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In U.S.A., Dos Passos uses four "forms" or "frames," each of them deriving directly from his representative intention, his desire to get at the truth about his time with any available instrument….
There is the camera eye, an intermittent sequence of prose poems in an impressionist style…. The writing takes on the lyricism of a quasi-Joycean stream-of-consciousness and the emphasis is almost always upon the look and feel of things, mostly apart from any narrative context. At first glance the texture seems the crudity of an undergraduate determined to be modern, but upon examination this entirely disappears and one finds that all is based on faithful observation and is never pretentious, nor false. But these passages have no direct relation to the main story, although at times there is some link….
Secondly, there are the newsreel passages which are inserted just as the camera eye panels are, between narratives. They consist of quotations from newspapers of a given time and period and also of its popular songs. Many amusing juxtapositions of headlines and stories are made by means of clever arrangements, and the lyrics are (where the present reader is able to judge) perfectly reminiscent. But the central intention of this form—to suggest the quality of various years and its public events—is not fulfilled for the most part. The newsreels are sometimes merely frivolous and trivial. (p. 355)
A third form is the "Biography." Here we are provided with concise recitatives in a Whitmanesque diction which is used at times with power. Each biography concerns a great figure of the period…. [On] the whole the biographies are as representative as one could wish and are written with a fine power of generalization and concision—the gist abstracted from the life of a man and presented in four or five pages, concluding very well at times in the form of a simple contradiction, Henry Ford's nostalgic desire for the horse-and-buggy days, which his whole career, of course, worked to destroy, and Andrew Carnegie's bestowal of millions for world peace, the millions being acquired, of course, by the manufacture of steel used in munitions and battleships.
The major part of the novel … is, however, constituted by direct narratives of the lives of eleven leading characters and perhaps three times as many minor ones who are notable. In creating a mode in which to present the lives of these characters, Dos Passos has definitely extended the art of narration. It is difficult to describe what he has accomplished because it is so much a matter of the digestion of a great many details and the use of facts which rise from the historical sense—all caught into a smooth-running story which, taken in itself, cannot fail to hold the reader's attention. The narratives are always in the third person and yet have all the warm interior flow of a story presented through the medium of a stream-of-consciousness first-person. One remarkable achievement is the way in which the element of time is disposed. With no break or unevenness at all, the narrative passes quickly through several years of the character's life, presenting much that is essential briefly, and then contracts, without warning, without being noted, and focuses for several pages upon a single episode which is important. It is an ability which an apprentice writer can best appreciate and comes from the indispensable knowledge of how very much the writer can omit … and a knowledge of how each sentence can expand in the reader's mind to include a whole context of experience. Another feature to be noted is Dos Passos' immense command of details which seem to come from a thousand American places and to be invested with a kind of historical idiom at all times. (pp. 356-57)
[In] the main, what we get is the typical life of the lower middle-class between 1900 and 1930. Typical indeed, for there is a constant "averaging," a constant effort to describe each character in terms which will reduce him to a type…. Their chief values, which they do not examine or question in the least (except for the radicals), are "love" and "money."… And the fate of almost all the characters is defeat, inhuman, untragic defeat—either defeat of a violent death without meaning or the more complete degradation of "selling out"—selling one's friends, one's integrity, one's earnest ambition and hope, for nothing more than "the big money." By the conclusion of the book, every character with the exception of Ben Compton, the radical leader, has come to the point where self-respect is not remote, but a term as of a dead language. (pp. 358-59)
Whatever else we may say of American life as represented in these narratives, there is one statement which we must make first: it is so, it is true; we have seen this with our own eyes and many of us have lived in this way. This is a true picture of the lives of many Americans, and anyone who doubts the fact can learn for himself very quickly how accurate Dos Passos is. But there is, on the other hand, a great deal more to be said about the truth which the novel as a form is capable of presenting.
To begin the attempt at a thorough judgment, the formal inadequacy of U.S.A., taken as a whole, is the direct experience of every reader…. No reader can go from page one to page 1449 without feeling that the newsreels, camera eyes, and biographies, however good they may be in themselves, are interruptions which thwart his interest and break the novel into many isolated parts. Even in the central narratives, where, as in the greatest pure prose … the reader passes without an awareness of style to the intense, ragged actuality presented, even here the novel falls into separate parts, even though there is an occasional interweaving of lives. The unity, the felt unity, is only the loose grab-bag of time and place, 1919 and the U.S.A. The binding together of lives (and thus of the reader's interest and gaze) into the progress of a plot—an element present even in a work of the scope of War and Peace—is wholly lacking. This heaping together of fragments of valuable perception is a characteristic of the best poetry of our time and the connection is interesting…. [The] capacity for a narrative framework has gradually disappeared from poetry of the first order: modern poetic style can bear the utmost strain of sensibility, but it cannot tell a story. In the medium of poetry, however, a unity of tone and mood and theme can substitute, although imperfectly, for other kinds of unity. U.S.A. cannot be considered a poem, however, and even if it could, Dos Passos does not rise to the level of [poets such as Auden and Pound]. As a narrative, it becomes a suite of narratives in which panels without direct relation to the subject are inserted…. As a novel, it is not in any careful sense a novel, but rather an anthology of long stories and prose poems. And it is to be insisted that the unity and form in question are not the abstractions of the critic, but the generic traits of the actual experience of reading fiction.
