Monday, September 13, 2010
U.S.A., by John Dos Passos
What is to be done with U.S.A.? Like a few other novels, John Dos Passos’s trilogy is one whose stature substantially exceeds the general reader’s familiarity with it, and so one of the inevitable questions that arises when bringing it up is “what kind of novel is it?” a question which is code for “what relationship might it continue to have to readers today?” a question which is itself code for, “why should I read it?”
U.S.A. is a tricky novel to place, and therefore it’s surprisingly difficult to make a case for why “you,” the general reader, should knock about through its 1300 pages. For reasons I will get into in a moment, it’s not exactly a historical novel, or at least it will not satisfy someone looking for a historical novel. It also fails to satisfy as a modernist novel, regardless of whether your flavor of modernism comes in Hemingway or Joyce. It is experimental, but its experiments push against language and narrative in ways that will probably seem too regular, too machined, and not “difficult” enough to someone of the latter persuasion. To a reader of the former, the Lost Generation mythos is here as well, but the glamour of war-time Paris and Italy or the Jazz Age is much shabbier, less heroic. Drinking here is occasionally if not often boring (one might compare the liquors consumed in Hemingway relative to Dos Passos; I imagine those in Dos Passos are typically cheaper, less savored, and less specific), and violence and sex aren’t Capital-T Themes so much as things characters do or don’t do.
It also won’t really do as a “relevant” novel, a novel which “speaks to our time.” It would take a great deal of effort to discover more than a partial reflection of 2010 in its characters, its plot, or especially its concerns. And yet, unlike, say, Mad Men, it would also be difficult to glean contrasts—favorable or unfavorable—which allow us to congratulate or castigate ourselves on our progress or backsliding. The stories of emergent industries or professions (automobiles, airplanes, public relations) look so little like the internet start-ups of today, and the enormity of class conflict and working-class consciousness which makes up so much of the trilogy is basically unrecognizable in the present.
Race and gender roles are more crudely created and enforced by the characters than we are used to seeing today, but there is also a casualness and simplicity to them that undercuts any feeling of knowing better; in a very disturbing way, Dos Passos does not make race and gender into problems for the reader, giving her no real opportunity to feel more enlightened than the characters in the way one is directed to take very conscious note of Don or Betty Draper’s prejudices and insensitivities, or in the way one can’t avoid squirming at a particularly caricatured portrayal of a black servant in a 1930s film. There is certainly a shock, as there always is, at running into an epithet or a mark of prejudice in the trilogy, but that shock does not reverberate into the book in any way we are by now accustomed to, and that lack of reverberation impedes the formation of any sense of where one stands in relation to the book or to the characters.
In a very similar manner, Dos Passos’s whole attitude toward history—or even to the United States—interrupts the formation of any stable relationship to the reader’s own views of the U.S. or U.S. history. U.S.A. as a whole is neither comfortably historical or comfortably “contemporary;” somehow Dos Passos blocks both the feeling that his novel is safely in the past and the feeling that it can serve as an analogy for the present. This is perhaps not too surprising, though. Even among his peers, Dos Passos’s feelings about America were, shall we say, idiosyncratic and arguably unstable; after years of being a both vocal and visible activist in Leftist politics, Dos Passos took a hard swing to the right during the Cold War; hardly unique in his time, but, for a variety of reasons, his apostasy was much more puzzling and less explicable. Yet that idiosyncrasy is not the reason for this neither-past-nor-present feeling of the novel, or not quite.
A quite substantial part of the problem—or, if it’s not a problem, and I don’t think it is, it is at least a situation that appears to the reader as an obstacle to understanding—is that the U.S.A. trilogy takes part in what might validly be called a myth (or a grand narrative) which has very little purchase on the minds of Americans (or readers of American fiction) today. Michael Denning, in his book The Cultural Front, calls this myth “the decline and fall of the Lincoln Republic.” (And I should probably say now that by myth, I mean to emphasize less the validity or truth-content of the narrative but rather its role in people’s lives, as a story that organizes experience and history into a knowable and comprehensible shape). In a subsequent post I’ll examine that myth and where it has ended up in the present, and why it is difficult to access today.
In the meantime, if you’ve been reading along, or have read the U.S.A. trilogy in the past—or other Dos Passos novels—please consider this an open thread; talk about your experiences with Dos Passos and how you think it fits into the larger literary landscape.
No one wants to say anything? Well, I’ll go ahead and recommend Seth Moglen’s book Mourning Modernity: Literary Modernism and the Injuries of American Capitalism. Moglen posits that American modernism can broadly be considered as a response to...well, it’s right there in the title. He argues that there is a division within modernism; that some of it engages (in the Freudian sense) in “melancholia,” and some that manages to get through to “mourning.” The entire second half is devoted to USA, as a work that encompasses both these impulses. It feels a bit incomplete in some ways, but overall it’s very smart. In particular, there’s a section analyzing Dos Passos’ biography of Eugene Debs that’s just breathtakingly brilliant.
I happened upon your website by searching for posts about Dos Passos. So glad I found this! I loved U.S.A. (just finished it two weeks ago). Dos Passos has been a revelation to me - someone who has been banished from the canon but justly deserves a resurrection. He clearly had an influence on an entire generation of writers - I was immediately struck by parallels between his writing and the major Beat Generation authors - Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac. Obviously he also greatly influenced Doctorow and others. U.S.A. is so unique, I still cannot believe that it’s still “out of fashion”