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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
In retrospect the symptoms of his ultimate rupture with socialists of all varieties were plainly evident: belief in the evil of existing institutions, strong doubts about human goodness, and unwillingness to commit himself totally to any cause. He had “privately seceded” from the United States after the Sacco-Vanzetti affair and rejoined it briefly during the early years of the New Deal. But he soon concluded that power had drifted from Wall Street to Washington and that Roosevelt’s bureaucrats had lost contact with grassroots America. From there it wasn’t much of a jump to the camp of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others of his ilk, whom he commended for exposing the “Communist infiltration” of government agencies. Unfortunately his shift to the Republicanism of Robert Taft and Richard Nixon carried little imaginative conviction and inspired pedestrian books. He remained the earnest, decent man he had always been and refused to apologize for what he had said or done. (Asked for permission to quote some wildly anarchistic sentences from his youthful correspondence, he replied: “Go ahead. I wrote them, didn’t I?”
Glancing back at his life, one wonders if Dos Passos’s long vendetta against coercive institutions wasn’t at bottom a cry against the industrial age itself. From his Harvard days he had been of two minds about a machine civilization full of wonders but dehumanizing. He could evoke it powerfully and poetically, but he doesn’t appear to have enjoyed it very much. He had his lighthearted moments, to be sure, but his satire tastes medicinal.
Of course, it’s much more than that: a twentieth-century novel vibrating with history and written by an opinionated man who framed his story in historical time and supplied it with a roaring soundtrack. He wasn’t trying to rewrite history as fiction. Historical and fictional elements interact, but they are clearly demarcated. Essentially it is a human comedy in the tradition of two of his favorite authors, Cervantes and Thackeray, and a lengthy exercise in what his old friend the novelist Dawn Powell defined as “man’s helplessness against vanity (the vanity of love, greed, lust, power”).
U. S. A. inspired many imitations, not the least by Dos Passos himself after his radical passions had chilled, but none matched its energy and glow. It continues to throb after sixty years of weathering.