But form is not, of course, applied to a novel as a press to a tennis racket. It is, on the contrary, the way in which the writer sees his subject, the very means of attempting to see. And thus it is obvious that the formal gaps in U.S.A. spring from Dos Passos' effort to see his world in conflicting ways. (pp. 359-61)
The root of the inadequacy [of the novel] is, I think, an inadequate conception of what the truth, the whole truth about the U.S.A., for example, is. The term, truth, is used merely in its common-sensical meaning, of an accurate report of that which is. The truth about the whole of experience is precisely what is more than the truth about any actual standpoint. It is merely the truth about the life of an individual person, as it appeared to the person himself, that we get from Dos Passos. The truth about the whole of experience is more than the sum of many or all standpoints, of many blind and limited lives. The whole truth includes what might have been and what may be and what is not (as not being). It includes the whole scale of imaginative possibilities and the nameless assumptions and values by which a society lives. It is exactly because the whole truth is so complex and various that the imagination is a necessity. And this is the reason why fiction is full of the fictitious and the imaginative. (p. 362)
But furthermore the whole truth is involved in literature in what seems to me a still more basic way. One fundamental postulate of literature seems to me to be here in question. It … cannot be argued about because it is the assumption by means of which we are enabled to speak. One can merely point to examples—all literary judgment and analysis being, in the end, comparative—and as it happens, Dos Passos himself provides his own examples in this novel.
The unquestionable postulate—or presumption—of all literature is the individual of the fullest intelligence and sensibility—at least with respect to the circumstances of the work itself. Perhaps one can call this individual not the omniscient, but the multiscient individual. He is the one who in some one of many quite different fashions transcends the situation and the subject…. In some form or other the subject is transcended by a superior standpoint, and the superior standpoint reduces itself to one thing, a human being of the greatest intelligence and sensibility, who views all that occurs and is involved in the action, and who is best able to grasp the whole truth of the subject.
What we want of literature is the truth, and the truth is the only intention of U.S.A. But, to repeat, the truth is not merely the way in which human beings behave and feel, nor is it wholly contained in their conscious experience…. The facts represented are always there, but a good many of them can never be consciously known by any actor involved up to his neck in the present moment, as the characters of U.S.A. usually are. Only through the focus of the imagination can the relevant facts be brought into the narrative. In Dos Passos, however, there is a beautiful imaginative sympathy which permits him to get under the skin of his characters, but there is no imagination, and no Don Quixote. Dos Passos testifies to all this by his use of newsreels, just as he seeks the full sensibility in the impressions of the camera eye and the heroic character in the biographies; but in his central narratives the standpoint is always narrowed to what the character himself knows as the quality of his existence, life as it appears to him. And this leveling drags with it and tends to make rather crude and sometimes commonplace the sensibility shown in the other panels. If Dos Passos were not so wholly successful in grasping this level of experience, then, undoubtedly, he would be less aware of the need to jump back to the other levels of truth, and his novel would not break into four "eyes" of uncoördinated vision. Or to shift the metaphor, his novel attempts to achieve the whole truth by going rapidly in two opposite directions—the direction of the known experience of his characters, in all their blindness and limitation, and on the other hand, the direction of the transcendent knowledge of experience, the full truth about it. And thus the formal breakdown was scarcely avoidable.
The view of literature, of the truth, and of the individual assumed by Dos Passos may be attributed to two sources. First to the tradition of naturalism…. (pp. 363-65)
But naturalism and its external sources are merely effects of that society which has degraded the human being and his own conception of himself to the point where Dos Passos' presentation of him in his own terms is, in fact, perfectly true. One can only add that it is not the whole truth. The primary source of the formal breakdown of this novel is the U.S.A. It is only by distinguishing between the actual and the remotely potential that one can conceive of a different kind of life from that which Dos Passos accurately presents, on the part of most of the living. It is this mixture of the actual and the potential, however, which has made literature so precious to the human spirit. (p. 366)
One is sure that Dos Passos knows this, since it is the reason for his four forms and his discontinuity. His novel is perhaps the greatest monument of naturalism because it betrays so fully the poverty and disintegration inherent in that method. Dos Passos is the gifted victim of his own extraordinary grasp of the truth. He is a victim of the truth and the whole truth. (p. 367)
Delmore Schwartz, "John Dos Passos and the Whole Truth" (copyright, 1938, by Delmore Schwartz), in The Southern Review, Vol. 4, No. 2, October, 1938, pp. 351-67.
