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Dos Passos, John 1896–1970
An American novelist, essayist, poet, and journalist, Dos Passos is best known for his sociopolitical novels of pre-World War II America. His central concerns are social injustices, the exploitation of the working class, and the injurious emphasis on materialism in American society. Detail and realism are important elements in Dos Passos's work, often emphasized through such innovative means as his "newsreel" and "camera eye" techniques, and the inclusion of bits of biography. Strongly political, Dos Passos moved from his early, leftwing revolutionary philosophy to a later conservatism. The U.S.A. trilogy is considered to be his masterpiece. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)
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After Manhattan Transfer (1927) one remembered the name of John Dos Passos. After The Forty-second Parallel one looked eagerly forward to the succeeding members of the trilogy (for something of that order seemed to be promised) in the conviction that we had here a work demanding serious attention as no other appearing under the head of the novel during the past two or three years had done. Nineteen-nineteen is a challenge to justify the conviction.
The Forty-second Parallel established Mr. Dos Passos as an unusually serious artist—serious with the seriousness that expresses itself in the propagandist spirit…. [He] cannot be interested in individuals without consciously relating them to the society and the civilisation that make the individual life possible. (p. 102)
The undertaking involves a peculiar technical problem, one that none of the methods customarily associated with the novel will meet. No amount of enthusiasm for collective humanity will dispose of the fact that it is only in individuals that humanity lives, that only in the individual focus does consciousness function, that only individuals enjoy and suffer; and the problem is to suggest that multitudinous impersonality of the ant-heap through individual cases that, without much development, interest us as such. Manhattan Transfer represents a sufficient degree of success. It is of the essence of Mr. Dos Passos' method here—and of his vision of modern life—that of no one of his swirl of "cases" do we feel that it might profitably be developed into a separate novel; and yet we are interested enough. Here we have them in poignant individuality, a representative assortment of average men and women, engaged in the "pursuit of happiness"—a pursuit sanctioned by the Constitution, but, of its very nature, and by the very conditions of the civilisation to which they belong, vain. (p. 103)
Manhattan Transfer ends with Jimmy Herf (the character to whom the author seems closest) walking, with an air of symbolic finality, out of New York. The Forty-second Parallel gives us the America into which he walks—a large undertaking, which calls for some modification of technique. The representative lives stand out more and are given less in episode-dialogue and more in consecutive narrative; narrative admirably managed in tempo, and varied dramatically in idiom with the chief actor. The "News-reels" interspersed at intervals are a new device, their function being by means of newspaper-clippings and the like, in ironical medley, to establish the background of the contemporary public world. Moreover, also at intervals, there are lives, admirably compressed and stylised in what might be called prose-poems, of the makers, the heroes, the great men, the public figures, of American civilisation. Thus Mr. Dos Passos seeks to provide something corresponding to the symbolic figures of a national epic or saga. (pp. 103-04)
In the close of The Forty-second Parallel we see America welcoming an escape from … "getting ahead," a "meaning" with which to exorcise the void, in the War. Nineteen-nineteen gives us the War. The second part of the trilogy is decidedly less lively than the first. For one thing, the monotony of this world without religion, morality, art or culture is here, perhaps inevitably, emphasised. And this leads us to the more general question: What is lacking in the work as a whole (so far as we have it)?—why, in spite of its complete and rare seriousness, does it fall so decidedly short of being great? (p. 105)
The artistic shortcomings of Mr. Dos Passos' most ambitious work (which is not, like Manhattan Transfer, held together by the topographical limits of the setting) might … be, not merely excused as inevitable, but extolled as propagandist virtues: they are necessary to a work that exhibits the decay of capitalistic society. (p. 106)
[The] shortcomings of the work both as art and propaganda are related to a certain insufficiency in it when it is considered as an expression of personality (which on any theory a work of art must in some sense be). It is more than a superficial analogy when the technique is likened to that of the film. The author might be said to conceive his function as selective photography and "montage." That this method does not admit sufficiently of the presence of the artist's personal consciousness the device called "The Camera Eye" seems to recognise—it at any rate seems to do little else. What this judgment amounts to is that the work does not express an adequate realisation of the issues it offers to deal with.
