Having served in France during World War I as an ambulance driver and then as a private in the Medical Corps, Dos Passos was thoroughly conversant with the military life of an enlisted man and was able to portray that life vividly and realistically in his writing. He was the first American novelist since Stephen Crane (1871-1900) to use war as a theme for fiction, but he went far beyond his predecessors in showing the immorality and brutality of the military machine, not toward the enemy but toward its own individual atoms, the soldiers.
The analogy with the machine is clearly seen in the titles of the six parts of Three Soldiers: “Making the Mould,” “The Metal Cools,” “Machines,” “Rust,” “The World Outside,” and “Under the Wheels.” In counterpoint to this structure are the narratives of the three soldiers who represent the diverse American experience. Fuselli, the urban ethnic who tries to get ahead by obsequiously cooperating with the machine’s agents, dominates the first two sections. Chrisfield, the Indiana farm boy, is the principal figure in the third part. Andrews, the Virginia-born aristocratic aesthete, is the central figure of the final three sections. All three of the soldiers appear in all of the sections, but toward the end Fuselli is referred to by one of the deserters only as a way of the author’s concluding Fuselli’s narrative. Andrews increasingly becomes the dominant figure of the novel as a whole, first as the intellectual who interprets the actions that occur and finally as the personage with whom readers may identify.
Andrews’s portrait is the most complex. He is gradually revealed first as a composer and aesthete, then as a music critic in civilian life, and finally as a Harvard graduate. The musical context associated with the character is not always accurate and has been even disparaged by some critics as name-dropping. Thoroughly authentic, however, is Andrews’s outrage at the mindless and petty indignities and harassments to which he is subjected, culminating in a beating by the military police because he has failed to salute an officer and his subsequent ordeal in the labor battalion.
Although Three Soldiers does not incorporate the stylistic devices (such as the “Camera Eye,” “Newsreel,” and biographical snippets) of such later Dos Passos works as the U.S.A. trilogy (1937), the author’s use of alternating narrative segments anticipates the more complex structure of his later works. Elements that appear in Dos Passos’s later works do appear, although in a more...
(The entire section is 1060 words.)