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The special technique of The Big Money encompasses an entire, implicit metaphysic—the challenge of Being. It is important for another reason, too: thanks to this technique, Dos Passos's trilogy has a temporal structure. The several individual stories composing the trilogy, which are what one is first aware of, are not only different shots of a single reality but moments within a single development. This single development transcends each of them and exists only by virtue of the complex design they all form. It is possible to put them end to end and demonstrate their continuity; the occasional use of flashbacks when the author wants to present the past of a newly introduced character is no more frequent than it is in the movies. The nonnovelistic elements that frame the stories—the Newsreels, the Camera Eyes, the lyrical biographies—are thus seen to have a very important "linking" function: they assure the cosmic as well as the psychological continuity of the narrative. Because of them, the impersonal reality that is the subject of the book—the year 1919 or the economic inflation of the twenties—can unfold without interruption, independent of the individual consciousnesses in which it is embodied, and preserve the mythic quality Dos Passos wanted to achieve. They are like movie background music, which nobody listens to but everybody hears, and which prepares our subconscious for the images to come.
The Newsreels in particular have taken on the major role of the narrative—to measure the rhythm of time, to give us the uninterrupted sound that the film of life makes as it unrolls and winds off the reel behind the scenes. The Newsreels give us the unfolding world events that will have repercussions on the individual destinies of the characters. (pp. 128-29)
Dos Passos's characters do not have their own inner rhythm; its place is taken by the objective, mechanical rhythm of social facts, which replace at every moment the personal time, the "lived time," that Charley, Margo, and Mary French are incapable of possessing. It is social time, external time, that will carry them along in its inexorable unfolding.
One can now begin to see the profound connection at the heart of U.S.A. between the narrative technique of the stories and the objective elements that frame them. It is necessary that Dos Passos's characters have no positive inner existence, that they are not in the least masters of their fate, that they be equally incapable of controlling what happens to them and how they feel about it, that they marry for who knows what reason …, and that they succeed or fail depending only upon whether they are being carried forward by the tide or left abandoned by it. (p. 130)
[If] Dos Passos has chosen to recount his characters' lives in that terrible preterit that deadens events as soon as they are so described to us; if he gives us their feelings and their states of consciousness by means of a third-person pseudo-inner monologue filled with clichés, adulterants that almost invariably come from a too-obvious hypocrisy, lacking every kind of reaction normal to an authentic and spontaneous life except for the lowest biological responses; if, thanks to the diabolic magic of his style, he thus pares modern man down to the bone to show him in his misery, his nakedness, his basic nothingness; if he does all these things, it is to prepare for the appearance, the display, the epiphaneia, of the major character of his book—Time: the inexorable and monstrous time of contemporary capitalist society as it incoherently unwinds in Newsreels; the time that elevates and casts down Margo, Charley, and Mary, with neither discernment nor justice, and rules over the empty consciousnesses it invades and tyrannizes. (p. 131)
What makes Dos Passos stand out from other novelists is undoubtedly that the characteristic time of his novels does not, to the slightest degree, have [an] organic rhythm, the dense continuity of living tissue. His characters move within "dead time"—or rather "deadened time"—with neither spurts nor continuity, where each instant comes to the fore only to be immediately replunged into nothingness. An atomic time, like that of a Cartesian universe no longer at every instant supported by continuous creation, God having defaulted once and for all. But the discontinuity is only in the detail, in the psychological awareness of the characters. If the five hundred pages of The Big Money are read without interruption, the reader, far from having an impression of perpetual rupture, of atomism (which would seem the inevitable result of the purposeful dislocation of the story and its multiplicity of perspectives), feels rather as if he is being carried along by a swift current. This is because the psychological time within which the characters' states of consciousness, and their acts, unfold—and the essence of which is fragmentation—is not Dos Passos's real or basic time.
