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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
The trilogy opens at the dawn of the American century. Vestiges of the old agrarian Republic, optimistic and open, haven’t quite disappeared, but industry is rapidly being rationalized, the search for new markets intensifying, and class lines are hardening. Still, the country feels young and strong and confident, and reform is in the air. New is the talismanic word—that is, until the unctuous President Wilson (in Dos Passos’s eyes a frigid and bedazzled puritan) ushers the nation into an imperialistic world war.
The state now has an excuse to saddle and ride mankind and to stifle dissent. Profiteers and superpatriots cash in on the war and on the brokered proceedings at Versailles. The immediate postwar years at home turn violent as capital and labor regroup. Anti-alien hysteria (it will culminate in the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti) is fed by the fear of international bolshevism (or “anarchism” or “socialism,” interchangeable terms to jittery Americans). By the mid-1920s the nation is rich and getting richer. This is the era of Big Money, of Prohibition and booze, of organized nonsense, of Hollywood glitter, of wild speculation, and of financial chicanery on a grand scale. The sardonic chronicle ends with Wall Street stunned and the country unconvinced by President Hoover’s reassurances.
Dos Passos summed up these years in 1927 just as he was about to start his trilogy. What he wrote then could have been its epigraph: “The sudden gusher of American wealth in the last fifty years has boosted into power—into such power as would have sent shivers of envy down Alexander’s spine—a class of illassorted mediocrities, who have not needed even much acquisitive skill to get where they are. Aping them is a servile generation of whitecollar slaves and small moneygrubbers and under that, making the wheels go around, endless formless and disunited strata of workers and farmers kept mostly in an opium dream of prosperity by cooing radios, the flamboyant movies and the instalment plan. In all that welter there is no trace of scale of values. The last rags of the old puritan standards in which good was white and bad was black went under in the war. In the ten years that have followed the American mind has settled back into a marsh of cheap cosmopolitanism and wisecracking, into a slow odorless putrescence.”
From writer-reporters like Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane, and John Reed, Dos Passos had learned how to inject excitement and a sense of urgency into a narrative. By the 1930s he was unsurpassed as a writer of “rapportage,” a form of advocacy journalism that simultaneously described, informed, and aroused. It admirably suited his conception of eyewitness novelistic history, what he called “my own curious sort of political agit-prop.” As the critic Edmund Wilson pointed out, it had always been Dos Passos’s function to take his readers “behind the front pages of the newspapers and provide us with a newsreel of his own” and to convert the abstractions Wall Street, Industry, and Labor into flesh-and-blood persons. Hence rapportage lent itself well to the three devices Dos Passos invented to stitch together the multiple strands of his chronicle: Newsreel, the biographies, and The Camera Eye.