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

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Sunday, July 04, 2010

Structure and The 42nd Parallel

Posted by Andrew Seal on 07/04/10 at 03:56 PM

An inordinate amount of the criticism that has been written on John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. has been devoted to its structure—the four modes of biography, Newsreel, Camera Eye, and narrative. I think critics generally fasten onto this tetra-partite structure as the most importantly obvious part of the book as it looks so much like the key to a deeper, substructural meaning, but evaluations of its cumulative aesthetic value seem to be rather mixed or confused. Alfred Kazin is probably typical in saying,

Technically U.S.A. is one of the great achievements of the modern novel, yet what that achievement is can easily be confused with its elaborate formal structure. For the success of Dos Passos’s method does not rest primarily on his schematization of the novel into four panels, four levels of American experience—the narrative proper, the “Camera Eye,” the “Biographies,” and the “Newsreel.” That arrangement, while original enough, is the most obvious thing in the book and soon becomes the most mechanical. (On Native Grounds 1970, 353)

Kazin’s reaction is interesting, and grows more interesting as he goes along so I’ll play out this quote further below, but here he gives things away by referring to this formal “schematization” and to “the narrative proper,” as if the other sections are either external to the novel (i.e., not its own) or vaguely inappropriate to its real “achievement.”

The book lives by its narrative style, the wonderfully concrete yet elliptical prose which bears along and winds around the life stories in the book like a conveyor belt carrying Americans through some vast Ford plant of the human spirit. U.S.A. is a national epic, the first great national epic of its kind in the modern American novel; and its triumph is not the pyrotechnical display that the shuttling between the various devices seems to suggest, but Dos Passos’s power to weave so many different lives together in narrative.  (ibid.)

Cold War criticism at its best. The individual life—the origin and destination of all narrative meaning. E pluribus unum rah rah rah. (Happy Fourth of July, by the way.)

It is possible that the narrative sections would lose much of that power if they were not so craftily built into the elaborate framework of the book. But the framework holds the book together and encloses it; the narrative makes it. The “Newsreel,” the “Camera Eye,” and even the very vivid and often brilliant “Biographies” are meant to lie a little outside the book always; they speak with the formal and ironic voice of History. The “Newsreel” sounds the time; the “Biographies” stand above time, chanting the stories of American leaders; the “Camera Eye” moralizes shyly in a lyric stammer upon them. But the great thing about U.S.A. is that though it sweeps up so many human lives together and intones their waste and illusion and defeat so steadily, we seem to be swept along with them and to see each life perfectly at the moment it passes by us. (ibid.)

What is most interesting about Kazin’s reaction is how difficult it is for him to find a way to think of the “narrative proper” and these more experimental or modernist sections as occupying the same space: they are “four panels” or “four levels.” Also, Dos Passos “winds [his prose] around the life stories in the book” which are in turn ‘woven’ altogether, but between these narratives and the other modes he “shuttles” back and forth—inside-outside. Finally, the non-narrative modes are the “framework” which “enclose” and “lie a little outside” the narratives. And he ends with an idea of the reader being swept through the narrative sections, a reading experience which suggests even less time or attention granted to those other sections; if we are swept through the longer narratives, then what are we doing in the others—skimming, presumably?

Other critics (like Donald Pizer) have spent more time and effort marrying the non-narrative sections to the “life stories,” and I won’t attempt to summarize those (rather elaborate) arguments here. I’m interested in a rather more specific problem caused by the presence and interaction of the four modes, but before I get going, I better say that the following are intended as preliminary remarks to be applied only to 42nd Parallel; I think some of what I see happening in this novel may be altered if not overturned by the next two volumes. Still, I think there is a definite problem which crops up in 42nd Parallel, and I wish to give it some play now so that I can return to it later after having read 1919 and The Big Money and make some kind of assessment of the way the novel’s structure changes and develops.