His true time is the time of Society—objective, inexorable, and spatialized. The hidden mainspring of U.S.A. is this implacable and regular machine rhythm, already evident in Manhattan Transfer…. The inexorable pulsation at the heart of Dos Passos's work is that of the basic, regular rhythm of the transmission belt in the heart of a factory—invisible, omnipresent, all-powerful. The rhythm of the modern world itself. (pp. 132-33)
With this vision of Time as the monstrous divinity ensconced at the heart of the modern world, we have reached the very center of Dos Passos's work. Because of its outward diversity, this work seems, at first, to be iridescent and sparkling, but like every great work, it is essentially monotonous and almost obsessional. (p. 134)
Dos Passos's trilogy [is] a work that runs the risk of disconcerting, if not actually rebuffing, the reader. The author most certainly could not have communicated his intuition of an implacable, mechanistic, and socialized Time that is the sole regulator of the world by means of a simple narrative about the lives of his characters. He had to illumine them, clarifying the orientation (without which they would simply have appeared as chaotic) by framing them with objective elements, historic landmarks, dates as impersonal as those on a calendar, taken from exactly the same web of external and indifferent time within which individual destinies are unwinding. Regardless of how strange it may seem at first reading, the technique used by the author of U.S.A. is no more the byzantine refinement of a writer eager to proclaim his originality and somehow attract the attention of a blasé public than was that of Joyce in Ulysses or the deliberately obscure narration of Faulkner. It was without doubt the only means by which he could achieve his end.
One question remains: Is Dos Passos's desired effect immediately and truly achieved through these formal innovations to which he had recourse, or is the significance of his work only discerned after critical analysis? In other words, is the technique of U.S.A. important because of its immediate efficacy, or will it pass into literary history as an artistic curiosity, an unsuccessful example—instructive by its very failure—of what human ambition and ingenuity have aimed at? (pp. 135-36)
[The] technique of Dos Passos's two later books, Adventures of a Young Man and Number One, marks, in relation to that of The Big Money, a sort of regression, a return to the traditional, individualistic form of the novel, centered on one character cut off from the elements that would integrate him with impersonal history. It is no less strange to note that the author of Manhattan Transfer underwent a gradual detachment from the novelistic genre. After he wrote The Ground We Stand On and a sociological study (remarkable, to be sure), State of the Nation, he wrote a life of Jefferson, a typically American hero. The reasons for this must be sought in the impasse to which a conception of the world such as his—one full of implicit contradictions, making for both the grandeur and the limitations of his work—must lead.
The specifically literary merits of Dos Passos are a perfect objectivity in the presentation of the facts, which he shares with many another American novelist of his generation, and a sort of untamed energy that he brings even to the portrayal of despair—an energy linked to a profound vitality that is also very American. What gives the best pages of The Big Money such an inimitable voice, what gives such value to the biographies of Hearst and Veblen, to the funeral oration of Sacco and Vanzetti, to the portrait of the vagabond that closes the book, is the union (which only Dos Passos was able to make work) of an extremely vehement tone with absolute impartiality. (pp. 138-39)
Dos Passos can condemn, can damn, just by showing people as they are, by describing them faithfully, by drawing their outlines with an exactitude more implacable than could be achieved through any extravagance of tone. The note most indicative of his work, that which makes it unique, is this objective indignation. This is because his indignation goes beyond the individual to attack the whole system that has produced him—and not only, as orthodox Marxists are simple enough to believe, the capitalist system. Dos Passos's anger cannot help but be objective because it is directed ultimately against Being itself. (p. 139)
If Dos Passos, conforming to the evangelical precept,… abstains from any judgments, it is because he is fundamentally incapable of judging, for judgment presupposes an organized system of positive norms, of firm and cohesive certainties in whose name one can render a verdict. Dos Passos's message is as deliberately, as passionately, negative as Socrates's. (p. 140)
[Because] of this profound negativism, his books will always seem somewhat lacking, almost incomplete. His protest goes much beyond political protest: he is quite obviously suspicious of all collectivities, all forms of society, of no matter what kind. (p. 141)
What saves [Dos Passos] from complete nihilism is undoubtedly his prodigious vitality, the extraordinary vigor that he cannot help but bring even to a message as passionately negative as his own. His denials are as positive, as energetic, as most people's affirmations. His books "end badly" in every conceivable way, and yet we are not depressed by reading them. (p. 142)
Once these three volumes of U.S.A., the apogee of failure and despair, were written—and with all desirable impartiality and rigor—it is not very clear what there remained for the author to do. In them he attained that point of perfection in the work of a writer where every merit becomes inseparable from a limitation. Since his two later novels do not in any sense constitute a renewal of his universe—not even an appreciable enrichment of it—I have in a sense spoken of them as if they were supplements to the trilogy that remains his masterpiece. The most curious thing about them is that they are a return to a narrative focused on an individual, which is rather astonishing on the part of a writer who had so deliberately set himself the task of creating an impersonal novel. But this is because Dos Passos … always remained an impenitent individualist…. In the final analysis, the only positive virtues Dos Passos puts any hope in are the strictly individual ones: he believes in a kind of artist's morality, difficult to make general, that consists of absolute honesty and rectitude of vision—the effort to arrive at the same implacable objectivity as the camera. (p. 143)
Claude-Edmonde Magny, "Time in Dos Passos," in his The Age of the American Novel: The Film Aesthetic of Fiction between the Two Wars, translated by Eleanor Hochman (© 1972 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1972 (and reprinted in John Dos Passos: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Andrew Hook, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974, pp. 128-44).