How far the defect is due to the method, and how far it lies in the consciousness behind the method, one cannot presume to determine. But Mr. Dos Passos, though he exhibits so overwhelmingly the results of disintegration and decay, shows nothing like an adequate awareness of—or concern for—what has been lost. (p. 107)
It seems to me the more one sympathises with his propagandist intention, the more should one be concerned to stress what is lacking in his presentment of it. To hope that, if the mechanics of civilisation (so to speak) are perfected, the other problems (those which Mr. Dos Passos is mainly preoccupied with) will solve themselves, is vain: "you know," says someone in Nineteen-nineteen, "the kind of feeling when everything you've wanted crumbles in your fingers as you grasp it." Men and women might, of course, find happiness—or release from unhappiness—as perfect accessory machines. But that is hardly a hope for a propagandist to offer. (pp. 109-10)
F. R. Leavis, "John Dos Passos (1932)," in his For Continuity, The Minority Press, 1933 (and reprinted by Books for Libraries Press, 1968), pp. 102-10.
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A novel is a mirror. So everyone says. But what is meant by reading a novel? It means, I think, jumping into the mirror. You suddenly find yourself on the other side of the glass, among people and objects that have a familiar look. But they merely look familiar. We have never really seen them. The things of our world have, in turn, become outside reflections. You close the book, step over the edge of the mirror and return to this honest-to-goodness world, and you find furniture, gardens and people who have nothing to say to you. The mirror that closed behind you reflects them peacefully, and now you would swear that art is a reflection. There are clever people who go so far as to talk of distorting mirrors.
Dos Passos very consciously uses this absurd and insistent illusion to impel us to revolt. He had done everything possible to make his novel seem a mere reflection. He has even donned the garb of populism. The reason is that his art is not gratuitous; he wants to prove something. But observe what a curious aim he has. He wants to show us this world, our own—to show it only, without explanations or comment…. We recognize immediately the sad abundance of these untragic lives. They are our own lives, these innumerable, planned, botched, immediately forgotten and constantly renewed adventures that slip by without leaving a trace, without involving anyone, until the time when one of them, no different from any of the others, suddenly, as if through some clumsy trickery, sickens a man for good and throws a mechanism out of gear.
Now, it is by depicting, as we ourselves might depict, these too familiar appearances with which we all put up that Dos Passos makes them unbearable. (pp. 61-2)
Dos Passos' hate, despair and lofty contempt are real. But that is precisely why his world is not real; it is a created object. I know of none—not even Faulkner's or Kafka's—in which the art is greater or better hidden. I know of none that is more precious, more touching or closer to us. This is because he takes his material from our world. And yet, there is no stranger or more distant world. Dos Passos has invented only one thing, an art of story-telling. But that is enough to create a universe….
Dos Passos' time is his own creation; it is neither fictional nor narrative. It is rather, if you like, historical time. (p. 62)
The fictional event is a nameless presence; there is nothing one can say about it, for it develops…. In Dos Passos, the things that happen are named first, and then the dice are cast, as they are in our memories….
The facts are clearly outlined; they are ready for thinking about. But Dos Passos never thinks them. Not for an instant does the order of causality betray itself in chronological order. There is no narrative, but rather the jerky unreeling of a rough and uneven memory, which sums up a period of several years in a few words only to dwell languidly over a minute fact. Like our real memories, it is a jumble of miniatures and frescoes. There is relief enough, but it is cunningly scattered at random. One step further would give us the famous idiot's monologue in The Sound and the Fury. But that would still involve intellectualizing, suggesting an explanation in terms of the irrational, suggesting a Freudian order beneath this disorder. Dos Passos stops just in time. As a result of this, past things retain a flavour of the present; they still remain, in their exile, what they once were, inexplicable tumults of colour, sound and passion. Each event is irreducible, a gleaming and solitary thing that does not flow from anything else, but suddenly arises to join other things. For Dos Passos, narrating means adding. This accounts for the slack air of his style. (p. 63)
Passions and gestures are also things. Proust analysed them, related them to former states and thereby made them inevitable. Dos Passos wants to retain only their factual nature…. Dos Passos imposes upon us … the unpleasant impression of an indeterminacy of detail. Acts, emotions and ideas suddenly settle within a character, make themselves at home and then disappear without his having much to say in the matter. You cannot say he submits to them. He experiences them. There seems to be no law governing their appearance.