I see the chief difficulty for the reader as not (or not only) one of relating all four of these modes to one another, but really to think of them as building toward the titular aspiration of the novel: a national consciousness, or at least a consciousness of the nation, in a more robust and more profound manner than the general novel does. But I don’t think this happens. The main difference between U.S.A. and most other (U.S.) novels is simply its larger canvas; its characters move through more parts of the nation than almost any novel I can think of (even road novels), and on top of that, still other places are mentioned in the Camera Eye, biographical, and Newsreel sections. In a future post, maybe one after I’ve read all three volumes, I want to talk about the geography of U.S.A.; Google Maps integrates with Google Books in a neat way which plots all the cities and towns mentioned in a given novel, and I hope to have some fun with that.1

Apart from geography, however, what do we have that really gives a sense of a national—as opposed to transnational, regional, local, or individual—consciousness? The Newsreel sections seem tailor-made to buttress a Benedict Anderson-type argument about the importance of newspapers and print culture for the creation and absorption of the idea of living within an imagined national community, but as I noted in the last post, the fragmentary and mangled nature of the news reports and popular songs which Dos Passos uses must destroy—even, I think for audiences of the 1930s more familiar with the named referents—the possibility of feeling involved in the often nonsensical amalgamations of references to contemporary figures and events. The feeling of synchrony or simultaneity so necessary for an imagined community to exist is simply lost with a chain of “news items” which seem to have no obvious temporal relationship to one another: “MOON’S PATENT IS FIZZLE   insurgents win at Kansas polls.   Oak Park soulmates part   Eight thousand to take auto ride   says girl begged for her husband” (Newsreel X). Even if all of that material were indeed taken from a single day’s newspapers, would the knowledge of that simultaneity be available to a reader even in 1930?2

The Camera Eye sections are even less capable of producing something like a consciousness of the nation; not only is it often even more difficult to extract any kind of hard data about the referents of these passages, but they function (intentionally, I believe) as a sort of safety valve for subjective expression in the novel, drawing away all of Dos Passos’s personal reflections and emotionally-charged memories from the other sections. So they’re not just frequently semantically inscrutable, but they are historically inaccessible in the sense that even if we have places and times to match them against, much of their material has little to do with the kinds of events or even images which might be considered historically common or general. This Camera Eye section (XXV, my favorite so far) is loaded with easily traceable referents and is entirely locatable in time and place as “depicting” Dos Passos’s undergraduate years at Harvard, yet it evades any real sense of history. “grow cold with culture like a cup of tea forgotten between an incenseburner and a volume of Oscar Wilde cold and not strong like a claret lemonade drunk at a Pop Concert in Symphony Hall / four years I didn’t know you could do what you Michelangelo wanted say / Marx / to all / the professors with a small Swift break all the Greenoughs in the shooting gallery / ... / and I hadn’t the nerve / to jump up and walk out of doors and tell them all to / go take a flying / Rimbaud / at the moon”

The biography sections might seem like our best bet for creating a robust consciousness of the nation, as most of them are about national figures who have, to greater or lesser extent, a certain mythic quality about them. But the biography sections evade that mythic quality in some interesting ways. There is a certain abstractness to the free verse form which limits sentimentality and plays up irony; clever line breaks and enjambments turn frequently on a smirk or a cocked eyebrow. But more importantly, they aren’t even written up as Representative or exemplary Men. What Dos Passos seems to value about his subjects—heroes and villains alike—is precisely whatever makes them so indissoluble in society that they end up standing out or rising above its surface, some freakish quality or strain in their character that makes ordinariness impossible and exemplarity an even more dubious proposition. They are not types any more than they are average. They are not, in any real sense of the word, representative; most—even Edison and Carnegie—are marginal, even quasi-grotesque.

Many critics, even in Dos Passos’s time, noted the surprisingly narrow band of society from which the characters of the narrative sections are taken. The racial and ethnic composition is particularly bland, but even more constricting, perhaps, is the lack of representation of very many types of work or ways of life. This might not be a constriction for another kind of writer, but Dos Passos believed that “people are formed by their trades and occupations much more than by their opinions. The fact that a man is a shoesaleman or a butcher is in every respect more important than that he’s a republican or a theosophist” (quoted on Denning 178). So the intense focus on vagabonds and public relations and the absence of (among other professions) factory line workers, farmers, bankers, lawyers, professors, doctors, clergy, government bureaucrats, or police or firemen makes (at least) The 42nd Parallel seem suddenly rather small.

