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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
Dos Passos’s Veblen is Socrates reborn, an ironist and dissector of the century who fought “pedantry, routine, time-servers at office desks, trustees, college presidents, the plump flunkies of the ruling businessmen.” He took to Veblen as he never did to Karl Marx, whose theories he couldn’t comfortably apply to American conditions. U. S. A. follows Veblen’s “new diagram of a society dominated by monopoly capital” and “the sabotage of production by business.” It poses Veblen’s alternatives: “a warlike society strangled by the bureaucracies of the monopolies” and forced to “grind down more and more the common man for profits”; and a “commonsense society” managed by competent technicians for the benefit of the people and alert to “the vast possibilities for peace and plenty.”
The characters in U. S. A. are the victims and beneficiaries of the first alternative. A handful can’t or won’t adjust to any sort of regimentation. Mac, the radical journeyman printer and feckless picaro in The 42nd Parallel , is one example. Joe Williams in Nineteen Nineteen , the unattached and futureless merchant seaman killed in a bar fight in France, is another. Both are anachronisms handicapped by their live-and-let-live attitudes. They belong to a more relaxed lost America, as does Charley Anderson in The Big Money . A North Dakota country boy, war hero, airplane designer cum capitalist, Charley is good-natured and democratic, at home in garages and workshops, but once infected by the money bug, he starts to think and talk like a capitalist and to betray his friends.
Most of the other characters are amenable to the standards and values of Veblen’s “pecuniary” society and its canon of reputability. They are part of the “servile generation of whitecollar slaves” climbing up and sliding down the social ladder. Dos Passos observes their scramblings with measured detachment yet not without a certain sympathy for their vulnerability. He differentiates those victimized or doomed by their compulsiveness and innocence from the “dead alive,” who have anesthetized feeling and prospered at the cost of their humanity. Richard Ellsworth Savage, the most complex character in the chronicle, occupies one of the lower circles in Dos Passos’s inferno. Once a poet and rebel (with a good deal of Dos Passos in his background and makeup), he is sensitive and intelligent enough to wince at his own fraudulence but hasn’t the strength to sacrifice its compensations.
Savage has no counterpart in Veblen’s unfleshed abstractions, but his mentor and tempter J. Ward Moorehouse personifies the type of prudent self-made man Veblen was constantly caricaturizing: “reliable, conciliatory, conservative, secretive, patient, and prehensile.” Of all the characters, Moorehouse, master of the burgeoning craft of public relations, archcorrupter of language, is the one best suited to thrive in Dos Passos’s Vanity Fair. There are many betrayals in U. S. A. , but he is the ultimate betrayer.
Dos Passos was too good a novelist to turn his characters into saints or devils. The worst of them are all too human, the noblest and least selfish warped by their idealism. Mary French drudges her life away for the downtrodden masses, gives herself to a series of unsavory men who “need” her, and eventually hardens into a formula. Self-immolating Ben Compton, strike leader and Marxist revolutionary, gets it in the neck from all quarters and is emotionally crippled by his terrible integrity.
Even as Dos Passos bled for the injured and the insulted and did more than his share of social protesting, one suspects that at no time was he quite at ease with his radical allies, or, for that matter, with group movements of any kind. Blowhards, careerists, and crooks, it seemed to him, sullied whatever cause or party he had supported, particularly the Communist party. He had once classified himself as a camp follower of the party, but that was before Stalinist tactics in the United States and abroad (his disenchantment is anticipated in The Big Money ) sent him in search of his “real” or “chosen” country. Not long after, he settled down with the ultras of the right (he envisaged them as a beleaguered minority), still a seeker, still wandering around the globe collecting materials for his books. With a few exceptions his late works were indifferently received.