Nevertheless, they once did exist. This lawless past is irremediable. Dos Passos has purposely chosen the perspective of history to tell a story. He wants to make us feel that the stakes are down. In Man's Hope, Malraux says, more or less, that "the tragic thing about death is that it transforms life into a destiny." With the opening lines of his book, Dos Passos settles down into death. The lives he tells about are all closed in on themselves…. We constantly have the feeling that these vague, human lives are destinies…. [Beneath] the violent colours of these beautiful, motley objects that Dos Passos presents there is something petrified. Their significance is fixed. Close your eyes and try to remember your own life, try to remember it that way; you will stifle. It is this unrelieved stifling that Dos Passos wanted to express. In capitalist society, men do not have lives, they have only destinies. He never says this, but he makes it felt throughout. He expresses it discreetly, cautiously, until we feel like smashing our destinies. We have become rebels; he has achieved his purpose. (pp. 64-5)
[The] narrator often ceases to coincide completely with the hero. The hero could not quite have said what he does say, but you feel a discreet complicity between them. The narrator relates' from the outside what the hero would have wanted him to relate. By means of this complicity, Dos Passos, without warning us, has us make the transition he was after. We suddenly find ourselves inside a horrible memory whose every recollection makes us uneasy, a bewildering memory that is no longer that of either the characters or the author. (pp. 65-6)
Dos Passos reports all his characters' utterances to us in the style of a statement to the Press. Their words are thereby cut off from thought, and become pure utterances, simple reactions that must be registered as such, in the behaviourist style upon which Dos Passos draws when it suits him to do so. But, at the same time, the utterance takes on a social importance; it is inviolable, it becomes a maxim…. Dos Passos makes a pretence of presenting gestures as pure events, as mere exteriors, as free, animal movements. But this is only appearance. Actually, in relating them, he adopts the point of view of the chorus, of public opinion. (pp. 66-7)
In order to understand the words, in order to make sense out of the paragraphs, I first have to adopt his point of view. I have to play the role of the obliging chorus. This consciousness exists only through me; without me there would be nothing but black spots on white paper. But even while I am this collective consciousness, I want to wrench away from it, to see it from the judge's point of view, that is, to get free of myself. This is the source of the shame and uneasiness with which Dos Passos knows how to fill the reader. I am a reluctant accomplice (though I am not even sure that I am reluctant), creating and rejecting social taboos. I am, deep in my heart, a revolutionary again, an unwilling one.
In return, how I hate Dos Passos' men! I am given a fleeting glimpse of their minds, just enough to see that they are living animals. Then, they begin to unwind their endless tissue of ritual statements and sacred gestures. For them, there is no break between inside and outside, between body and consciousness, but only between the stammerings of an individual's timid, intermittent, fumbling thinking and the messy world of collective representations. What a simple process this is, and how effective!… [Dos Passos] can give all his attention to rendering a single life's special character. Each of his characters is unique; what happens to him could happen to no one else. What does it matter, since Society has marked him more deeply than could any special circumstance, since he is Society? Thus, we get a glimpse of an order beyond the accidents of fate or the contingency of detail…. (pp. 67-8)
Dos Passos' man is a hybrid creature, an interior-exterior being. We go on living with him and within him, with his vacillating, individual consciousness, when suddenly it wavers, weakens, and is diluted in the collective consciousness. We follow it up to that point and suddenly, before we notice, we are on the outside. The man behind the looking-glass is a strange, contemptible, fascinating creature. Dos Passos knows how to use this constant shifting to fine effect….
Dos Passos' world—like those of Faulkner, Kafka and Stendhal—is impossible because it is contradictory. But therein lies its beauty. Beauty is a veiled contradiction. I regard Dos Passos as the greatest writer of our time. (p. 69)
Jean-Paul Sartre, "John Dos Passos and '1919'" (1947), in his Literary and Philosophical Essays, translated by Annette Michelson (copyright © 1955 by Rider & Company; reprinted by permission of Hutchinson Publishing Group Ltd.), Rider, 1955 (and reprinted in John Dos Passos: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Andrew Hook, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974, pp. 61-9).