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[Dos Passos'] preparation as a writer may be seen as four separate rites of passage, subjection to major ordeals of mind and spirit, which determined and tempered his view of the world and therefore the nature of his art.
He had, first of all, to come to grips with the actualities of life in the United States, from which he was isolated by the unusual circumstances of his birth and upbringing. Beyond that, World War I was to him a genuine initiation, a quick—and safe—plunge into the stream of real life that expunged the conventional expectations and beliefs of sheltered youth. The war also brought to a head the forces of socialism—communism, largely theoretical up to that point, in revolutions which were to provide a major cultural and intellectual referent for at least a generation. Siren song, intellectual pitfall, liberating vision, whatever the Russian experiment was, it had to be faced. Statesmen, artists, thinkers, above all historians of the twentieth century had to come to terms with that shattering phenomenon. Finally, for the aspiring writer there was the new milieu of the arts, somewhat belated in the United States, but when it did come as important for the development of the American writer as the ferment of the nineteenth century had been for his European counterpart.
In addition to these four major involvements there were two particular predilections of John Dos Passos that helped to direct his thought and to determine the way he would synthesize his experience. He was from an early age an indefatigable traveler and was avid to report what he saw. And, controlling his observation of social structures and events was a political-philosophical bias that may most simply be identified as Jeffersonian. Without stretching truth too far, we may see in Dos Passos a man with the simplistic vision of the Enlightenment let loose in the dynamic chaos of the twentieth century. There is bound to be difference of opinion as to the accuracy of his judgment of that world, but there can be no doubt that in viewing and reporting it he was consistently his own man. (pp. 2-3)
A slight work, [One Man's Initiation—1917] bears much the same relation to his later writings as Tolstoy's Sevastopol bears to War and Peace. In each case there is an evident desire to bear truthful witness to the facts of war without much in the way of technical expertise. Certainly Dos Passos' work is not the great war novel that he said he was planning in his mind a few weeks after he arrived in France with the ambulance corps (and before he had any real experience of war). Rather it is an unpretentious series of impressions held together by the experiences of the fictional Martin Howe and his sidekick Tom Randolph in their non-combatant role as ambulance drivers. The novel is highly visual, made up of scores of vignettes of war. The narrative diction is unduly poetic, but the dialogue mostly rings true, and over all there is little arty straining for effect. (p. 23)
Three Soldiers (1921) brought [his] capacity for registering experience into play on a broader and more comprehensive scale. It was timely, and its success was immediate. There had never been a war novel like it. To a large extent it set the pattern of realistic war novels for the next thirty years, until relief from the grimness of war was sought by demonstration of its absurdity, as in Catch 22…. [Dos Passos shifted] the focus from men at war to war itself.
He did this in two ways: by means of a comprehensive metaphor and by means of a realistic cross section. The metaphor states bluntly that the army is a machine that dehumanizes men, that it is without mind and feeling and destroys mind and feeling in all whom it touches…. The metaphor is obvious—once someone thought of it—and the author makes the most of it, contrasting mechanical process with the rhetorical camouflage by which the machine is concealed and ennobled. Patriotism, making the world safe for democracy, punishing the Hun—myriad slogans to manipulate men's minds—all of these are meaningless and irrelevant when one looks at the inexorable grinding away of the machine. (pp. 24-5)
Three elements in this early novel point forward to the mature works. Trivial but significant is the use of contemporary songs, documentary in that they are what the soldiers sang, but also broadly evocative of time and place and feeling. More important is the novelist's control of dialogue. Each soldier speaks his particular kind of language, cleaned up a bit but very accurate. Most important of all is the fact that the major characters tend to be types rather than individuals. They embody characteristic states, or attitudes, rather than significant particular responses. At this point in his writing Dos Passos was not yet committed to the precise kind of characterization he wished to employ. He started with stereotypes but allowed John Andrews to become an individual. Yet over all we can discern a disposition not to render characters fully but to give them the outlines and functions of figures in a frieze. (p. 30)
In spite of this auspicious beginning Dos Passos had not clearly found his direction. In fact, he backslid in a distressing way, trying to consolidate his reputation as new authors often do by publishing earlier, and inferior, works which are better left in oblivion. Though not published until 1923, Streets of Night belongs to the period of green apprenticeship and is a depressing indication of the path the author might have followed if he had remained in the cocoon of faded preciosity. The novel is abstract, conventionally symbolic, and bloodless, setting up a contrast between those who are afraid of life and those who plunge into it and try to meet it on its own terms. (p. 31)
[Streets of Night] states a recognizable human dilemma, but in unexciting and hackneyed terms. His Bostonians are conventionally anemic; his real life is nothing but a few recognizable pictures at an exhibition.
