In 1938, Jean Paul Sartre called John Dos Passos the “greatest living writer of our time.” A contemporary and sometimes frienemy of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, he was an obvious influence on Norman Mailer, E.L. Doctorow, Truman Capote, and Jack Kerouac. Sinclair Lewis said of one of Dos Passos’s first novels (Manhattan Transfer) that he had invented a whole new way of writing.
I had never heard of John Dos Passos, or any of his writings, prior to delving into all of these book lists. And on these lists his name, in connection with the epic U.S.A. Trilogy specifically, keeps popping up again and again. Eventually, I came around to the first book in the trilogy, 42nd Parallel and was completely blown away. (See my review here).
In U.S.A., Dos Passos merged a four unique styles in a manner that (as far as I am aware) had not been attempted before. In addition to the intertwined narratives of a dozen different characters, he incorporated poetic, staccato biographies, culled three decades worth of newspaper headlines and popular songs, and his own autobiographical, Joycean impressions in the section titled “Camera Eye.” All to give us a “picture” of America from the beginning of the 20th century to the stock market crash in ’29. It is truly an impressive undertaking – one that I found amazing in its technical aspect and moving in its emotional impact. My review for 42nd Parallel really could serve as a readers response to the entire novel, so I don’t want to rehash the effusive praise I gave the novel there…so this post is much less of a review than a discussion of additional relevant material.
Influence of Soviet Film
It’s hard now to conceive of what a revolution and revelation the advent of film. I – as I suspect most people reading this blog – have always had movies around. They have always been part of the landscape of my life, and in a set form, or sets of forms, such as documentary or narrative. But at the beginning of film, probably until at least the 1930s, by which time “talkies” had been developed, the medium was an entirely new art, and everybody was trying to figure out how film should “be” or what it should express.
This was also a time of great political and social unrest and experimentation and everybody was trying to find ways that this new medium could be used for their own purposes. One of those groups attempting to use film for societal and political purposes was the socialist and communist movements both in the United States and in Russia. Because of the camera’s ability to objectively capture the economic disparity of the world, the leftist political movements saw the documentary style as being an opportunity to bring their “revolutionary consciousness” to the people. There were things going on in the world that those with all the power (and all the money and the means of distribution) didn’t want the populace to see, but with the availability of the camera, now they could. Two chiefs filmmakers of this tradition are Eisenstein (famous for “The Battleship Potemkin”) and Dziga Vertov, whose Man with a Movie Camera could in some ways be seen as the cinematic precursor to U.S.A.
Dos Passos was directly involved in this cinematic movement. He co-founded in a group called the New Playwrights in the late 1920s which drew upon the ideas set forth by the leftist cinematic faction, specifically a group known as the Workers’ Film and Photo League. The League’s intent was to use the movie camera to document the disparity in the economic conditions of the proletariat versus the, well, Big Money. Vertov’s concept of the Camera Eye (or Kino Eye – here to distinguish it from the U.S.A. section) was very influential on this group. The Kino Eye was an experimental technique of filmmaking that used montage and other methods to explore the visible world.
The Film and Photo League created another organization called Nykino (New York Kino) in 1934. Dos Passos joined forces occasionally with Nykino and a later incarnation called Frontier Films by cowriting subtitles and commentary for their films. He was named as an advisory board member and consultant to Frontier Films in 1937, but shortly thereafter had an ideological falling out of sorts with the “official” left, and this shift in loyalty was a defining factor in Dos Passos’s subsequent falling out with the literary critics of whom he was once a darling.
Dos Passos is one of the first writers (that I know of) to integrate the methods used in filmmaking into literature. The concepts and techniques developed by Vertov and his contemporaries (specifically montage) are most evident in the Newsreel sections, and Dos Passos gives an upside-down nod to this influence in “Camera Eye” section. The interesting part of these “nods” is that neither are true depictions of what the workers’ cinema philosophy intended them for. I said the Camera Eye sections were upside-down since the intent behind the Soviet concept of the Kino Eye was pure documentary, but the Camera Eye in U.S.A. is the only part of the text that is subjective and not objective. (Dos Passos, in an interview with the Paris Review stated that the Camera Eye was the valve for his subjective feelings, allowing the rest of the novel to be approached objectively.) Newsreels in the workers’ cinema were used to show the relationship between the workers economic conditions to an overall worldwide class struggle. Dos Passos uses the newsreels to give public context to the private events in the narrative sections – tying together what is happening in the background – History with a capital H – while the lives of the characters march on (or not). Some have expressed frustration over the occasional puzzling nature of the Newsreels, but I felt they simply gave a general idea of the buzz, like a transcript of flipping through television stations.
The U.S.A. Trilogy is not without its problems. The “Camera Eye” sections were the weakest in execution. A reader needs a good understanding of Dos Passos’s own biography to get anything out of them. Otherwise, it’s as disorienting as being thrown into Joyce’s Ulysses without a road map. The section was included to give the novel a personal perspective to counterbalance the documentary style, but it’s often confusing at best. I can’t say that the novel would be better without it, but I didn’t feel that these portions added something necessary to it.
