During my high school years I systematically went through what had come to be called the Classic American Novel, from The Red Badge of Courage to Native Son. Before that, in junior high, I had read mostly the English classics, and afterwards I would discover European literature. However, it was these American novels that shaped my will to write. And of all these novels, a few made an indelible impression on me. One of them was U.S.A.I return to it now out of a certain curiosity, to see if it will move me in the same way after all these years.
Like Theodore Dreiser before him in An American Tragedy and James T. Farrell after him in Studs Lonigan, John Dos Passos set out in his great masterpiece to get at the essence of America by picking up a single thread that could stand for the whole, or perhaps in Dos Passos' case, two threads – one embodied in the substance of the narrative and one embodied in the manner of narration. U.S.A. is a trilogy comprising The 42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen Nineteen (1932) and The Big Money (1936). In addition to its narrative sections – a kaleidoscopic melange focusing on twelve intersecting lives – Dos Passos intersperses documentary material that is aimed at capturing the spirit of the times: 68 "Newsreels" consisting of newspaper headlines and stories as well as snatches of popular songs; 51 stream-of-consciousness "Camera Eye" sections in which he records personal impressions; and 27 biographical sketches of representative men (and one woman, Isadora Duncan), also somewhat impressionistic and most often deeply ironic.
Of the twelve lives we are to follow, six belong to men and six to women, which is admirable, though the latter do not fare any better than the former. The first of these lives belongs to "Mac" (Fainy O'Hara McCreary), born in Middletown, Conn., of Scotch-Irish descent and moving to Chicago after his mother dies. Mac learns the printing trade, gets into the bookselling business and winds up on the West Coast, where he falls under the sway of labor activists (the radical wobbly IWW crowd), marries, abandons his wife and goes off to Mexico to see the revolution. Next up is "Janey" (Williams). Now we are beginning to get the feel of the novel and find that it feels like America, capturing perfectly the drift of American life, with Janey growing up in Georgetown with "mommer" and "popper" in the new century and a boy she has a crush on killed in a motorcycle accident and her brother joining the navy and Janey working as a typist and her father dying and her savings going on hospital bills and working as a secretary for patent lawyers in Georgetown and a real estate operator in Washington and on to New York. And then Eleanor Stoddard, a refined type growing up in Chicago and hating her father's stockyard stench and whiskers and tobacco and working as a salesgirl in a lace shop and studying at the Art Institute and becoming best of friends with Eveline Hutchins, a somewhat loose-living clergyman's daughter who will become a major character in the second volume, and getting a job in the interior decorating department of Marshall Field's at $25 a week and then going into the decorating business with Eveline and afterwards going to New York with her to work as a set designer on Broadway. In New York both Janey and Eleanor link up with J. Ward Moorehouse, born poor like themselves, in Wilmington, Delaware, and then clerking in real estate and making some contacts and doing some newspaper work and some advertising work and making an advantageous second marriage that gives him a stake to start up a public relations firm in New York. Janey becomes his secretary. Eleanor redecorates his home and becomes a close friend. Moorehouse and Janey cross paths with Mac in Mexico, where they have gone to promote American business interests. Janey's brother, Joe Williams, runs into Charley Anderson in New York. Anderson is the fifth major character to be introduced in the first volume. Hailing from Fargo, North Dakota, Anderson goes to work in his brother's garage in Minneapolis, then as a machinist, and on to Milwaukee and then Chicago and down to New Orleans and from New Orleans to New York to have a good time and maybe study engineering but then setting out for France to join the volunteer ambulance corps. So the first volume ends, somewhat inconclusively, as America prepares to go to war.