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The reader of Dos Passos … is not required to have much more reading agility than the reader of the daily press. Nor does Dos Passos make many more serious demands than a good movie. And this is said not to belittle an excellent writer who has much to offer, but to draw attention to the extreme simplification to which Dos Passos has submitted the early work of James Joyce. Three Soldiers (1921), Manhattan Transfer (1925) and U. S. A. (1930–36) would not exist in their present form but for the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners and Ulysses. It is as a slightly super-realist that Dos Passos has viewed and adapted the work of Joyce in his own work. (pp. 148-49)
From [the imagists Dos Passos] learned much that has continuously affected his practice. Their romantic tapestries and static contemplation of the ornate panorama of existence have always held him in spite of his desire to be a romantic of action. (p. 149)
[In] recent decades the artist has come to be the only critical spectator of society. He demands and confers the heightened significance in ordinary existence which is hostile to any self-extinction in the collective consciousness. So that when the balance is lost between individual responsibility and mass solidarity, the artist automatically moves to the side of the individual. With equal inevitability, the less resourceful man, faced with the perplexities of planned social disorder, walks deeper into the collective sleep that makes that chaos bearable to him. The work of Dos Passos is almost wholly concerned with presenting this situation. His people are, typically, victims of a collective trance from which they do not struggle to escape. And if his work fails, it is to the extent that he clings to an alternative dream which has little power to retract the dreamers from their sleep, and even less power to alert the reader to a sense of tragic waste. (pp. 149-50)
Dos Passos is not a thinker who has imposed a conceptual system on his material. Rather, he accepted the most familiar traditions and attitudes as part of the material which his art brings into the range of the reader's vision. It is by the range of his vision and the intensity of his focus that he must receive criticism. (p. 151)
Looking first at the technical means which he employs as a writer, there is the basic imagistic skill in sharpening perception and defining a state of mind with which Manhattan Transfer opens:
Three gulls wheel above the broken boxes, orangerinds, spoiled cabbage heads that heave between the splintered plank walls, the green waves spume under the round bow as the ferry, skidding on the tide, crashes, gulps the broken water, slides, settles slowly into the slip.
Many passages of this wry lyricism counterpoint the episodes of the book. The episodes and characters are also features of a landscape to which these lyric chapter overtures give point and tone. The point is readily seized and the tone extends over a very narrow range of emotions: pathos, anger, disgust. But Dos Passos employs the impressionist landscape monotonously because he has never chosen to refract or analyze its components to zone a wide range of emotions…. The author is sensitive to the ugliness and misery as things he can see. But he is never prepared to explore the interior landscape which is the wasteland of the human heart…. (pp. 151-52)
Dos Passos too often seems to imply that [human] suffering is sordid and unnecessary or that some modification of the environment might free his characters from the doll-mechanism that is their private and collective trap. Seeing nothing inevitable or meaningful in human suffering, he confronts it neither in its comic, intelligible mode, nor in a tragic way. It angers and annoys him as something extraneous.
The difference from Joyce is instructive. For in Ulysses the same discontinuous city landscape is also presented by imagistic devices. The episodes are musically arranged to sound concordantly. But Joyce manipulates a continuous parallel at each moment between naturalism and symbolism to render a total spectrum of outer and inner worlds. The past is present not in order to debunk Dublin but to make Dublin representative of the human condition…. The most ordinary gesture linked to some immemorial dramatic mask or situation sets reverberating the whole world of the book and flashes intelligibility into long opaque areas of our own experience.
To match Joyce's epiphanies Dos Passos brings only American know-how…. Joyce contemplates things for the being that is theirs. Dos Passos shows how they work or behave. (pp. 152-53)
Joyce constantly has his attention on the analogy of being while Dos Passos is registering a personal reaction to society.
It is not a serious criticism of Dos Passos to say that he is not James Joyce. But Joyce is his art master and the critic is obliged to note that Dos Passos has read Joyce not as a greater Flaubert, Rimbaud or Mallarmé, but as it were through the eyes of Whitman and Sandburg, as a greater Zola or Romains. This is negative definition which does not bring into question the competence of Dos Passos or belittle the quality of positive delight he affords. His U. S. A. is quite justly established as a classic which brought into a focus for the first time a range of facts and interests that no American had ever been able to master. But it is in the main an ethical and political synthesis that he provides, with the interest intentionally at one level—the only level that interests Dos Passos.
Manhattan Transfer, which corresponds roughly to Joyce's Dubliners, cuts a cross-section through a set of adult lives in New York. But the city is not envisaged as providing anything more than a phantasmagoric back-drop for their frustrations and defeats. The city is felt as alien, meaningless. Joyce, on the other hand, accepts the city as an extension of human functions, as having a human shape and eliciting the full range of human response which man cannot achieve in any other situation. Within this analogy Joyce's individuals explore their experience in the modes of action and passion, male and female. The stories are grouped according to the expanding awareness of childhood, adolescence, maturity and middle-age. Man, the wanderer within the labyrinthine ways at once of his psyche and of the world, provides an inexhaustible matter for contemplation. Dos Passos seems to have missed this aspect of Dubliners. But in U. S. A., while extending his back-drop from the city to the nation, he did make the attempt to relate the expanding scene to the development of one mind from childhood to maturity. That is the function of "Camera Eye." "News-reel" projects the changing environment which acts upon the various characters and corresponds to riffling the back issues of Life magazine. (pp. 154-55)
[In U. S. A.] the development of political consciousness of the "Camera Eye" persona is not so much parallel with as in contrast to the unfolding landscape of the nation. And this again is close to the way in which the development of Stephen Dedalus in the Portrait as a self-dedicated human being runs counter to the mechanisms of the Dublin scene. The author's political and social sense unfolds without comment in the "Camera Eye" sections, with "Newsreel" providing the immediate environmental pressures which are felt in different ways by everybody in the book. Both of these devices are successfully controlled to provide those limited effects which he intends. But the insights which lead to these effects are of a familiar and widely accepted kind.