The same criticism must be directed at A Pushcart at the Curb, a collection of poems published in 1922, verse that belongs to the author's salad days of touristic emotion, though the "Quai de Tournelle" section derives from the months in Paris in 1919 when he was writing Three Soldiers and had presumably moved beyond sentimental prettiness. As the title suggests, the poems seek out the picturesque in foreign settings. They are modest and uninflated, but they show no awareness that a revolution in poetry had been going on for the past ten years. (p. 33)
Dos Passos also had his fling at writing plays. While his interest in the theater was as much social as literary, he did write three plays which are, in their way, important for their attempt to do something original in that form. His first play, The Garbage Man … [produced as The Moon Is a Gong] is an experimental effort to portray the life of the Twenties in an expressionistic manner and has something in common with Manhattan Transfer by reason of its kaleidoscopic format…. The discontinuity of the play makes it hard to follow. The individual scenes are sometimes interesting, sometimes opaque. Over all, it lacks coherence and has only visual appeal. (p. 34)
[Airways, Inc.] develops a contrast between the little people and the coercive forces of capitalist society: jerrybuilt housing, wage slavery, corporate sharp practice, strike breaking (a Jewish labor leader goes to the chair, recalling the Sacco-Vanzetti case), the tawdry enjoyments of the young, the deprivation of the old, cant phrases and attitudes that cripple thought and action—these are the content. The most interesting dimension of the play, though confused in presentation, comes in the figure of the Professor, a European revolutionary whose best friend sold him out. His comments make the spectator realize that all this has happened before, that history is a repetitious treadmill and exploitation the common fate of man, which undermines the play's polemic immediacy.
[The third and longest of these plays, Fortune Heights] was never produced in the United States but appears to have been put on in Russia. It is a depression play in advance of the depression, focusing on a real-estate promotion scheme in a vague locale on a national highway where the extent of the dream actually realized is presented by an unprepossessing filling station. The latter is the locus for the coming and going of a large and varied cast of people who are rootless, poverty-stricken, and without any system of human values. At the end the service-station owner and his family have been evicted and the property has been repossessed. New owners come in, imbued with their own dreams. The same sorry round of inhumanity and greed is about to be played over again.
All three plays are in fact more novelistic than dramatic. They are diffuse; they practice no economy; they have little of the heightened tension which is the basis of drama. The characters are stereotypes who somehow do not come even half alive, as they do in the novels. Both the scattershot expressionism of presentation and the stereotyped doctrinal conceptions in plot and character militate against these works as plays. There is none of the poignancy or illumination of tragedy, though they are clearly intended to point up the tragic nature of the times. There is more drama in the vignettes of Manhattan Transfer than there is in these plays, just as there is more poetry in the "Camera Eye" sections of U.S.A. than is to be found in Dos Passos' formal efforts at poetry. By trial and error he found that conventional literary forms were not for him. By good luck he found his medium in what he ultimately called the "contemporary chronicle." (pp. 34-6)
While the cross section was by no means Dos Passos' invention, with Manhattan Transfer (1925) he brought it to a perfection not matched by any of his predecessors. At the same time he created the paramount novel of the big city. This accomplishment represented the full implementation of nineteenth-century realism in the American novel, though with a difference….
This type of novel does not have fixed rules but can be described as a kind of mosaic, or, better, a revolving stage that presents a multitude of scenes and characters which, taken together, convey a sense of the life of a given milieu and by extension give the tone of contemporary life generally. The strategy is to move the reader through a varied series of actions involving a broad and representative cast of characters. It is inductive, a sort of Gallup poll, by which the meaning is the sum of all the parts. (p. 38)
This type of novel almost automatically exhibits unity of place…. It handles the dimension of time in a variety of ways. Dos Passos opts here for the predominant time pattern, that of a period of years approximating a generation, a sufficient span of growth and change to demonstrate the effects of a given milieu. While Manhattan Transfer is not a chronicle of public events to the same extent as U.S.A. is, it does have a sufficient time scheme to assist the reader's orientation. (p. 39)
[The] lack of detailed chronological reference is important in that it directs attention not to people's subjection to major external forces such as wars, ideologies, and economic crises, but to something more subtle, a changing psychosocial ambiance, a revolution in life styles and values. (pp. 39-40)
[The broad and varied scenic presentation of the individuals] indicates the basically inductive nature of the cross-section technique. The author provides what he thinks is an adequate sampling; the reader contemplates it, as he would the people whom he encounters in real life. He is left to draw his own conclusions without overt authorial intervention or moralizing, though we cannot deny that there is an intelligence, however, unobtrusive, which has chosen and arranged the elements on which the reader is to pass judgment. (pp. 43-4)
There is a fair amount of commentary on the nature of success and failure made by the characters themselves. To this extent the novel has an ideological or social focus, for the point seems to be that success as conceived within the existing social framework means conformity and a kind of progressive dehumanization. (p. 46)
[Certain] passages show the strong influence of Joyce's Ulysses in their intricate verbal play. (p. 48)
These experiments do not, on the whole, greatly change the texture of the work. We see almost entirely through the eyes of the impersonal narrator. But he is selective, even impressionistic. Characters rarely appear in full outline: a salient characteristic stands for the whole, and nine times out of ten that characteristic is a hat. The sensory experience of his people is dominated by smell; the novel contains an immense catalogue of the smells of the city. Auditory and tactile sensations are comparatively rare. Sight concentrates on sky, light, flashing color, silhouettes of light and darkness.