All the main characters in The 42nd Parallel come of age in the new century. The oldest of them, J. Ward Moorehouse, is born in 1882. The title itself signifies the major storm path blowing across America toward New York, which figuratively sweeps up the characters. Thus the central theme of the first volume is movement. All the characters are mobile. They are moving with the new America, with the winds of change. The style of narrative reinforces this sense of movement. Though there are some extended sequences there are few pauses to develop conventional dramatic scenes. The narrative races along. This accelerated tempo is the tempo of American life itself where everything was opening up and great opportunities were there to be seized. The second theme is the rapaciousness of the opportunists and the exploitation of the working class, that is, the classic Marxian theme of labor vs. capital. Four of the twelve major characters of U.S.A. are directly involved in the radical labor movement ("It's the fault of the system that don't give a man the fruit of his labor"); the others, with the exception of the wayward Joe Williams, are moving along the fast track of American life. The theme is also sounded in the biographical sketches, where other than the labor heroes (Eugene Debs, Bill Haywood, Joe Hill, Wesley Everest) and a few visionaries, most of the subjects (politicians, businessmen, technocrats, etc.) are treated scathingly.
The second volume of the trilogy, Nineteen Nineteen, is set mostly in Europe during the war. The experiences Dos Passos depicts are mostly the experiences of noncombatants, which in wartime are often bacchanalian. Eveline Hutchins and Eleanor Stoddard go over to France with the Red Cross and live together in Paris "in a fine apartment" on the quai de la Tournelle, drinking and fornicating and falling in love with anyone in uniform. Major Moorehouse, with his trusted secretary Miss Williams, arrives to take charge of Red Cross publicity and Eveline, who has her eye on him, is surprised to find him in bed with Eleanor. Two new characters show up in Europe: Richard Ellsworth Savage, growing up in Trenton, a would-be poet who joins the volunteer ambulance service, and "Daughter" (Anne Elizabeth Trent), born in Dallas to a well-to-do family, who comes to New York to study at Columbia and gets involved with labor agitators and is thrown in jail for a while with some strikers. Then back to Texas to learn that her brother, a pilot, has been killed in his first solo training flight over in San Antonio and that her beau has married, and then to Rome with the Near East Relief. With America entering the war, Savage gets a commission and winds up in the Post Despatch Service and on to Paris where his outfit is put at the disposal of the American delegation at the Peace Conference. Here he meets Moorehouse, "who was said to be very close to Colonel House," as well as Eleanor, who makes him a kind of protégé, and later the said Anne Elizabeth in Italy, where they have an affair, and then Anne Elizabeth pregnant and Dick coming back to Rome from Paris and making it clear that he really doesn't want the baby, or to marry her, an inclination reinforced by Eleanor, and understanding from Moorehouse that he has a job waiting in his Paris office as soon as he is out of the service. Anne Elizabeth shows up in Paris to tell him she is going to have the baby with him or without him and sees in a moment that it's over between them, that he doesn't love her, and makes plans to go back home and thoroughly depressed during a night on the town hooks up with some French aviators, all of them drunk, and insists on going up for a spin with one of them, and out to the airfield and into the wind and a ripping sound and "the shine of a wing gliding by itself a little way from the plane" and the plane plunging down.
The second volume also follows the fortunes of Janey's brother, Joe Williams, who goes AWOL after hitting a petty officer and joins the merchant marines. He winds up in England, gets arrested and shipped back to America, meets up with a girl named Della in Norfolk, works on the coal barges, then some time in Brooklyn and across the Atlantic to Alexandria on an oil tanker and back to New York and then to St. Nazaire with munitions and so on and so forth, getting his third mate's license and marrying Della and the marriage breaking up after she plays around and then Armistice Day in St. Nazaire, where we leave him in the midst of a barroom brawl when "a big guy in a blouse" breaks a bottle over his head.
Eveline meanwhile gets her own place and finally sleeps with J.Ward Moorehouse and among the men she sees is the innocent Paul Johnson, who falls in love with her and gets her pregnant and she decides to have the baby and marry him because "we have to go through everything in life." The second volume also introduces another labor character, Ben Compton, a Brooklyn Jew, encountered briefly at the end of the first volume in a New York restaurant where he runs into Charley Anderson and Joe Williams and holds forth for a while. He runs into "Daughter" at a New Jersey strike and after a short career as a radical is arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison. Nineteen Nineteen concludes with some of Dos Passos' most powerful writing in his ode to the unknown soldier, "John Doe":
... born ... and raised in Brooklyn, in Memphis, near the lakefront in Cleveland, Ohio, in the stench of the stockyards in Chi, on Beacon Hill, in an old brick house in Alexandria Virginia, on Telegraph Hill, in a halftimbered Tudor cottage in Portland ...