Richard Gilman in the New York Times wrote, "U.S.A. isn’t tragic, which is precisely why so much of it feels cold and mechanical; tragedy implies personal destiny, moral choice, existential dilemma, and these conditions are almost wholly missing. Instead of fates we have personal disasters arising from involvements or confrontations with the vast, corrupting power of social reality, particularly economic reality… U.S.A. filled a need for a collective novel, whose real protagonist…was the entire nation. And bringing this off – at any level – called less for the talents of a true novelist than for those of a reporter, a sharp observer. This is why his biographies and Newsreels are the best parts of U.S.A. and the Camera Eyes and narratives, demanding invention, are the worst.”
I cannot argue with those criticisms, except that I did found the narratives much more on par with the rest of the novel (minus the Camera Eye) than Gilman gives Dos Passos credit for. But it’s true the narratives are cold – they are objective, and Dos Passos offers no redemption, no real crisis and no sympathy for the characters. Some he clearly views with contempt (Barrow, for instance). The author here simply records their lives, from the enthusiasm and brightsidedness of the dawn of the 20th century through the bitterness that culminated in the crash and the depression –all their triumphs which turn to failures, leading to the great failure, once again the personal reflecting the public and vice versa. There is no plot, really, other than the march of time. In this manner his style is much more journalistic than one might desire in a Great American Novel contender. But it's a condender nonetheless.
There are so many different angles that someone could come to this text from. The influence of the Machine Age; the influence of the documentary movement generally (and not just in film) of the 1930s and its role in Dos Passos’s popularity as a writer of the public/political sphere versus Fitzgerald or Hemingway, who were writing about the private sphere and whose popularity did not gain critical success until decades later; the idea of the reclamation of language for the masses (“USA is the speech of the people”); the influence of Dadaism; the influence of the media, particularly as portrayed in the Newsreels and the life of J. Ward Moorehouse. This novel is ripe for term papers.
Which brings me to my final point. With American English literature courses so heavy on the Lost Generation, why has Dos Passos become, well, lost? Once a contender for the Great American Novel (at least of the 20th century), how has U.S.A. come to be forgotten? To quote the New York Times: “At the time of his death, at 74 (in 1970), some people were surprised to learn that he was still alive. In a literary sense, his death had been decreed by critics during the last two decades of his life. He was considered a museum piece, a totem admired behind glass but not to be touched. Three American writers of his generation – Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck – had received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dos Passos, once considered their equal, received only diminishing respect.” Dos Passos continued to write well beyond the 1930s, publishing eighteen books after The Big Money appeared in 1936. As mentioned earlier, within a few years of the publication of the final volume in the trilogy, Dos Passos broke with the radical left movement in America, and with that fell out of critical esteem within a decade as his political opinions moved farther and farther to the right. Some critics claimed his shift in political ideology came from a cowardly inability to follow through on his socialistic ideals once he became a literary celebrity, and of course had some money.
In that externally imposed fall from critical grace, he was banished from the canon, but would likely have fallen out of favor anyway along with other more naturalistic writers such as Dreiser and Lewis. Again to quote Gilman in the New York Times, “Dos Passos and the times changed; the communal air darkened and lightened, throwing up new criteria, as it always does…It has a permanent place in our histories, I think, but only a precarious one in our literature.” (As Dos Passos himself stated decades earlier.)
U.S.A. is tricky. It's history driven (as opposed to being plot or character driven). It's unique among its contemporaries. It is decidedly different than the personal narratives put forward by Fitzgerald and Hemingway. It's part modernist and experimental in the style of James Joyce, though not entirely. It has many elements of naturalism in the style of Dreiser, or a Sinclair Lewis - particularly in the journalistic prose, though I felt Dos Passos was a better writer technically - certainly better than Dreiser. It internalizes cinematic devices and philosophies, the aesthetic appreciation of the machine, and melds it into something truly different, truly its own. What results from this amalgam of styles and influences, both literary and non-literary is the cadance of a modern age just dawning upon America.
I truly loved The U.S.A. Trilogy. I not only found it compelling in all aspects, it inspired me to look deeper, to find the story behind. It led me to seek out Vertov and Soviet film theory and all other sorts of obscure topics that I never would have bothered with otherwise. I want to learn more about other events that influenced or passed by the characters in the narratives, such as the workers strikes and Sacco & Vanetti. That said, without a basic understanding of the background – of what Dos Passos was doing with the structure of the trilogy, the average reader would likely be turned off or completely lost. Because what average reader wants to watch Russian montage films from the 1930s as research just to understand a novel? As literature itself, it has its legitimate criticisms. Nonetheless it contributed something very important to the 20th Century novel, and for that alone it deserves its spot among any top list. Personally, I really liked it despite its flaws. It’s experiences such as this that make my whole “reading a list” a worthwhile endeavor.