That, again, in no way invalidates the insights but it does explain the monotony and obviousness which creeps into so many pages. The reader of Dos Passos meets with excellent observation but none of the unending suggestiveness and discovery of the Sentimental Education or Ulysses. For there is neither historical nor analogical perception in the U. S. A., and so it fails to effect any connections with the rest of human society, past or present. There is a continuous stream of American consciousness and an awareness that there are un-American elements in the world. But as much as in any political orator there is the assumption that iniquity inside or outside the U.S.A. is always a failure to be true to the Jeffersonian dream. The point here is that this kind of single-level awareness is not possible to anybody seriously manipulating the multiple keyboards of Joyce's art. (pp. 156-57)
The failure of Dos Passos' insights to keep pace with the complex techniques at his disposal is what leaves the reader with the sense of looseness and excessive bulk in U. S. A. In the equally bulky Finnegans Wake, on the other hand, which exploits all the existing techniques of vision and presentation in a consummate orchestration of the arts and sciences, there is not one slack phrase or scene. U. S. A., by comparison, is like a Stephen Foster medley played with one finger on a five keyboard instrument. There is that sort of discrepancy between the equipment and the ensuing concert; but it is not likely to disturb those readers who have only a slight acquaintance with Joyce.
Manhattan Transfer and the U. S. A. trilogy are not novels in the usual sense of a selection of characters who influence and define one another by interaction…. The novel as it has been concerned with the problems of "character" and environment seems to have emerged as a pastime of the new middle classes who were eager to see themselves and their problems in action…. The middle classes found romance and glamour in the commonplace, but they were not prepared for the profound existentialist metaphysic of the commonplace which Joyce revealed.
In such a perspective as this the collective landscapes of U. S. A. represent only a modest effort at managing the huge panorama of triviality and frustration which is the urban milieu of industrial man.
But the fact that a technological environment not only induces most people into various stages of automatism but makes the family unit socially non-effective, has certainly got something to do with the collective landscapes of U. S. A. Its structure is poetic in having its unity not in an idea but a vision; and it is cubist in presenting multiple simultaneous perspectives like a cycle of medieval mystery plays. It could readily be maintained that this method not only permits comprehensiveness of a kind indispensable to the modern artist, but makes for the intelligible rather than the concupiscible in art. The kind of pleasure that Dos Passos provides in comparison with Hemingway is that of detached intellectual intuition rather than that of sympathetic merging with the narrative and characters. (pp. 158-59)
Although Dos Passos may be held to have failed to provide any adequate intellectual insight or emotion for the vast landscape of his trilogy, his themes and attitudes are always interesting, especially in the numerous biographies of such folk heroes as Edison and the Wright brothers, Debs and La Follette, Steinmetz and Isadora Duncan, Ford and Burbank. These sections are often masterly in their economy and point. The frustration of hopes and intentions in these public figures provides the main clue to the social criticism which underlies the presentation of dozens of nonentities. For it is usually pointed up that the great are as helplessly ensnared in merely behavioristic patterns irrelevant to their own welfare, as the crowd of nobodies who admire them.
The frustration and distortion of life common to the celebrated and the obscure is, in Dos Passos, to be attributed to "the system." No diagnosis as crude as this emerges directly. But over and over again in the contrast between humble humanity and the gormandizing power-gluttony of the stupidly arrogant few, there is implied the preference for a world of simple, unpretentious folk united in their common tasks and experience. It has often been noted that there is never love between the characters of Dos Passos. But there is the pathos of those made incapable of love by their too successful adjustment to a loveless system. Genuine pathos is the predominant and persistent note in Dos Passos, and must be considered as his personal response to the total landscape. Yet it is a pathos free from self-pity because he has objectified it in his analysis of the political and economic situation.