...scion of one of the best families in the social register, won first prize in the baby parade at Coronado Beach, was marbles champion of the Little Rock grammarschools, crack basketballplayer at the Booneville High, quarterback at the State Reformatory ...
– busboy harveststiff hogcaller boyscout champeen cornhusker of Western Kansas bellhop at the United States Hotel at Saratoga Springs, officeboy callboy fruiter telephone lineman longshoreman lumberjack plumber's helper ...
In the third volume, The Big Money, Dos Passos picks up the story of Charley Anderson, back from the war as an air force pilot with plans for manufacturing a starter motor for the aviation industry. There follows an affair with Eveline, incorporation, financial speculation, and fortunes made and lost. He ultimately meets up with Margo Dowling, who has grown up in a convent, and they become lovers. In my copy of U.S.A., an entire printer's sheet (32 pages) is missing in this volume, from the end of the first Margo Dowling chapter to the beginning of a Charley Anderson chapter, but curiously enough this does not disturb the flow of the story in the least. When I abruptly part company with Margo she is still in the convent and when I pick up her story again she is married and on her way to Havana with her effeminate Cuban husband. When I pick up Charley's story he is still trying to sell his ideas to the aviation industry and pursuing a socialite named Doris. These lacunae are barely perceived, for all these stories, rather than being carefully shaped literary creations, where every detail is essential, just flow along like life itself. They are told the way someone might tell the story of a wayward acquaintance, full of rich and colorful anecdotes – adventures in the war, romantic involvements, travels back and forth across the continent – where it hardly matters if this or that segment or story is left out: you get the general idea. In fact, Dos Passos needs just two pages to take Charley Anderson through marriage to a rich man's daughter and the birth of two children, pretty much in the way that plots race along in the movies, whose techniques certainly influenced him. Some of these stories end quite inconclusively. We never hear from Mac after leaving him in Mexico in the first volume about to buy a bookshop. Janey fades into the woodwork as Moorehouse's "inevitable" secretary with her "sour lined oldmaidish face." Her brother, Joe Williams, is last seen with the bottle smashed over his head and it is impossible to know if he is dead or alive. Dos Passos seems to have little sympathy for his male characters. They are representative men. We never really enter their skins. When Charley Anderson dies after a car crash trying to outrace a train – a rocket self-destructing – we hardly feel a thing. Moorehouse, the public relations king in the new America, is felled by exhaustion. We leave him suffering from a mild heart attack, with his assistant, Richard Savage, transformed from an esthete into a huckster, designated to carry on.
The women are treated more warmly. We are moved by Daughter's death but do not get enough of her to lift her story to the tragic plane that heightens our sense of the human condition. Eleanor Stoddard and Eveline Hutchins, too, have the makings of tragic figures. We would have liked to follow their lives more closely, but Dos Passos refuses to supply the dimension that would elevate their stories to tragic heights. Frustrated in an unhappy marriage and finally separated from her husband, and unable to make her mark in the theater, Eveline commits suicide. Eleanor is last seen about to enter into an unlikely marriage with a Russian prince, surrounded by Russians "in all stages of age and decay." As for Margo Dowling, she goes out to Hollywood to become a movie star and marry a director after her Cuban husband is conveniently murdered. In the labor contingent we meet Mary French, who nurses Ben Compton back to health in New York after the "classwar prisoners" get an early release from the Atlanta penitentiary. In love with a Comrade Stevens, she is shattered when he marries another comrade but returns stoically to her movement work. So the trilogy ends, capped by a short epilogue taking a young man "a hundred miles down the road" with a tattered suitcase and hunger in his belly in pursuit of America.
