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The New International, March 1938


Bernard Wolfe

Dos Passos’ America

From New International, Vol.4 No.3, March 1938, pp.90-91.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


USA (The 42nd Parallel. Nineteen Nineteen. The Big Money.)
by John Dos Passos.
1,452 pp. New York. Harcourt, Brace and Co. $3.00.

The young man walks by himself, fast but not fast enough, far but not far enough (faces slide out of sight, talk trails into tattered scraps, footsteps tap faster in alleys); he must catch the last subway, the streetcar, the bus, run up the gangplanks of all the steamboats, register at all the hotels, work in the cities, answer the want ads, learn the trades, take up the jobs, live in all the boardinghouses, sleep in all the beds. One bed is not enough, one job is not enough, one life is not enough ...

The young man in Dos Passos’ introduction to his trilogy is anonymous; he is the symbol, perhaps, of American youth, bedraggled, dirty and filled with great hunger and discontent, impatient to see and feel and smell every part of the vast land in which he lives. But he is Dos Passos too. For the author of this magnificent volume has, to an extent unique in American letters, managed to set down on paper the parlance and thoughts and hopes and frustrations of the nameless little people who pack the subways, fill the park benches and sleep in the flophouses. It is Dos Passos himself who has roved through the country, jotting down in enduring prose the speech and the idiosyncrasies of the people, etching their personal tragedies against the frenzied social background of the USA. Dos Passes’ desire to cut through the surface and get at the heart of America – to dissect the USA, which is his real hero and his real love, ruthlessly, relentlessly, without sentiment or bias – has at times seemed to be an obsession. Now that his major surgical operation has been summed up in one volume, it becomes clear how devastating the dissection has been.

“But mostly,” Dos Passos says, “USA is the speech of the people.” The speech is a large and fascinating part of it, to be sure, and Dos Passos has captured its lilt and swing with consummate skill. He has managed to pack more than just color into his record of the racy, pungent jargon of the post-war period; in his novels the very language of the characters, like their thoughts, their gestures and their actions, become symbols of the frothy stream of emotions which courses beneath them, vocalized summaries of a whole group-inspired mode of thought and action. As in the narrative itself, die flashbacks through the roaming “Newsreel” pick up trick phrases, snatches of songs and clippings from the papers which convey a stark sense of the times, recapture the dynamisms and confusions of early twentieth-century America.

Seen in their full continuity, Dos Passes’ literary devices and innovations take on new force, with the possible exception of the “Camera Eye”, whose deeply personal content clogs the avenues of communication. The whole narrative style, replete with informal punctuation and fluid word-combination, appears clearly as admirably suited to the materials involved, rather than as an impediment to understanding. Dos Passos stands on his own two feet as a literary path-breaker; far from being a slavish imitator of Joyce, he has taken the best of the Joycean technique and shaped it to his own needs. The result is a rich and hard-hitting prose which has appreciably affected American literature.

But much more than the language of the USA has gone into Dos Passes’ major work. There have been many efforts to sandwich a chunk of the American scene between the covers of a book, to slice the life of the USA into palatable literary sections. The results have, for the most part, been singularly unsuccessful, particularly among the ardent littérateurs of the left, whose undigested fragments of the social scene, piled in pell-mell and without purpose or selection (because without understanding), were heavily overlaid by special pleading. With Dos Passos the effect is all the more telling because the moral, if you insist upon one, is implicit, unpointed, inherent in the very subject-matter of the book rather than artificially interjected by party propagandists. The USA is really got at here; not the spurious figment of popular-fronting imaginations, intent on making a case for a preconceived party conviction, but the genuine article which you get in the fields, factories, mines and big-business circles. What you want to do with it is your own concern. But if you read Dos Passos carefully, the narrowing possibilities of what can be done, short of socialism, stare you in the face. It is Dos Passes’ permanent merit as an artist that he has proved the case for socialism to the hilt without once stating it pontifically, as the omniscient overseer and party line-fixer.

Dos Passos digs into the America he knows through a host of now-familiar characters picked from various social strata – Charley Anderson, Eleanor Stoddard, J. Ward Morehouse, Margo Dowling, and all the others, interlacing their destinies, making their ambitions and frustrations part of the social fabric. He has been accused by the comrades of the New Masses and International Literature, in past literary seasons, of taking the atomic view, of being unable to grasp his characters in relation to one another and to the social life which swirls around them. But a literate reading of the trilogy shows how uniquely successful Dos Passos has been in getting the larger social canvas in; the characters take on life, go through their motions, live and breathe against that stark background. It is just this panoramic quality which is the book’s lasting merit. The rises and declines of the power-driven restless people who roam through the trilogy, their lives paralleled by the memorably etched careers of Ford, Debs, Wilson, Jack Reed, Hearst, and other significant Americans, are, in Dos Passos’ hands, among the most brutal and crushing commentaries ever penned on contemporary USA. Joyce and Tolstoy have been evoked in over-easy comparisons; but it is to men of such stature that one must look to find the equivalent of what Dos Passos has done for his own native land.

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