Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Party in the U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel, by John Dos Passos
In this post, I’d just like to introduce some of the key elements of the first volume and of the work as a whole. Shortly, I hope to have at least one more analytical post written, but for now, just a stocktaking—what’s in this novel?
Both description and analysis of the U.S.A. trilogy generally begin with a catalogue of the books’ four modes:
1) the interlocking narrative sections, each headed by and following a single protagonist as he or she makes his way across the nation and a few parts of the wider world (in this novel, France, Canada, and Mexico);
2) the famous Camera Eye sections, which are written in a high modernist style and which seem to be a sort of impressionistic memoir. They read to me kind of like a Joycean version of the prose section in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies1;
3) the Newsreel, which comprises various headlines or half-headlines and snatches of news reports and contemporary popular songs. Many of them read like they’ve been spliced or mangled in some fashion, like RSS feeds mating and churning out gnomics: “DIAZ TRAINS HEAVY GUNS ON BUSINESS SECTION… ASK METHODISM TO OUST TRINITY…”
4) and finally, what seems to be everyone’s favorite, a series of free-verse “biographies” of famous or influential figures of the period—in this first volume, Eugene Debs, Luther Burbank, Big Bill Haywood, William Jennings Bryan, Minor C. Keith, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Charles Steinmetz, and Robert LaFollette, who had some awesome hair.
Continuing with a basic inventory of the novel, in the narrative sections of The 42nd Parallel, we meet five different protagonists. Because this is sort of supposed to be a group read (that is, if anyone is reading along with me), there will be spoilers.
Mac, a Wobbly and a printer, whose problems with women and travels about the country and into Mexico resemble, quite pleasantly, a Woody Guthrie or a Billy Bragg song; he starts off the novel when his family moves into Chicago from Middletown, CT. Mac learns the printing trade from his radical uncle, who eventually loses his shop partly because of his politics and partly because of his drinking. Mac takes off from Chicago in the shady employ of a confidence man/door-to-door bookseller, a great character straight out of Huck Finn. Eventually, this grifter is caught and Mac bums around a bit. Somehow he catches the wrong train and ends up in Winnipeg; eventually he makes his way through Vancouver on down the West Coast to (eventually) San Francisco. He meets a girl but nearly loses her (and does lose his eyebrows) in the Earthquake of 1906. Married life doesn’t take and he runs away to Mexico for the Revolution. After a period in Ciudad Juárez, he makes his way to México City, where he gets a job first as a printer and then, through some favors pulled by other U.S. expatriates, as a bookstore owner. When Villa and Zapata threaten to overrun México City, Mac sells out and flees to Veracruz. He thinks about returning to the U.S., but decides to stay in Vera Cruz. Mac is the protagonist of eight sections, but most of them are all at the beginning; while they set the tone for this volume, one almost loses sight of him in the latter half.
Janey Williams is a young Washingtonian girl who might well be described by Henry Adams’s (patronizing) view of the type: “the Washington girl, who was neither rich nor well-dressed nor well-educated nor clever, had singular charm, and used it.” She does indeed have some charm, but is also fairly rigid politically—she abruptly quits a stenography job because she thinks her boss is pro-German, and she later shows other flashes of a starchy patriotism. Her brother Joe is a sailor; I think he’ll play a larger role in the latter two volumes of the trilogy. She’s unemployed for a good bit of her sections after she quits her pro-German employer, but eventually she lucks into being personal assistant for the next protagonist, J. Ward Moorehouse, who takes her to México (where they bump briefly into Mac) and then back to his office in New York. In New York, she stays with the Compton family; the son, Ben Compton, will also feature in the later volumes. Janey deeply admires Moorehouse, but her attraction to him is mostly deferential. Janey has four sections.
J. Ward Moorehouse, a Delawarean on the make, a fortune hunter and public relations man. He marries twice, both times to heiresses, although the first heiress fails him both financially and maritally—well, actually the failure’s on both sides, and Moorehouse knows it. He falls into an even better marriage, however, and uses his new wife’s money to set him up in a cutting-edge PR firm with a specialty in bridging the information gap between capital in labor—which evidently in practice means finding corruptible labor representatives and corrupting them further. Dos Passos is, however, surprisingly warm to Moorehouse; there is far more sympathy or even almost respect in his depiction than one might expect. Dos Passos shows him as a genuinely capable, unexpectedly thoughtful, and legitimately classy sort of guy. Dos Passos somehow gives him a certain gravity despite his scheming. And his descriptions of the businessman’s life are, like Lewis’s in Babbitt, much softer than they’re remembered as being, and occasionally even gentle or lyrical. Here’s a good example. Once Moorehouse is introduced, he is in nearly every subsequent section of this volume, although he is the protagonist proper of just three.
Eleanor Stoddard is a quasi-Bohemian interior designer from Chicago, now living in New York and also in an ambiguous relationship with Moorehouse. She started out working in a lace shop (shades of Lily Bart in the millinery) and moved a half-step up to work as a Marshall Fields shopgirl, a job which horrified her. She struck up an acquaintance with a miserly spinster also living in her cheap boardinghouse, and believed for a time that her friendship would earn her the spinster’s millions. She received a cheap piece of jewelry upon the woman’s death. There is a lovely scene in one of her sections where she takes a day off from her job to read Romola and then go to the Art Institute, where she runs into a better-dressed young woman who asks her, while looking at some of Whistler’s paintings, “I like unconventionality, don’t you?” Eventually, these two women form a partnership for interior decorating and after some mixed successes, jump abruptly to New York to design the stage dressing for a play, which flops more or less. In New York at last, she manages to make something of a name for herself as a designer, and she and Moorehouse begin a relationship which may be sexual but most likely (it seems to me) isn’t. Nevertheless, Moorehouse’s wife becomes jealous and confronts him. Eleanor insists on seeing her and when she does, some understanding is reached. Moorehouse informs both women that he has offered his services to the nation and will be in Washington for the duration of the war, and Eleanor chimes in that she is volunteering as a nurse, which is unexpected, to say the least. Eleanor has four sections.
