Dos Passos’s trilogy begins as it ends: with a young man walking. This is from the opening pages.
No job, no woman, no house, no city. . .
It was not in the long walks through jostling crowds at night that he was less alone, or in the training camp at Allentown, or in the day on the docks at Seattle, or in the empty reek of Washington City hot boyhood summer nights, or in the meal on Market Street, or in the swim off the red rocks at San Diego, or in the bed full of fleas in New Orleans, or in the cold razorwind off the lake, or in the gray faces trembling in the grind of gears in the street under Michigan Avenue, or in the smokers of limited expresstrains, or walking across country, or riding up the dry mountain canyons, or the night without a sleepingbag among frozen beartracks in the Yellowstone, or canoeing Sundays on the Quinnipiac;
but in his mother’s words telling about longago, in his father’s telling about when I was a boy, in the kidding stories of uncles, in the lies the kids told at school, the hired man’s yarns, the tall tales the doughboys told after taps;
it was the speech that clung to the ears, the link that tingled in the blood; U. S. A.
U. S. A. is the slice of a continent. U. S. A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stockquotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a publiclibrary full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. U. S. A. is the world’s greatest river-valley fringed with mountains and hills, U. S. A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts. U. S. A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. U. S. A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U. S. A. is the speech of the people.
“The Camera Eye” sections are the most personal in the trilogy. This one suggests Dos Passos’s simultaneous disgust and infatuation with that great engine of monopoly capitalism, New York City.
THE CAMERA EYE
the narrow yellow room teems with talk under the low ceiling and crinkling tendrils of cigarettesmoke twine blue and fade round noses behind ears under the rims of women’s hats in arch looks changing arrangements of lips the toss of a bang the wise I-know-it wrinkles round the eyes . . .
this warmvoiced woman who moves back and forth with a throaty laugh head tossed a little back distributing with teasing looks the parts in the fiveoclock drama
every man his pigeonhole
the personality must be kept carefully adjusted over the face
to facilitate recognition she pins on each of us a badge
today entails tomorrow
Thank you but why me? Inhibited? Indeed goodby
the old brown hat flopped faithful on the chair beside the door successfully snatched
outside the clinking cocktail voices fade
even in this elderly brick dwellinghouse made over with green paint orange candles a little tinted calcimine into
the stairs go up and down
lead through a hallway ranked with bells names evoking lives tangles unclassified
into the rainy twoway street where cabs slither slushing footsteps plunk slant lights shimmer on the curve of a wet cheek a pair of freshcolored lips a weatherlined neck a gnarled grimed hand an old man’s bloodshot eye
street twoway to the corner of the roaring avenue where in the lilt of the rain and the din the four directions
(the salty in all of us ocean the protoplasm throbbing through cells growing dividing sprouting into the billion diverse not yet labeled not yet named
always they slip through the fingers
the changeable the multitudinous lives)
box dizzingly the compass
Dos Passas used his “Newsreels” to convey the fizz and jabber of history as it was perceived by the people it happened to. From scraps of popular song and fragments of newspaper headlines he blended the chowder of immediacy that was poured on the citizenry by what a later generation would call the media. This one telegraphs the collapse of the Florida land boom.
STARS PORTEND EVIL FOR COOLIDGE
the elder Way had been attempting for several years to get a certain kind of celery spray on the market. The investigation of the charges that he had been beaten revealed that Way had been warned to cease writing letters, but it also brought to light the statement that the leading celery growers were using a spray containing deadly poison
MINERS RETAIL HORRORS OF DEATH PIT
inasmuch as banks are having trouble in Florida at this time, checks are not going through as fast as they should. To prevent delay please send us express money order instead of certified check
TOURISTS ROB GAS STATION
PROFIT TAKING FAILS TO CHECK STOCK RISE
the climate breeds optimism and it is hard for pessimism to survive the bright sunshine and balmy breezes that blow from the Gulf and the Atlantic
HURRICANE SWEEPS SOUTH FLORIDA
SOUTH FLORIDA DEVASTATED
1000 DEAD, 38,000 DESTITUTE
BROADWAY BEAUTY BEATEN
FLORIDA RELIEF FUND FAR SHORT
MARTIAL LAW LOOMS
according to the police the group spent Saturday evening at Hillside Park, a Belleville amusement resort and about midnight went to the bungalow. The Bagley girls retired, they told the police, and when the men entered their room one of the girls jumped from a window
Of the seventeen biographies that help anchor the teeming narrative, the sketch of the Wright Brothers is among the warmest.