Manhattan Transfer goes beyond traditional realism in other important respects. It has often been called expressionistic; that is, it attempts to externalize essences, meanings, significant realities that lurk beneath the surface of observed reality. (p. 49)
[Through] imagistic emphases and contrasts we get the essence of New York City as siren and destroyer, promising and not keeping her promises, as in the case of the immigrants who are destroyed or who are deported because of their belief in freedom.
This novel contains little of what we call social criticism in terms of institutional malfunction or ideological argument…. It is changing mores and moral values, without much concern for the forces that produce such change, that are the objects of observation in Manhattan Transfer. (p. 52)
By its intricacy and by its comprehensive sweep the trilogy U.S.A. comes close to being the great American novel which had been the aspiration of writers since the turn of the century. It is one of the ironies of our times that when the great American novel did arrive, it turned out to be condemnatory and pessimistic rather than a celebration of the American way. Yet there is an underlying affirmation in Dos Passos' denial. The American dream, battered and corrupted by men of ill will, or little will, still manifests itself—though in anguish—not completely stifled by the trappings of empire and the machinations of self-interest that the author describes.
What first aroused the enthusiasm of readers and critics was the technical virtuosity of the work…. [The] techniques he employed and the balance of elements he achieved are his own and stamp him as the last of the great inventors in the field of the social novel. (p. 58)
U.S.A. in the jargon of some critics has been called a "collective" novel. The term is unfortunate in its ideological implications and fails to convey the central fact that this is a novel without a protagonist, one in which no single life provides a center of interest and meaning. This work exhibits multiple parallel lives on a scale never before attempted. Its form is radial; that is, each spoke has the same importance as the others, all converging on a common center. If the reader's mind could, indeed, focus on all these characters at once he would perceive that unity. But since the experience of the novel is temporal, not spatial, simultaneity is not possible, except in brief passages, and the reader must keep the various characters in suspension until he can weigh them as a group. (p. 69)
The actual narrative, while more conventional than the other dimensions of the novel, does not lack technical interest. In comparison with Manhattan Transfer, U.S.A. makes very little use of dialogue and dramatic scene. What gives the various life histories impact is the use of summary stream of consciousness in language appropriate to the character. (p. 71)
When we consider whether this cast of characters is representative, we must concede at once that it does not present an adequate cross section and that the selection is clearly and deliberately slanted in the direction of vacuity and failure. These lives may be exemplary, but most readers agree that they are exemplary of only one aspect of human endeavor. The very fact that these are hollow men and women whose course is downward constitutes an inescapable indictment of American life and institutions in their time. (p. 72)
The three novels use the full gamut of their techniques to emphasize [the theme of denial of freedom of speech and action]. We see a man being run in in San Francisco for reading the Declaration of Independence to a crowd. We are present with Ben Compton at a riot in Everett, Washington. We are told of the hounding of Thorstein Veblen. The examples are legion. The weakest part of this is the attempt to show in Ben Compton how a revolutionary is made. The lack of psychological depth characteristic of Dos Passos' people is fatal here. It is not enough to see Ben pushed and broken by external forces. We need to feel the generation of internal resolution and an anguished perception that the system is out of joint. The interlarded quotations from Marx that attend Ben's development are not enough, unless indeed the author is already being ironic about the claims of socialist doctrine. (pp. 75-6)
There is a unified progression of ideas as we move through the three parts of U.S.A. The first presents a fairly kindly, innocent America, where the ordinary man's aspirations are usually blocked but where he can dream of controlling his own destiny and throwing off the shackles which he feels but does not analyze. The war brings an end to innocence. It is in part a diversionary action to stifle dissent at home. President Wilson becomes the villain of the piece: 1919 is an ironic contrast between the idealistic promises he made to make the world safe for democracy and the actualities of power politics as they are revealed at the peace conference. The third novel shows the fruits of this deception, of the moral and social debacle that the war is seen to have brought. The opportunities for the average man narrow. As he resists, coercion is more and more overt. The hysteria of war years becomes an habitual state of mind directed at exaggerated or imaginary dangers…. U.S.A. is a chronicle of promises betrayed or forgotten, of a diminution of human dignity and liberty, of a basic disregard for human worth.