Charley Anderson is the last character introduced and has just one section, a longer one that closes the novel. He is an occasional mechanic and a bum, originally from North Dakota, last seen looking across the ocean toward a volunteer post as an ambulance driver in the First World War. He is the least fortunate of any of the characters, and also probably the least able to make his luck (although I think that will not last). He gets across a lot of the country (most significantly, St. Paul and New Orleans) before he ends up in New York, where he joins the ambulance drivers’ initiative just as war is being declared. He also carries the red card of the IWW, but he is less involved in it than Mac.
In the next post, I want to discuss in greater detail how the four modes of the novel work together, but for now I think it’s appropriate to say that I think to some extent their cumulative effect comes off a little strangely because there is not much in literature to which one might compare them collectively. This diversity of modes suggests a pastiche or bricolage, but this is not right; they don’t seem directly to be imitating, borrowing from, or subverting any specific literary precursor or any particular form of speech or writing. Even the Newsreel seems less like a direct transcript or a cut-and-paste job than a careful composition. And, though I said the Camera Eye sections remind me of Joyce, they don’t seem like attempts at writing like Joyce. And the multiplicity of experiments is quite different from simply having multiple forms of narration, or multiple narrators of differing linguistic capacities. Unfortunately, outside of pastiche or hybridity or Faulknerian multiple narrators, there are few ways that come to mind of really thinking about formal experimentation like this on multiple registers. This makes it difficult to figure out how to read these four modes—either individually or collectively.
1 In fact, I don’t know if it’s been argued before, but Life Studies may have a more general debt to U.S.A.; it also comprises four parts, one of which is also a sequence of biographical poems about real people. The other two parts match up less well, perhaps, to Dos Passos’s Newsreel and narrative sections. It’s a thought, anyway.
You have inspired me, Andrew, to plug this gap in my reading knowledge. So I bought the LoA edition of U.S.A. and plunged in. I think I had some hazy notion in my head that it would be hard going, a deliberately formally thorny modernist experiment in novel writing, if not quite Finnegans Wake-y then certainly deliberately choppy Ulyssean or perhaps compartmentalised-Faulknerian. Not sure why I thought so, exactly. Anyway, having now read The 42nd Parallel my first reaction was one of amazement at how easily it slipped down. But this had quickly curdled into a secondary reaction of disappointment. It’s very readable, but in a potboilerish way. The 27 ‘camera eye’ sections, though occasionally lyrically estranging and good, seemed to me of very variable quality; the ‘Newsreels’ were a one-trick pony, stylistically speaking, and the interspersed potted bios of real people too thin to generate any emotional heft. The main impression, as far as all this portion of the novel goes, is how detachable it all is, how little integrated into the rest of the novel.
That rest is very engaging: well drawn characters, interestingly varied lives, the links between the different individuals not over-strained; I got a good sense of time and place, and so on. But its very fluency defeats its heterogeneous, dispersive aims. It reads like high-class soap opera. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. I suppose it’s not helped by the fact that what might have seemed bold, new sexual frankness in 1930 seems a bit tame today. Otherwise it reminded me a little of those flashbacks to Mr Burns’s or Grandpa Abe’s youth in The Simpsons, with what felt like obligatory references to President Taft and ‘fast’ women smoking cigarettes and Pancho Villa.
Of course I’m only a third of the way through, and I did enjoy reading this. I’m sure my third reaction, when I swing back round and acclaim it to be genius, is just around the corner.
Adam, the Camera Eye sections certainly are of variable quality, but there is also, I think, the problem in this volume of them being about childhood and “shot” from a child’s perspective. I tend to think that most formal experiments of recreating a child’s sense of the world are generally failures, so I’m predisposed not to like them a bit. I’ve gotten the sense that they become more independently interesting and moving as the trilogy winds on.
I agree about the Newsreel sections as well--there is little movement or development of this idea, although sometimes I found the surreal (false?) headlines fairly funny. I don’t agree with you about the biographies, though--well, I agree that they’re too short, but I don’t think they’re thin. LaFollette’s, in particular, was actually one of the emotional high points of the book for me. I’m hoping to say more about the function of legend w/r/t these biographies in the next post, but to some extent, I think that Dos Passos is borrowing on the reader’s (assumed) knowledge of the legend of these men to thicken these sections and give them that heft.
I like what you say about the George Burns feeling--I get that sense too, particularly in the Charley Anderson section. But I found the Janey and Eleanor sections much less nostalgic in that way, and emotionally richer in a way that isn’t so related to the time period. Then again, in a work like this with multiple protagonists, I almost always find the women most fascinating.
Ha! I meant this Mr Burns, though George Burns works well too.
I’m also conscious that I’m reading this as an Englishman, and that accordingly there may be levels of impact or significance I’m missing. My heart doesn’t tingle when I see Old Glory fluttering in the sunlit breeze, y’see.
I think I liked Manhattan Transfer better, not only because it was more limited in scope to just New York (and it’s shorter too!) but because he takes little bits of these stylistic elements and plays with them in a way that’s more integrated into the story. I liked the headlines but, as you say, the four styles lose their effect after a while --- definitely they get old by the second volume.
I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the two major female characters in the third novel (and of Ellen Thatcher in MT, if you’re up to reading that too).
For different reasons, I think Mary French and Margo Dowling are the best characters in the whole goldurn thing. This comes as a relief after the somewhat arid 1919.