THE CAMPERS AT KITTY HAWK
On December seventeenth, nineteen hundred and three, Bishop Wright of the United Brethren onetime editor of the Religious Telescope received in his frame house on Hawthorn Street in Dayton, Ohio, a telegram from his boys Wilbur and Orville who’d gotten it into their heads to spend their vacations in a little camp out on the dunes of the North Carolina coast tinkering with a homemade glider they’d knocked together themselves. The telegram read:
SUCCESS FOUR FLIGHTS THURSDAY MORNING ALL AGAINST TWENTYONE MILE WIND STARTED FROM LEVEL WITH ENGINEPOWER ALONE AVERAGE SPEED THROUGH AIR THIRTYONE MILES LONGEST FIFTYSEVEN SECONDS INFORM PRESS HOME CHRISTMAS
The figures were a little wrong because the telegraph operator misread Orville’s hasty penciled scrawl
but the fact remains
that a couple of young bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio
had designed constructed and flown
for the first time ever a practical airplane. . . .
The folks claimed it was the bishop’s bringing home a helicopter, a fiftycent mechanical toy made of two fans worked by elastic bands that was supposed to hover in the air, that had got his two youngest boys hipped on the subject of flight.
so that they stayed home instead of marrying the way the other boys did, and puttered all day about the house picking up a living with jobprinting,
sitting up late nights reading books on aerodynamics.
Still they were sincere churchmembers, their bicycle business was prosperous, a man could rely on their word. They were popular in Dayton.
In those days flyingmachines were the big laugh of all the crackerbarrel philosophers. Langley’s and Chanute’s unsuccessful experiments had been jeered down with an I-told-you-so that rang from coast to coast. The Wrights’ big problem was to find a place secluded enough to carry on their experiments without being the horselaugh of the countryside. Then they had no money to spend;
they were practical mechanics; when they needed anything they built it themselves.
They hit on Kitty Hawk,
on the great dunes and sandy banks that stretch south towards Hatteras seaward of Albemarle Sound,
a vast stretch of seabeach
empty except for a coastguard station, a few fishermen’s shacks and the swarms of mosquitoes and the ticks and chiggers in the crabgrass behind the dunes
and overhead the gulls and swooping terns, in the evening fishhawks and cranes flapping across the saltmarshes, occasionally eagles
that the Wright brothers followed soaring with their eyes
as Leonardo watched them centuries before
straining his sharp eyes to apprehend
the laws of flight.
Four miles across the loose sand from the scattering of shacks, the Wright brothers built themselves a camp and a shed for their gliders. It was a long way to pack their groceries, their tools, anything they happened to need; in summer it was hot as blazes, the mosquitoes were hell;
but they were alone there
and they’d figured out that the loose sand was as soft as anything they could find to fall in.
There with a glider made of two planes and a tail in which they lay flat on their bellies and controlled the warp of the planes by shimmying their hips, taking off again and again all day from a big dune named Kill Devil Hill,
they learned to fly.
Once they’d managed to hover for a few seconds
and soar ever so slightly on a rising aircurrent
they decided the time had come
to put a motor in their biplane.
Back in the shop in Dayton, Ohio, they built an airtunnel, which is their first great contribution to the science of flying, and tried out model planes in it.
They couldn’t interest any builders of gasoline engines so they had to build their own motor.
It worked; after that Christmas of nineteen three the Wright brothers weren’t doing it for fun any more. . ..
In nineteen seven they went to Paris,
allowed themselves to be togged out in dress suits and silk hats,
learned to tip waiters
talked with government experts, got used to gold braid and postponements and vandyke beards and the outspread palms of politicos. . . .
Aeronautics became the sport of the day.
The Wrights don’t seem to have been very much impressed by the upholstery and the braid and the gold medals and the parades of plush horses,
they remained practical mechanics
and insisted on doing all their own work themselves,
even to filling the gasolinetank.
In nineteen eleven they were back on the dunes
at Kitty Hawk with a new glider.
Orville stayed up in the air for nine and a half minutes, which remained a long time the record for motorless flight.
The same year Wilbur died of typhoidfever in Dayton.
In the rush of new names: Farman, Blériot, Curtiss, Ferber, Esnault-Peltrie, Delagrange;
in the snorting impact of bombs and the whine and rattle of shrapnel and the sudden stutter of machineguns after the motor’s been shut off overhead,
and we flatten into the mud
and make ourselves small cowering in the corners of ruined walls,
the Wright brothers passed out of the headlines
but not even headlines or the bitter smear of newsprint or the choke of smokescreen and gas or chatter of brokers on the stockmarket or barking of phantom millions or oratory of brasshats laying wreaths on new monuments
can blur the memory
of the chilly December day
two shivering bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio,
first felt their homemade contraption
whittled out of hickory sticks,
gummed together with Arnstein’s bicycle cement,
stretched with muslin they’d sewn on their sister’s sewingmachine in their own backyard on Hawthorn Street in Dayton, Ohio,
soar into the air
above the dunes and the wide beach
at Kitty Hawk.