Although he wrote novels, plays, travel books, and underwent in his forties a conversion from radicalism to conservatism, so that his latter years were taken up with writings that reflected that change, Dos Passos is best known for his USA trilogy: The 42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money (1937, although the first two were published a few years earlier). I read it for the first time when I was twenty and thought it was the cat's pajamas, speaking as it did to my growing radicalism. When a Canadian friend in the 1980s asked me to recommend a book on America in the 20th century, I suggested USA and then, to check my recollections, reread it. Having recently shed my radicalism, that aspect of the book no longer held me in thrall, and now what I noticed was the inadequacy of the characters as fictive creations. At that time, however I was not a practicing literary critic so I put USA back on the shelf and thought no more about it.
Recently, writing about the novel . . . And Ladies of the Club, I got to thinking about Dos Passos and all the hoopla in the 1920s and 30s about the "American Renaissance," so I decided to read USA again, this time with close critical attention.
Henceforth I will treat the trilogy as one book. First I must describe the book's organization and its innovations that so impressed readers at the time. The book opens with a two or three page section called "Newsreel," consisting of headlines, news excerpts, snatches of popular songs.
BRITISH BEATEN AT MAFEKING
Mr. McKinley is hard at work when the new year begins
For there's been many a man been murdered in Luzon and Mindanao
"In responding to the toast, 'the 20th century,' Sen. Albert J. Beveridge said in part: 'The 20th century will be American' . . ."
This feature, opening each chapter, is intended to do three things: establish the time (in the above 1900) as well as the public tone, and, by the blatant stupidity of the press, to mock it and what it reports. As the book moves along, the reader is increasingly bored by its superficiality, and the satiric intent is so obvious that the effect is finally weakened. If you are writing a trilogy that is meant to be a serious indictment of the social and economic system of America, working it by quoting the vacuities of newspapers is shallow and frivolous.
"Newsreel" is followed by a page or two called "The Camera Eye," an impressionistic glimpse of the author's consciousness at the time:
I couldn't learn to skate and kept falling down look out for the muckers everybody said Bohunk and Polak kids put stones in your snowballs write dirty words on walls do dirty things up alleys their folks work in the mills
Unfortunately they become more and more opaque as the years pass (Where is he? What is he doing?), and it must be said that this is the least effective device of the book, even less interesting than "Newsreel."
Another innovation is the insertion of condensed biographies of prominent figures of the time: Theodore Debs, Luther Burbank, Edison Ford, Thorsten Veblen, Isadora Duncan, the Wright brothers, William Randolph Hearst, et al. The author's partisanship is particularly unfortunate in these portraits, but still these sections are the most interesting parts of the book because they are written in a sharp, brisk style about consequential people.
While these three devices are not the exciting avant garde gestures they were considered at the time, they do leaven the narrative lump of the book, which needs considerable leavening. It proceeds like this: a character, introduced in his or her childhood, is followed for a few pages before being interrupted by the "Newsreel" and "Camera Eye." Then it is resumed as the character grows up, is interrupted again, and so on. In this way the illusion of rapid growth and development is created, which is very important for the overall movement of the book. We are meant to feel that these characters (as one succeeds another) are rushing in a generally forward direction. In this way five characters are introduced in The 42nd Parallel, three become involved with each other, and other characters who will appear in the other volumes are mentioned or encountered briefly. All these characters reappear in the next two books, with the exception of the most attractive figure in the whole trilogy, Mac, a footloose printer with an IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) card who finally settles in Mexico. New characters are introduced in 1919 and The Big Money, mingling with the others we have already met.
When he begins with each character, we trustingly go along in a "Once Upon a Time" moment, but as they grow up we become restive, expecting more of them, but they seem largely buffeted about by chance and do not really develop but only become more fatuous, more corrupt, more dissolute, or in the case of extreme radicals, more futile. Relations between characters are only chance combinations with no lasting bonds. They do not develop with or against each other, and are too unreal to bear the burden of presenting America. Because Captain Ahab is a fully realized character we believe in the voyage of the Pequod, but USA never becomes the USA in our minds because the characters never embody more than their own futility.
Dos Passos may have felt that his innovative devices freed him from some basic literary conventions: to make all of his middleclass characters despicable is foolish, but to make all of them weakly despicable is disastrous. Nearly everyone is a drunk (the endless drinking and whoring scenes featuring the working class characters soon become a deadly bore). It is no less a mistake to make all the working class characters radical.
A word about Dos Passos' radicalism: he was an old-fashioned radical, never more than a Communist sympathizer, and in USA he was critical of the Party's regimentation, its inflexible Party line, and Party discipline. During the Spanish Civil war, one of his radical Spanish friends was secretly murdered by order of the Communists (Hemingway condoned it), and Dos Passos began his sojourn to the Right (an interesting novel he wrote about this period is Adventures of a Young Man). Although he was to go on to write conservative novels as well as books about Thomas Jefferson, the novels are lifeless (except his charming memoir of his early life, The Best Times, 1966). Radicalism was what animated him, and when that died so did his creative energy. I think USA is a failure, but I would never say it lacks energy. His radicalism in USA reaches its apogee when the real-life Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are executed for murder.
The streets belong to the beaten nation all the way to the cemetery where the bodies of immigrants are to be buried we line the curbs in the drizzling rain we crowd the wet sidewalks elbow to elbow silent pale looking with seared eyes at the coffins we stand defeated America
That was the great radical cause then, and it still lies in radical legend, although Sacco was certainly guilty (ballistics showed that one of the fatal bullets came from his pistol) and Vanzetti probably was, too.
USA was one of the main exhibits in the ongoing story of the "American Renaissance" ballyhooed by the literary crowd that flourished in the 1920s and early '30s, led by H. L. Mencken in the Smart Set and Edmund Wilson in The New Republic, a myth that was still extant when I was in college in the early '50s. But myth it was. What did the flood of books and all the excited journalism amount to? Who now reads Dos Passos or Sinclair Lewis or Carl Van Vechten? Six writers - Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, E. E. Cummings, and Edmund Wilson - remained when all the shouting died and only the last three named were associated with the myth. The artistic freedom that emerged from the breakdown of the genteel tradition gave license to a horde of mediocre talents to flourish for a time in a hothouse aura of excitement. The Depression and the Popular Front policy of the Communist Party, which recruited so many gullible liberals and radicals, did it in. Radicalism was its (and Dos Passos's) inspiration, USA is its literary embodiment, and it just wasn't good enough. Its picture of American life from 1900 to 1930 suffers not only from its relentless bias, but much more important, it lacks literary strength because the characters are not brought to life. They represent nothing, not even themselves. The illustrations by Reginald Marsh for the 1946 edition (also in the Sentry 1963 reprint) are much better than the text. *