The homelessness of his people is, along with their individual and collective incapacity for self-criticism or detachment, the most obvious feature about them. And home is the positive though unstated and undefined dream of Dos Passos…. For those who are critically aware he prescribes the duty of selfless dedication to the improvement of the common civilization. And in three uninteresting, short novels since U. S. A. [Adventures of a Young Man, Number One, and The Grand Design] he has explored the problem of discovering a self worth giving to such a cause. (pp. 159-60)
Dos Passos may have lost his stride as an artist through the very success of those social causes which were the militant theme of U. S. A. To have a cause to defend against a blind or indifferent world seemed to give tone and snap to the artist in him who has since been overlaid by the reporter. But if this is the case, nobody would be happier than Dos Passos to have lost his artistry on such excellent terms. (p. 161)
Herbert Marshall McLuhan, "John Dos Passos: Technique vs. Sensibility," in Fifty Years of the American Novel, edited by Harold C. Gardiner (abridged by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons; copyright © 1951 Charles Scribner's Sons), Scribner's, 1951 (and reprinted in John Dos Passos: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Andrew Hook, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974, pp. 148-61).
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[An] attitude of determined omniscience informs all of U.S.A., even the biographical sections. Of the five historical personages who were still alive when Dos Passos wrote about them, none retains any control over his own destiny; that privilege is reserved for the abstract forces of history conceived under the aegis of Marxist-Veblenian determinism. The biography of Thomas Edison is oblique in emphasis; its subject, discussed in the past tense, is unable to free himself from his obsolete and socially dangerous work ethic because "he never worried about mathematics or the social system or generalized historical concepts." Henry Ford waits in seclusion for death, helpless and uncomprehending before the changes he has brought about. Orville Wright, left behind by a historical process gone wrong, lives an authentic life only in other people's memories…. Such are the lives of those who are swept up in the dialectic of history. Each suffers a spiritual death as his individuality becomes a part of the workings of historical law; and Dos Passos, the scientific historian, notes the phenomenon and passes on to other things.
In these historical sections of his novel, Dos Passos has consciously limited his powers of observation to those possessed by the Camera Eye: he observes, speculates, and even predicts, but before the abyss of motivation he draws silently back. The lives of the twelve representative Americans in the explicitly "fictitious" sections of U.S.A., however, are more open to analysis. They are subject only to the psychological constraints of verisimilitude, and Dos Passos seizes the opportunity to simplify his history by coming to conclusions. He never ceases to write as a historian, but when the subjects of his history are men and women of his own creation, the history he writes becomes simpler, clearer, and more theoretical. (p. 544)
Although the lives of "real" personages always contain biographical data unnecessary for an understanding of their significance to history, that is not the case with characters whom the historian creates pur sang as illustrations of the breadth and power of his thesis. The more diversity there is among these characters, the more impressive will be the demonstration when the lines of force that they ride all converge at the appropriate point in history. It is to this historical convergence that Dos Passos' characters come by diverse routes, and only when they are finally there are all their individualities finally obliterated.
To achieve this convergence of emotional outcome, Dos Passos makes use of a number of quite unrevolutionary novelistic techniques. He delimits his narrative by arranging for most of his twelve characters to cross one another's paths, and he foreshadows and prefigures as assiduously as any disciple of Gustav Freytag. (p. 545)
These devices are old ones, and Dos Passos brings them up to date only in technical ways—by domesticating Freudian psychology in his family biography of Joe and Janey Williams, for instance, and by consciously making his characters' every journey a symbol of change. When he depicts travel, indeed, Dos Passos gladly allows the old and respectable tradition of the picaresque to bear much of the burden of characterization. Here as elsewhere, Dos Passos modifies convention freely as he traces the history that molds his characters' demands. Doc Bingham's disappearance shortly after the beginning of The 42nd Parallel, followed by his reappearance shortly before the end of The Big Money, is, for instance, from one point of view, simply an old-fashioned way of rounding to a conclusion; but if we consider the change in the way Doc Bingham is depicted—from an entertaining petty scoundrel to a genuinely harmful grotesque—we will see that Dos Passos has used this classic unifying device in a newly paradoxical way. (pp. 545-46)
Dos Passos' chief technical innovation, therefore, is a matter of eclectic flexibility. Insofar as he opens the confines of his novel to linguistic metamorphosis he is a follower of Joyce, but the idea of building a novel around a theory of history is less Joyce's than Tolstoy's. As the great majority of his many novels demonstrate, Dos Passos was solidly at home within the limitations of the nineteenth-century novel; even in U.S.A., his most technically radical book, the verbal unorthodoxies are only a Joycean means to a Tolstoyan end. The Camera Eye's interior monologue could not have been created without the example of Ulysses, but its purpose is far different from Joyce's purposes. It exists to convey a single attitude, a Tolstoyan one, toward passivity in the face of historical experience. (p. 546)
We pass beyond the illusion of verisimilitude to the illusion of predictability; we find ourselves believing that we can perceive concrete phenomena simultaneously with their abstract causes. This error of perception arises from our viewing fictions through the eyes of an artist who focuses our attention on the one trait that his fictions share with historical reality: the trait of their having originated in a past. Dos Passos works always with the idea of referring phenomena to their origins; everywhere in the present he seeks to uncover the half-obliterated traces of ideal motive.
