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U. S. A.
People have been waiting for the great American novel ever since Civil War days. But John Dos Passos may have written it sixty years ago.
July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
These sentiments animate his two war novels, One Man’s Initiation—1917 (1920) and Three Soldiers (1921), the first of primarily biographical interest, the second a stronger and less amateurish work that presaged better ones. In both, the horrors of war go beyond the depiction of atrocities, smashed bodies, and random destruction. The soldier-victims grouse and growl; they can be fierce, cunning, and sadistic in their rebelliousness. Only a few of them, maddened by the military “organization” (always a lethal word in Don Passos’s vocabulary), gag on the diet of official lies. The majority seem unaware of their moral degradation. Lurking in the shadow of these novels is a grander plot, still indistinct but slowly taking shape, about a fragmented America co-opted by leaders no less ignorant of the forces that drive them than the people they lead.
The declarations of independence announced in these books partially mitigate Dos Passos’s gloomy ruminations. Neither then nor later did he cease to believe in the resiliency of the American people. All the same, the fiction and nonfiction he wrote from then on had a tinge of pessimism and intimated disaster. The insurrectionist against bureaucratic tyranny would never expunge from his thoughts a vision of history as nightmare, an endless cycle of uprisings and revolts tracked by repression. These hopes and apprehensions emerged in his masterwork, U. S. A.
He had long dreamed of producing “a satirical chronicle” seasoned with “popular songs, political aspirations and prejudices, ideals, hopes, delusions, crack pot notions, clippings out of daily newspapers,” and he made a good stab at it in Manhattan Transfer (1924).
This “utterly fantastic and New Yorkerish” novel, as he called it, takes place in the borough of Manhattan, an immensity “of iron, steel, marble, and rock” where his trapped and thwarted characters, a cross section of the city, rise or fall depending on their ability to adapt to the modern Nineveh. None of them is examined in depth, not even the two central figures whose lives are traced from childhood to maturity. There’s barely space for the short fragments of their intersecting stories.
In spite of its flaws, Manhattan Transfer was a brilliant technical feat, a skillful adaptation of the modernist culture Dos Passos had been steeped in for more than a decade. It was also a very ambitious undertaking, nothing less than to create the illusion of a vast palpitating urban organism, to describe the simultaneous occurrence of diverse events, and to convey the speed and noise and color of a great city and its vivid contrasts of richness and rot. To achieve these effects, Dos Passos turned not to the slow-paced literary naturalists but to the postimpressionist painters, to Picasso’s stage sets, Stravinsky’s ballet music, Balanchine’s choreography, Joyce’s Ulysses , and (most pertinent to his needs) the films of Griffith and Eisenstein, from which he learned the trick of montage, the juxtaposing of contrasting scenes, as he defined it, to “record the fleeting world.”
Manhattan Transfer was Dos Passos’s first attempt to arrange his characters in fluid groups and to chart their careers discontinuously. It marked the beginning of his shift from the personal to the collective historical experience, from passive to active involvement. As yet he hadn’t fully explored the possibilities of his own technical innovations or coordinated his indictments of the ideas, people, and institutions he held responsible for the nation’s ailments. He would do both in his trilogy.
One event may have given him the impetus to write it: the trial and execution of the Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, charged with the 1920 murder of a paymaster and his guard in South Braintree, Massachusetts. The question of their guilt or innocence is still being debated, but that they were tried in an atmosphere of hysteria before a biased court is indisputable. Their deaths in the electric chair on August 22, 1927, ignited protests around the world and made Dos Passos feel like an alien in his own country. Never a party man or uncritical of radical dogmas, he now wondered if his kind of liberalism was tenable in a time of class war. Would the martyrdom of the two anarchists be forgotten “in a dribble of vague words and rubber stamp phrases”? He memorialized them in U. S. A. , his long look at his country’s history and his own since the turn of the century.