Dos Passos, John (Vol. 15)
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,...
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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...
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George J. Becker
[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...
(The entire section is 4071 words.)