He cannot fully succeed in this, of course, but we can at least expect his determinist historicism to resolve all seeming inconsistencies. The biographies of Mac McCreary and Margo Dowling—the only two in U.S.A. with "happy" endings—are, therefore, particularly important to the novel, for they demonstrate that Dos Passos' paradigm of history is meant to apply equally to all possible circumstances, without regard to the raw data and random motions of individual humanity. (p. 547)
History, as the distinctively human instinct, lives only in language. As the narrator of the trilogy says, "mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people."… It is only to be expected, therefore, that those afflicted by ailments of their history will suffer in their language. Mac, at the end of his biography, has abandoned his native language and its links with the revolutionary history into which he was born; they are left behind in depraved Mexico City with the bookstore where he sold "all the American and European papers and magazines … especially The Police Gazette and La Vie Parisienne."… But in abandoning the corruptions of the old language he has not gained a new; his Spanish is adequate only to the petty politics of domesticity. It is an ironic outcome, but Mac's whole life has been a process of accommodation to history's sardonic jokes. We may assume that his future, however stultified, will at least be willed into tranquility; individual comfort for Mac has been worth the sacrifice of a language that has worked for Doc Bingham but not for the Goldfield miners…. (p. 548)
One of the minor characters in U.S.A., Doc Bingham, changes epiphanically in order to make the change in America more evident to us. In The 42nd Parallel, Doc Bingham is a picaro, a mere literary type, but by the time he reaches The Big Money, he has taken on the specific flesh and blood of caricature. In this last avatar, Doc Bingham's zaniness is obviously based on the personality of Bernarr Macfadden, the eccentric and highly successful publisher of True Story, Photoplay, and several other magazines whose object is to exploit the uneducated; and it is only fitting that Newsreel LIII …, which introduces Margo to us, is a collage from Macfadden's tabloid New York Graphic, a newspaper that specialized in human-interest titillation. This, after all, is Margo's world…. The blocks of prose among the headlines offer … effortless involvement with blind contingency; they are all taken from the women's pages, and they progress from advertisements for a dancing school and a male beauty contest through fashion news and a crazy pot-pourri of advertisements for furniture and rejuvenative medicine to the adverb-soaked atmospherics of an interview with Peggy Hopkins Joyce, an actress famous for her lucrative divorces. SKYSCRAPERS BLINK ON EMPTY STREETS, the Newsreel informs us, and in its context this is an image of the American woman's body: bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. We have been reading in the previous section about Isadora Duncan; now, with the words of a popular song,
Make my bed and light the light
I'll arrive late to-night,
the curtain opens and we see little Margie, the future movie star, waiting with a lantern for her drunken father.
On one side of this image of calculated pathos is an image of the almost mythical dancer, whose whole life became the magnificent failure of her art; on the other side are the promises of the advertisements, eternally false, eternally renewed: "He touches every point in the compass of human need. It may look a little foolish in print but he can show you how to grow brains." The operating assumption of such prose is that the reader never will grow brains; that beauty of language always conceals ugliness of motive. Under its surface, reality is always ugly; that is the lesson the Graphic teaches people like Margo, for whom it can come only as a truth reconfirmed.
