July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
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.
How did such a man come to write a three-part chronicle about a collection of real and imagined Americans (himself included) whose lives got entangled in the first three decades of the century? Why did he feel compelled to record, however obliquely, his own entanglement in this history? And why should those who have never even heard of Dos Passos bother to read U. S. A. ? The answers to these questions are embedded in his biography.
He was then enrolled not very happily in the Choate School after a childhood largely spent shuttling between Brussels and London with his mother and attendant governesses. At Choate his physical awkwardness, stammer, myopia, bookishness, and foreign mannerisms set him apart from his homegrown classmates. To them he was “Frenchy” or “Four-eyes,” but aside from subjecting him to a bit of mild hazing, they left the self-described “unsocial friendless little beast” to himself. Things improved for him at college. He remembered the years from 1912 to 1916 as the “best” of his life (despite his scoffing references to Harvard then and later), for it was then that he broke out of his isolation and formed lasting friendships. Even so, the “hell-of-a-fellow” pose he adopted was mostly protective mimicry. He remained fastidious and reserved and never cottoned to the smutty talk and casual fornications of his companions. (There’s a surprising amount of sex in U. S. A. , but it’s usually joyless and mechanical.)
One year after his graduation in 1917, the death of his father left him feeling less bereft than alone. He had come to know and admire his roving parent “through the turbulence of conflicting currents of love and hate that mark so many men’s feeling for their fathers” and to see him as solicitous guide and friend. Indeed, Dos Passos Senior, the lusty self-made corporation lawyer, son of a Portuguese immigrant father, was the novelist’s direct link to the late-nineteenth-century American world. The father had defended the murderer of the financial buccaneer Jim Fisk in a celebrated trial, paid a call on “the great electrician” Edison, and introduced his son to Mark Twain on Fifth Avenue. He had also been a political maverick who switched his allegiance from the Democratic to the Republican party only to accuse its leaders of turning Congress into an oligarchy. He had earned and spent large sums of money and lived in high style.
These were matters the young Dos Passos didn’t know much about. What stuck in his mind was his father’s enormous appetite for historical fiction and his advice to look at history as if one were a participant, not merely through the lenses of other minds. Dos Passos acted on this suggestion, but it took a world war and its aftermath to teach him how to blend private and mass experience, history and fiction, in what he came to refer to as his “chronicle.”
Even before he joined the Norton-Harjes ambulance unit in 1917, the Angry Young Man, half-aesthete and half-revolutionary, was letting off steam in ebullient letters. He had practiced singing the “Internationale,” he announced to his pals, and dreamed of “vengeful guillotines.” The only people with guts were radical East Side Jews. Harvard’s sons he called a “milky lot.” Once he was in France, however, sobered by what he saw and heard, he filled his diary with tirades against Allied propaganda (“worse than German gas”) and denounced the war, which he now got a close look at, as a “vast cancer fed by lies and selfseeking malignity.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.