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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 twenty-six biographies, which stand like observation towers over-looking the flattened narrative landscape, have a comparable function. Dos Passos said he intended these highly stylized sketches or short personal essays to serve “as illustrative panels, portraits of typical or important personalities of the time,” and he planted them to “interrupt, and by contrast to give another dimension to the made-up stories which are the body of the book.” Each portrait, although sharply individualized, is meant to stand for something more inclusive than the sitter: a type, a cast of mind, a national characteristic. Each reflects some aspect of the historical process and relates obliquely to the occupations, interests, and desires of the invented characters. Together they embody a history of American life and institutions.
Dos Passos’s biases are undisguisedly at work in the biographies. His heroes tend to be independent spirits who took risks, held unpopular opinions, or challenged the political and business establishment. The Wright brothers, Luther Burbank, Eugene Debs, John Reed, Randolph Bourne, Thorstein Veblen, and Frank Lloyd Wright belong to his saving remnant. Less admirable in his eyes are the technical geniuses (besides Edison and Ford, they include Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of scientific management, and the electrical engineer Charles Proteus Steinmetz), whose accomplishments he acknowledges but whom he presents as the willing or passive creatures of big business. They remind him of “the sorcerer’s apprentice who loosed the goblins and the wonder-working broomsticks in his master’s shop and then forgot what the formula was to control them by.”
Least congenial, for there are no loathsome villains in U. S. A. , are the organizers and chief beneficiaries of business and finance. Dos Passos bathes them in irony. Andrew Carnegie, “Prince of Peace,” spent millions “to promote universal peace . . . except in time of war.” J. P. Morgan, “a bullnecked irascible man with small black magpie eyes and a growth on his nose,” equated American principles with the open shop. Woodrow Wilson “flayed the interests and branded privilege” and then took the nation into a war that “brought the eight hour day, women’s votes, prohibition, compulsory arbitration, high wages, high rates of interest, cost plus contracts and the luxury of being a Gold Star Mother.” William Randolph Hearst, one-time “millionaire candidate of the common man,” backed the “bludgeon rule of Handsome Adolph.” In the end all of them are pawns of tendency and no more prescient than their punier counterparts in the narratives.
The same applies to the remembering and reflecting person-voice of The Camera Eye, the author self-observed. The fifty-one internal monologues placed at intervals from the beginning to the end of the trilogy parallel and mesh with events alluded to in the Newsreels and biographies and internalize the surface history. Dos Passos’s protagonist (it would be too much to call him a hero) is the only character who actually changes, develops, and learns and who can look back at his earlier selves with a degree of sympathy and humor. Where the invented characters are crushed or crack up, or sell out, the monologist manages to come out whole and undefeated. Without great expectations he’s ready to press on. What he’s learned about himself and America in his veiled introspections is what U. S. A. is all about.