More important still may be the following observation made by Michael Denning:

Perhaps the most striking and unsettling aspect of U.S.A. is the lack of any coherent connection between the characters: no family or set of families constitutes the world of the novel; no town, neighborhood, or city serves as a knowable community; no industry or business, no university or film colony unites public and private lives; and no plot, murder, or inheritance links the separate destinies… Dos Passos’s lists of characters are just that, not the genealogies that epic novelists ordinarily create. The characters in U.S.A. come together by accident, usually at cocktail parties (Denning 182).

This would be more accurate if we were to add “single” in front of each noun there: “no single family… no single town… no single industry… no single plot…” but that would just be making explicit what Denning is already implying. If one were to compare U.S.A. either to actual epics like Dante or Homer or Vergil, or to what Franco Moretti has called the “modern epic“ (a category including, for him, Faust, Ulysses, Moby-Dick, and Cien años de soledad, among others), or even to the capacious Victorian novels of somewhat similar ambition (Bleak House, Middlemarch), the lack of a single element which stands in the last instance as the novel’s unifying force is quite apparent.

The question is what effect this lack ultimately has on U.S.A. At this point, I am only one-third qualified to judge, but I haven’t been regretting the absence of unity, and one might make a favorable comparison from Dos Passos’s ability to avoid forcing cheapening unities on his materials when they aren’t necessary to the mawkish “world-is-flat” stories of the (hopefully defunct) vogue in “network narrative” films from the middle of this decade (Iñárritu’s films generally but particularly Babel; Syriana; Crash). In other words, I’m enjoying the loose ends and the hollow center feeling; Dos Passos writes very well on a page-by-page basis without making much attempt to be lyrical—as Adam said, it reads as a little potboilerish, but not, I think, in a particularly manipulative or callow way. I can understand why others find the trilogy rough going or even have strongly negative reactions to it, but I’m glad to be reading it and frankly, right now I’m holding myself back from racing through 1919.

1The 42nd Parallel map is here. Also notable is obviously the title,  decoded in a prefatory note in the first edition of The 42nd Parallel when it was published as a stand-alone novel in 1930; the title comes from “an 1865 book, American Climatology, which suggested that North American storms followed the 42nd Parallel. The novel seemed to follow its characters as if they were so many storms crossing the continent” (Michael Denning, The Cultural Front, 190).
2 As Denning has it, the Newsreel sections are “undated and unauthored, they remain less a firm grounding in the spirit of the time or even an evocation of historical color than a repetitive and finally ahistorical serial, establishing the always already contemporary, an emblem of industrial society’s ‘idiot lack of memory’” (Cultural Front, 171).


It’s been decades since I read those books, but Dos Passos seemed deliberately to be writing a social novel on a grander scale than e.g. Balzac’s. By fragmenting his story that way he tried to tell stories taking into account the distant, unperceived causes of the here-and-now events in the lives of individuals and local groups. Most obviously, what’s immediately perceived as a swarm of personal disasters and failures can be put into the context of enormous abstract political and economic forces.

It’s possibly to do this within conventional storytelling by a long stretch, for example by telling the story of an individual banker and his relations to much bigger bankers together with his contacts with the individuals he was foreclosing. This is really pretty artificial, though, since the individual banker isn’t really the story, and since even at the very lowest level bankers and their ill-fated debtors seldom have more than the skimpiest shared world.

So Dos Passos violated the storytelling conventions of fiction by juxtaposing stories which were related only at an abstract analytical, impersonal, not-individually-experienced level: basically, The Depression.

By on 07/04/10 at 08:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is really cool that other people are also reading and discussing this book right now.

To me, one of the greatest pleasures of reading “U.S.A.” is the prolonged tension of simply gauging to what extent Dos Passos is capable of pulling off this “epic” book, this “Great American Novel,” this “speech of the people,” whatever you want to call it. I think the Newsreels are probably the most concise, concerted effort at evoking an enormously far-reaching narrative of early 20th-century American cultural life. I really like what you said about the Newsreel sections - in one respect it seems to reflect upon a society united by its media culture, forging a “national consciousness”, in a historical period of quickly expanding information and communication technologies. But the Newsreels also point to the failures of this apparent community - perhaps cynically - proving to us how confused and alienated and A.D.D. we all really are becoming through this highly manufactured and mediated sense of “community”. Or maybe a reflexive comment on the basic futility of cultural representation of such immense scope (i.e. “U.S.A.” itself)? To me these sections feel similar to some of the aims of something like “The Waste Land” or perhaps High Modernism in general (at least in my reading) - a barrage of artistic references and the like meant to essentially alienate/assault the reader, creating the larger meaning of our collective estrangement with past (and “obsolete") truths. Any way you slice it, I think the Newsreels are interesting, although perhaps we don’t need dozens of them to get these basic points across.