The overall statement is a pessimistic one. The "American Century" proudly announced in the opening Newsreel turns out to be a fatal misadventure. (pp. 76-7)
After U.S.A. Dos Passos wrote eight more novels. Three of them, Chosen Country (1951), Most Likely to Succeed (1954), and The Great Days (1958), have chiefly a biographical interest, indirectly reflecting certain aspects of the author's experience but telling us very little about the development of his thought. The other five are serious, if not always successful, works, continuing into the second third of the century the social chronicle that is the substance of the great trilogy.
One thing that strikes us in these later works, which the originality and technical virtuosity of the earlier ones caused many to overlook, is that Dos Passos is not a novelist of the traditional kind. That is, he is not capable of creating a fictive world that is self-subsistent or of creating characters who are interesting in their own right by reason of their rich and varied humanity. What we come to recognize, if it is not already apparent, is that he is a writer of exemplary tales which, under the guise of fiction, analyze, comment on, and increasingly lambaste developments in American society. There are two things about these later novels that dampen the reader's enthusiasm. There is little that is new in technique to arouse interest, and the heat of a consuming idealism that sustains the chronicle of failure in U.S.A. gives way to an almost weary arraignment of one malfunction after another in contemporary life. From an ideological point of view Dos Passos has had second—and third—thoughts about the aspirations of the liberal left and is disenchanted with all programs for social regeneration, making on them a comprehensive assault for the falsity of their rhetoric and their corrupt pursuit of power as an end in itself.
Though the three novels Adventures of a Young Man (1939), Number One (1943), and The Grand Design (1949) are grouped together as a trilogy under the covering title District of Columbia, they have none of the cohesiveness or concentrated impact of U.S.A. They are loosely linked by the presence of members of the Spotswood family in all of them…. Each novel is a study of the failure of idealism in a different public context. (pp. 82-3)
Glenn Spotswood [in Adventures of a Young Man] is very much a stereotype, and we cannot get around the fact that he is a wooden and unconvincing figure. He exists to demonstrate the difference between genuine radical idealism and cynical communist exploitation of that idealism. We never know how he thinks or how he feels as an individual. He has no substance except for what is useful for his role as fall guy in the arena of radical politics. His development as a radical is too mechanical, his ruthless destruction by the communist hierarchy is too perfunctory. The whole novel is obviously controlled by polemic purpose. (p. 86)
Number One, by contrast, is extraordinarily well done. In part this is because it is less programmed and is almost out of time. It is a simple and deadly demonstration of the corruptness of power with minimal attention to broad social chronicle. This is not a new subject in American fiction, but Dos Passos' treatment deserves to stand in the front rank between Robert Herrick's The Memoirs of an American Citizen, which preceded it by nearly forty years, and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, which came out a few years after Number One. (p. 87)
The Grand Design, which completes this trilogy, is unfortunately a blurred and unsatisfactory piece of work. Like its predecessors it has as its target the arrogation of power to one man or to a self-designated group, with consequent subordination of the individual to impersonal and unresponsive authority, in this case the bureaucracy of the New Deal from its beginnings in 1933 to its gradual dismantling under the pressure of World War II. This canvas is too broad for the author to handle it with any clarity of outline. He is unable to mass detail effectively or to give his usual two-dimensional characters even minimal definition. The best he can do is to give a satiric picture of big and little Caesars, big and little Messiahs hopping ineffectually around Washington like chickens with their heads off. (p. 90)
Dos Passos' next fictional volley at the coercive force of bigness came eleven years after the second trilogy. Midcentury (1960), which he described as being in the modified manner of U.S.A., is impressive for its technical originality and for the incisiveness of its statement, even though that statement is one-sided. It gave no comfort to the author's former associates and admirers since it is an attack on labor unions. When we consider that in U.S.A. those who devoted their lives to unionization were among the author's heroes, this attack represents an even more dramatic turnabout than his repudiation of the Communist Party and the New Deal. It is as though he has now gone back on the last article in his liberal creed. (p. 94)
As novelist Dos Passos is unequivocal in what he shows about human perfectibility. He may hold the dream in his heart, but the actuality of his fiction contradicts it. There is a persistent plea that the little man, weak and defenseless, be given a better break; yet we see his major figures consistently overborne by external pressures and their own inadequacies. (p. 112)
His two vocations of novelist and observer of institutions are ultimately one.
It is that duality that sets his work apart. Individually his novels must be read as chronicles of the times. In their totality they chart an individual's response to those times. (p. 114)
George J. Becker, in his John Dos Passos (copyright © 1974 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1974, 133 p.
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