Dos Passos narrates his story in the voice of his characters. This is "the speech of the people" as he calls it in his Whitmanesque prologue, producing a free-flowing prose that is not afraid to say "One of the brakeman tried to get fresh with Lizzie one night and got such a sock in the jaw that he fell clear off the front porch" or "He was sick of the bum grub." At times the writing is so heedless that you can imagine Jack Kerouac churning it out on an endless roll of teletype paper:
It was around eight in the evening when he got in. With his suitcase in his hand he walked up Market Street from the dock. The streets were full of lights. Young men and pretty girls in brightcolored dresses were walking fast through a big yanking wind that fluttered dresses and scarfs, slapped color into cheeks, blew grit and papers in the air. There were Chinamen, Wops, Portuguese, Japs in the streets. People were hustling to shows and restaurants. Music came out of the doors of bars, frying, buttery, foodsmells from restaurants, smells of winecasks and beer. Mac wanted to go to a party but he only had four dollars so he went and got a room at the Y and ate some soggy pie and coffee at the deserted cafeteria downstairs.
Blue dusk was swooping down on the streets when they went out. Lights were coming out yellow. Mechanical pianos jinglejangled in bars. In a gateway a little outoftune orchestra was playing. The market was all lit up by flares, all kinds of shiny brightcolored stuff was for sale at booths. At a corner an old Indian and an old broadfaced woman, both of them blind and heavily pockmarked, were singing a shrill endless song in the middle of a dense group of short thickset country people, the women with black shawls over their heads, the men in white cotton suits like pajamas.
Dos Passos was a superb artist writing as an American, that is, in a way that no Frenchman or Englishman could write. By the 1920s American literature had broken away completely from the genteel tradition of 19th century letters. The classic American novel came out of the realistic French tradition, from Balzac to Zola, even when it struck out in different directions. Hemingway, after all, thought of himself as stepping into the ring with De Maupassant and Flaubert, and the French intellectuals in turn would lionize Dos Passos, Faulkner and Richard Wright, not to mention the hard-boiled detective novel, applauding everything in their overenthusiastic way, even, as Miles Davis once put it, the mistakes.
Dreiser and Dos Passos were writing about the same America, and yet one seemed static, monolithic (the America of An American Tragedy), while the other was dynamic. Dreiser wrote about a settled society with clear divisions. For Dos Passos, on the other hand, there were no boundaries. New pockets of life were being created where anyone could move, new men and women were gaining power. Which was the real America? The answer of course was that they were both real. They existed simultaneously. Static America did not preclude dynamic America, just as law-abiding America does not preclude criminal America and liberal America does not preclude bigoted America. In the end the measure of a society can only be quantitative: so many of these, so many of those, so many on the move, so many sitting still – and when a critical level is reached, of the mobile, of the stationary, of criminals, bigots, paupers, or plain decent folk, so that society will be defined. In America it seems that a certain balance had been struck between the dynamic and the static, so that either could stand for the whole and therefore both Dreiser's and Dos Passos' pictures of America yield an essence.