Also, I too was struck by the apparent “blandness” of the central characters, namely their every single one being WASPs. The book does make a big point of depicting the country’s ethnic diversity - undoubtedly one of America’s greatest and most singular characteristics - but my uncontrollably modern P.C. sensibilities are left unsatisfied by the imbalance in narrative perspective throughout every single one of the “conventional” narrative sections thus far. However this ethnic/socioeconomic imbalance does powerfully remind me of the inequalities of the time (and the present), and that WASPs really did (and do) have the most cultural power; I suppose there’s no beating around the bush about it, and perhaps the book would be too utopian or annoyingly idealistic if there were equal representation. So, for now, whatever. In the same vein, I agree that the apparent “lack” of narrative center does not make or break the book. In fact it ties in quite nicely with the interpretation that the book seeks to express a simultaneously connected and divided nation. The “lack” is more interesting and unconventional, and less likely (I hope) to lead to moralizing, or a heavy-handed “message” that beats you on the head.

By on 07/06/10 at 02:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I on’t have the books here but I doubt that all the major characters were WASPs. Usually when that term is used it includes all white Protestants anyway, including those of Scottish, Welsh, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian descent. If there were no Jews or Catholics I’m amazed.

I get tired of the PC stuff anyway. I multiplied it out, and about 50% of Americans are white Christian heterosexuals (70% x 80% x 90%). If you use the “or” function, 95%+ of the population is one of the three.

Multiculturalism has become a convention of fiction.

By on 07/06/10 at 10:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I like your point in the last paragraph; Denning’s reading of the novel is that it represents a sort of definitive version of the myth of Fall of the Lincoln Republic, a historical narrative that pre-dated but was, according to many, confirmed by the Depression. I’ll have more to say about this later, I hope.

I agree (and am enjoying) that tension as well--Dos Passos’s formal audacity is, I think, pleasurable in a way that Stein or Pound or Mallarmé is not.
As for the representativeness of the book’s characters, I find the way that minorities (particularly Asian-Americans) are represented much more unpleasant than the relative lack of attention, but I definitely get what you’re saying.

Yes, there are Jews and Catholics--Mac is obviously Irish Catholic and Ben Compton (whom we meet in 42nd Parallel but who will figure more importantly later) is Jewish, although he is attempting to deracinate. But the point is less about proportional representation than it is about the author’s breadth of imagination. The fact that there are minorities crucial to the story of the U.S.--in whatever demographic proportion they may exist--is one to which Dos Passos gives short shrift.

By Andrew Seal on 07/06/10 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

well, I guess if you want a one-size-fits-all refutation, multiculturalism is the first one you should grab. But at least could you just say “white” instead of “WASP” from here on out? These words actually have specific meanings.

By on 07/06/10 at 10:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure if you’re addressing me or Dan here, but I generally do try to keep the terms distinct. But I’m not trying to use multiculturalism to refute Dos Passos--I’m not even trying to refute him, exactly. I do think that his book would have benefited from a broader canvas, but it’s neither my intention nor my desire to argue that specific proportions would make it so.

By Andrew Seal on 07/06/10 at 10:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(intentionally, I believe) as a sort of safety valve for subjective expression in the novel

Dos Passos said this himself in an interview: Paris Review, Spring 1969. “In the biographies, in the newsreels, and even the narrative, I aimed at total objectivity by giving conflicting views--using the camera eye as a safety valve for my own subjective feelings.”

The racial and ethnic composition is particularly bland

True, but it’s not like Dos Passos is inattentive to racial politics. In the “Charley Anderson” section of 42nd P, Birth of a Nation comes out and suddenly everyone is talking about how much they hate black people.

By on 07/12/10 at 02:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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