Margo has learned the lesson very early, from a primal disillusion. Like many of Dos Passos' characters, she has been betrayed in infancy by her parents. Her mother has died denying her ("'She gave her life for yours, never forget it'; it made Margie feel dreadful, like she wasn't her own self, when Agnes said that,"… her father is a feckless alcoholic whose unpredictable moods have made Margo's childhood a nightmare of instability. The good moments occupy only the beginning of Margo's memory; they are related to the increasingly rare occasions when Fred, her father, has managed to get off his train sober. (pp. 550-51)
By any normal psychological standards Margo is a neurotic, suffering from a disordered perception of reality. In the world of U.S.A., however, her immediate, intuitive relationship with Margolies leads to a spectacular success of the classic Horatio Alger kind—the one unequivocal success in the book. The only thing that may harm her in the immediate future is speech, as we have seen; but Margo's world is a world in which the good news of Sacco and Vanzetti's "blood and agony" … is drowned in a flood of newsprint by William Randolph Hearst, whose
power over the dreams
of the adolescents of the world
grows and poisons like a cancer….
If true speech ever does come to Margo, it will come too late either to hurt her bank account or to save her soul. Victimized by her own success, Margo remains subject to the control of the psychic forces that have made her what she is. Her sexual power, brought into being by Fred Dowling and Frank Mandeville, now serves Sam Margolies and Rodney Cathcart. Individual psychopathology, once it has acquired economic value, ceases to be individual; its victim becomes a symbol, too valuable to change. (p. 552)
Regeneration of the diseased society through the sufferings of a tragically flawed artist: it is an older answer to the problem than Margo's, and a more respectable one. Its remotest ancestors are Job and Philoctetes, but in the Harvard College of Dos Passos' youth it spoke most persuasively through the voices of Oscar Wilde and the Walter Pater who wrote, "Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end." By the time he came to Camera Eye 25, however, Dos Passos realized this dictum through a new and sinister image: not Pater's "hard, gemlike flame" but its smothering antithesis: the ethercone, the anesthesia of a life cut off from everything but a train of ephemeral sensations. Pater's vision of the world, like his prose rhythm, has been made obsolete; the capitalist values of U.S.A. have little to do with gems. (p. 553)
[As] the voice of the Newsreels reminds us after every biography, life in U.S.A. is nothing but a series of random, entropic motions made in darkness and silence. The Camera Eye's silent movie ends as abruptly as a broken film, in the middle of a sentence, the acknowledgement of despair uncompleted: "we have only words against."… The next words on the page are the capitalized title of the last biography: POWER SUPERPOWER. Words in action are power, but all possibility of our acting has been taken from us by "the law … with the strut of the power of submachineguns sawedoffshotguns teargas and vomitinggas the power that can feed you or leave you to starve." The capture and destruction of our language are now complete. (p. 554)
At the end of the trilogy … the silent Vag has nothing to live in except his aching body. His past has vanished into a silent mass of empty time; only the body turns incurious eyes upward to watch a powerful airplane bearing the corruptors of language passively across space. The ground on which the Vag stands is full of the drama of natural forces at work, all clearly visible from a higher vantage point …, but the vomiting businessmen in their airplane "sit pretty," unable to assimilate any of it, aware of the record of time in space only as "the billiondollar speedup." Their collective blindness is a lack of history, an inability to learn from what has been seen. They too suffer from the illusions of memory.
U.S.A. is in fact a novel about how America remembers the Vag's "mother's words telling about longago,… his father's telling about when I was a boy…."… It is an attempt to re-establish the continuities of history for a nation which, in the upswings of the business cycle, has always tried to drown out the past in the raucous hallucination of an eternal present. In this respect, U.S.A. is a conservative book; its object was to explain to the age of Fitzgerald that that age's brightest new beliefs—spontaneous generation of capital, freedom of the individual from accountability to historical laws—were illusions. Dos Passos is most conservative precisely when he is most revolutionary; he tells us then that individual memories are valuable only as they become part of the older, stabler collective memory that is history.
But in the society chronicled in U.S.A., history becomes a record of its own destruction, the 1500-page chronicle of language guttering into silence. Rather than commit himself to the new speech demanded of him by the logic of his self-destroying artifact, Dos Passos retreated, confining himself for the rest of his long career to the safe deadness of nineteenth-century literary language. But U.S.A. remains. Under its great cairn of words lies the corpse of the traditional American way of looking at history: Emerson's way, the way that says history is only memory writ large. As a theory of history, U.S.A. is no more useful than any other theory; we can value it high or low according to how we are able to use its predictive powers. My plea here is only that we should read U.S.A. as a theory of history. Such a reading may help us reevaluate not only U.S.A. but the entire American literary achievement of the 1930s. (pp. 554-55)
Jonathan Morse, "Dos Passos' 'USA' and the Illusions of Memory," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1977, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Winter, 1977–78, pp. 543-56.
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