This essence is arrived at by different means. Dreiser tell the story of America through an individual who embodies the American dream and therefore the American tragedy. Dos Passos tells the story of America through the medium of class. Both their masterpieces are telling the same Marxian story. For Dreiser this is the story of the poor vs. the rich. For Dos Passos it is the story of labor vs. capital. What Dos Passos lacks in intensity he makes up for in breadth, so that if it may be said that if Dreiser is our Dostoievsky, then Dos Passos is our Tolstoy, but in a distinctly American way. For in Dos Passos one does not find the fabric and texture of society but rather its conflicts and divisions under the rubric of a single overriding social concept. Paradoxically, these conflicts and divisions in an America that was always moving forward made up its common ground, its grand theme. After World War II, and certainly from the Sixties on, such a common ground, embracing all Americans, could only be circumstantial, so that a novel about representative Americans caught up, for example, in the events of 9/11 would not yield anything that might be thought of as the Great American Novel, because nothing else would link these characters and therefore their stories would not add up to an essence of America in the way that U.S.A. or An American Tragedy did.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Dos Passos himself, for by the time he came to write Midcentury, published in early 1961, he had completely lost touch with America, seeking it in the old model that no longer existed. Midcentury is an attempt to do for postwar America what U.S.A. did for the first three decades of the 20th century, and uses the same techniques: intersecting stories, biographical sketches, and newspaper clippings. But what Midcentury in fact turns out to be is a labor novel. Now there is of course nothing wrong with writing a novel about the labor movement – specifically its corruption – but in writing about the labor movement Dos Passos thought he was writing about the totality of the American experience, just as he had in U.S.A. The difference is that while in the first three decades of 20th century American life the theme of labor vs. capital – or "classwar," as Dos Passos liked to call it – touched enough of American life to stand for the whole, at midcentury the labor movement was marginal to American life, perceived as an adjunct of racketeering, which itself was outside the American mainstream, the stuff of Hollywood films and Senate hearings.
Dos Passos cannot be faulted for not understanding the America of the 1950s in the year 1960. None of us did, or could. Like all eras it seemed to represent a pinnacle, drawing together many of the threads of the American past, even if it wasn't gay or didn't roar. It was not until we were well into the Sixties, in the aftermath of the Kennedy presidency, that we could understand what the deadening Eisenhower years had truly been. Kennedy was the catalyst, but it was the hated Johnson, the archetypal father figure, who galvanized the young and in effect created a New Left to pick up where the Old Left had left off. The Fifties had in fact capped an era brought on by the Great Depression and interrupted by a great war. It was an era that itself interrupted the trajectory of recent American history that Dos Passos had understood so well. This is the urban-industrial/technological trajectory that was already in place (in the North) by the time of the Civil War. Between 1800 and 1860 the population of the United States had risen from 5.3 million to 31.4 million, eight cities had populations of over 100,000 in 1860, with New York at 800,000, as opposed to five cities with above 10,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the century, the largest being Philadelphia with 70,000, exports had increased sixfold, the number of American factories reached 140,000, mostly in the North, and 50,000 miles of railroad track had been laid, the most in the world, as opposed to just 40 in 1830. This upward spiral would accelerate after the Civil War and create the American middle class in the sociological sense, though it did not recognize itself as such as long as the illusion that anyone could get rich persisted. It was only when it became clear that not everyone had what it took, that some people would have to settle for less than the American dream and had no one to blame for it but themselves, that a real middle class came into being in America, a class that would hide its failure behind many and diverse facades. It is true that in the early Fifties there was still a residue of the old labor movement, but the Jews were moving out of their traditional trades, mobsters were moving into the unions, and Russia was getting a bad name. Postwar America was middle class America, reaping the benefits of postwar prosperity, consolidating its gains, conservative, conformist, hollow. The middle class world was a make-believe world in an era of big dreams and small achievement where you could deceive your neighbor by driving a big car or reading book reviews instead of books. Its hunger to be more than it was fueled the advertising industry and alienated its young. This was perhaps the last opportunity given to postwar American novelists to write the next Great American Novel. Dos Passos missed that opportunity. So did the others. Then, in the explosion of the Sixties, it was too late. America had become too diverse and fragmented. The Great American Novel could no longer be written. For Dos Passos the consolation was that he had already written it.
A companion piece on Studs Lonigan appears in Scholars and Rogues and one on An American Tragedy in the Copperfield Review.
Fred Skolnik was born in New York City and has lived in Israel since 1963. He is best known as the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal. He has published stories in TriQuarterly, Gargoyle, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Words & Images, Literary House Review, Underground Voices, Third Coast, Polluto, and others. His novel The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011) is an epic work depicting Israeli society at a critical juncture in its recent history.
This is his first appearance in Offcourse.