Sunday, August 01, 2010
Party in the U.S.A.: Nineteen Nineteen, by John Dos Passos
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.
- Joe is Janey Williams’s sister; like her he grew up in Washington D.C., but after the death of a close friend, he took to the sailor’s life, and most of his sections in Nineteen Nineteen depict him either on the sea, in port, or trying to get back to the sea. Joe is a basic seaman for most of the novel, but after he gets married and gets torpedoed (unrelated events), he is given an opportunity to rise from the ranks and takes some classes to become a third and then a second mate. Joe gets in his share of scrapes but he’s not particularly belligerent; he sleeps with a lot of women (most of whom give him a venereal disease, it seems) but he’s not particularly lusty; he’s undirected and frequently “blue” but not particularly anhedonic or mopey. He’s much more of a proletarian than other American heroes who went to sea or than any of Conrad’s sailors; while, like Ishamel, he sails to avoid the onset of the “damp, drizzly November[s] in my soul,” Joe’s Novembers blow in when he blows all his money or knocks some girl up or something. He’s closer to O’Neill’s Hairy Ape, but far less primitive.
- Eveline Hutchins is Eleanor Stoddard’s best friend—the one she meets in the Art Institute of Chicago (an event I wrote about previously). Eveline, unlike Eleanor, is not making up her solidly upper-middle-class origins, and perhaps as a (surprising) result, she seems less self-assured, more wary among the cosmopolitan milieu that the two pursue from Chicago to New York and, in this book, to Paris, Rome, and the French Riviera. Being born with half- or three-quarters of a silver spoon in one’s mouth, it seems, induces more timidity (or suppresses temerity more) than being born with none at all. Eveline and Eleanor separate, to some extent, while in Europe, although both are working for the Red Cross and share almost entirely the same social circle, which includes J. Ward Moorehouse, who was having an equivocal (and possibly non-sexual) affair with Eleanor at the end of The 42nd Parallel. Eveline actually has a sexual (but still quite equivocal) affair with Moorehouse, but ends 1919 with another man rather unintentionally on her arm, the younger Paul Johnson. She is pregnant with Paul’s baby, and a party celebrating their marriage is the last narrative scene.
- Also present at that scene is Richard Ellsworth Savage, who after first going to Europe as an ambulance volunteer, gets himself in trouble in Italy by expressing too loudly some pacifist and sarcastically pro-Central Powers remarks. At first he wants to fight for his right to free speech and to take the pacifist message back to America, but just before embarking from France, he runs into one of his old Harvard chums, and his convictions sort of melt away. Through some connections back home he is able to get back to Europe, this time in the Army proper, although his skill with languages and his general charisma get him a fairly cushy job as a courier. He meets the Moorehouse crowd and, eventually, finagles himself into a job working for Moorehouse after the armistice. In the meantime, he has met and become entangled with another character:
- Anne Elizabeth Trent, whom everyone calls Daughter, is a Texan belle. Her father is wealthy, and his wealth enables her, even though she seems to fit in well with Texan society, to run off to New York confidently. She signs up as a special student at, I think, Columbia (although she lives in University Heights—I don’t know New York that well, but might Dos Passos have meant Morningside Heights?) and “went to lectures about Economics and English Literature and Art and talked a little occasionally with some boy who happened to be sitting next to her, but she was so much younger than anybody she met and she didn’t seem to have the right line of talk to interest them.” She has a couple rather innocent affairs, including one with a Veblen-spouting social worker which ends in a broken engagement after she seeks admission from the Columbia Journalism School over his disapproval (he wants her to study to be a teacher). Daughter meets another Columbia journalism student who introduces her to the world of radical politics; she meets Ben Compton (our next and last main character) during a textile workers strike in Paterson, New Jersey (the 1919 strike, not the more famous 1913 one). There she also has her first real run-in with the law; she slugs a police officer in the face and makes national headlines, causing her father to come out and take her home to Texas. She joins the Red Cross and applies to go abroad. There she runs into both G. H. Barrow, the labor leader from The 42nd Parallel, who falls for her. But she ends up with Dick Savage (you couldn’t use that name in a novel today), who impregnates her and then tries to convince her to get an abortion; he had previously talked about marriage with her but backs out. She finds a drunk French aviator whom she convinces to take her on a late night aerial acrobatics display; they crash and she dies.
- Ben Compton appeared very briefly in The 42nd Parallel as the brother of a secretary in J. Ward Moorehouse’s p.r. firm (Janey Williams very briefly stays with the Comptons). The first words of Ben’s section have frequently been read as an indication of the ethnic and racial narrowness of Dos Passos’s gallery of Americans: even his one Jewish protagonist’s section begins “The old people were Jews, but at school Benny always said no he wasn’t a Jew, he was an American, because he’d been born in Brooklyn and lived at 2531 Twentyfifth Avenue in Flatbush and they owned their home.” Assessing just what Dos Passos’s intentions are by introducing such a vehemently assimilating Jew is rather difficult; one could about equally as well say that he was trying to effect in fiction a sort of whitewashing of the history of labor radicalism as one could say that he was trying to illustrate (and maybe ironize) the pressures of assimilation on Jews and, by proxy, other ethnics (Ben becomes good friends with an Italian). To be frank, I find it difficult to come to any single interpretation or even a satisfactory conjunction of interpretations. Whatever the case may be, Ben’s section (he only gets one in this book) is my favorite so far; it seemed to be written with greater intensity—even to the point of desperation. Sandwiched between the Joe Hill and Wesley Everest sections, these 36 pages (in my copy) combine spectacularly to protest the reactionary violence perpetrated against the labor movement. Ben is not a terribly likable character, but he doesn’t need to be to make Dos Passos’s point: perhaps many young men (and women) were foolhardy or just desperate on the picket lines, but the ferocity of the men on the other end of the billy club and at times at the other end of the rope and always at the other end of the law is sheerly breathtaking.
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.