis and Dreiser, big names with lots of clout but compared to Dos Passos, prim in their story telling.
Dos Passos wrote over forty major works as well as poems, plays, essays (and of course painted those 400 canvases). His first major work, Three Soldiers, the first anti-war novel to come out of World War I, met with mixed reviews. The establishment press panned it. The New York Times labeled it "unmanly intemperance in language and plot" while the Chicago Tribune said of the book, all in caps, "THREE SOLDIERS BRANDED AS TEXTBOOK AND BIBLE FOR SLACKERS AND COWARDS." (These same reviewers did, no doubt, wax apoplectic when a few years later Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front hit the streets.) Despite such over-the-top reviews, Three Soldiers, Manhattan Transfer and USA would all go on to sell well. Then, as Dos Passos' work took on a decidedly conservative and then right wing tone, the left wing critics had their turn. The reviewer for the New Masses, Samuel Sillen, wrote that one such book was "almost inconceivably rotten," "a crude piece of Trotskyist agit-prop" that suffered from "sloppy writing, hollow characters, machine-made dialogue.** 7 Hemmingway, the darling of the critics then as now, had warned Dos Passos not to go against the (critics') grain. Dos Passos did and the vitriolic left wing began a campaign that was partially to blame for the eclipse of his career.
Always controversial, Dos Passos' books remain of interest because more than the work of any other early 20th Century American novelist, his major novels deal with historically important themes painted on an immensely broad canvas, with USA, his most comprehensive work, remaining his greatest vehicle of expression. Dos Passos was the most politically committed fiction writer of his day, and unlike most of his contemporaries, frankly integrated his political and moral positions into his novels. Like the best of his contemporaries writing in the heyday of the American novel, his works not only reflected the America of his time but shaped its attitudes. For the first half of his career, John Dos Passos was considered the greatest writer of his day. With the next advance of the radical left, one suspects he may be so again if for no other reason that he has no match in the material he chose to personify.
Hugh Mahoney is a writer who lives in Minneapolis. At present he has five novels in search of an agent/publisher. His iconoclastic novel, Virgins and Martyrs, has generated widespread interest but as of yet no publisher daring enough to publish it.