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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Party in the U.S.A.: Nineteen Nineteen, by John Dos Passos

Posted by Andrew Seal on 08/01/10 at 08:45 AM

As with the first post for The 42nd Parallel, I’ll begin by running through some of the basic details of characters, plot, etc.

There are eight “biographies” in this volume: John Reed, Randolph Bourne, Paxton Hibben, Woodrow Wilson, J. P. Morgan, Joe Hill, Wesley Everest, and the Unknown Soldier who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Hill and Everest are sort of labor movement folk heroes; Reed is as well, but is larger than that, occupying a position within our national consciousness as probably the “romantic revolutionary"—someone Warren Beatty could play in an Oscar-winning movie. Paxton Hibben is not even a folk hero, exactly—you’ll notice that his link is the only one that doesn’t go to Wikipedia; that’s because he doesn’t have a page (not that this is a definitive sign of one’s obscurity). Randolph Bourne is certainly better known, but not by a very wide circle, I think. The ambit of most of these men is certainly tighter than those Dos Passos wrote about in The 42nd Parallel, an interesting contrast to the differences between the plots of the two books: 42nd is mostly confined by the U.S. borders; almost all of 1919 is running around Europe and the Atlantic.

We have five new characters who headline the plot-driven sections: Joe Williams (4 sections), Eveline Hutchins (4 sections), Richard Ellsworth Savage (4 sections), Daughter (2 sections), and Ben Compton (1 section). Well, actually, only Daughter and Richard Ellsworth Savage are “new”: Eveline, Joe, and Ben appeared in other people’s sections in volume one.

The fact that all the violence is really bottled up into those 36 pages near the end of the book rather than taking place in the war sections is an obvious statement about where the real violence of the war was directed: at the working class. The only other character who is under consistent threat of physical harm is 1919‘s other working stiff—Joe. Dick Savage faces fire once, I believe, and I suppose technically Paris is under siege, but the very pronounced effect of the Savage, Hutchins, and Daughter sections is to minimize any real sense that the war is a violent thing being executed by violent men. A line is repeated with variations throughout the novel: “This ain’t a war… it’s a goddam [whorehouse, Cook’s tour, madhouse, etc.].” A more appropriate description of these sections would be “this ain’t a war… it’s a goddam cocktail party.” For that’s what most of the action either is or resembles.

The interesting structural choice that Dos Passos made was to avoid building the sections as a simple ironic counterpoint between episodes of real violence against the working class with the longueurs of cocktail party bedhopping and flirtation of the Moorehouse circle. You have a few Joe sections interspersed through most of the first five-ninths or so of the book, but these actually soften the divide between the violence against the working class and the lassitude of the cosmopolitan class because Joe has connections among them more or less and because Joe has an ideal of (some) personal advancement, of rising from the ranks. But then the Joe Hill, Ben Compton and Wesley Everest sections burst on you almost without preparation, and only then is a note of ironic juxtaposition allowed to emerge, when the book wraps up with Savage’s last section, with him pretending to come to terms with the (honestly a little ridiculous and probably intentionally so) death of Daughter. The party’s over, and he can walk away whistling Kip Marlowe’s line, “but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.”

I think opinion is generally against 1919 relative to the other two volumes of U.S.A., but I have to put my name down as a defender of it. I think it is a better structured book than The 42nd Parallel, and while tedious, I found the cocktail party sections here much better than the Alger-esque Janey, Moorehouse, and Stoddard sections there; these are more patient, more attentive, and more accurate—most socializing is dull. I can see, however, why it is not so appealing to all readers, and why it might be considered the most boring of the three: like a lot of other middle novels in trilogies, it has the disadvantage of being compared both to one novel the virtues of which you know because you’ve already experienced them and to another whose virtues and pleasures you are constantly imagining. The first and the third have to deal only with either one’s knowledge or one’s imagination, but not both. I think 1919 succeeds very well within these terms.


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