Monday, September 6, 2010

Party in the U.S.A.: The Big Money, by John Dos Passos

There will be a post looking at the trilogy as a whole and trying to place it in the landscape of American literary history as that history looks to someone at the present moment, but for now, I'll simply complete the inventorying project of describing the contents of this last volume of the U.S.A. trilogy.

Some of the most famous "Camera Eye" sections of the trilogy are to be found in The Big Money, in particular Camera Eye 50, which some of the more biographically-oriented critics consider the climax of the trilogy, as it depicts Dos Passos's own efforts trying to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti—supposedly the experiential germ or origin of the project:
   they have clubbed us off the streets   they are stronger   they are rich   they hire and fire the politicians the newspapereditors the old judges the small men with reputations the collegepresidents the wardheelers (listen businessmen collegepresidents judges   America will not forget her betrayers)   they hire the men with guns   the uniforms the policecars the patrolwagons
   all right you have won   you will kill the brave men   our friends tonight…
   America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul
   their hired men sit on the judge's bench they sit back with their feet on the tables under the dome of the State House they are ignorant of our beliefs they have the dollars the guns the armed forces the powerplants
   they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch
   all right we are two nations
   America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have bought the laws and fenced off the meadows and cut down the woods for pulp and turned our pleasant cities into slums and sweated the wealth out of our people and when they want to they hire the executioner to throw the switch
   but do they know that the old world of the immigrants are being renewed in blood and agony tonight do they know that the old American speech of the haters of oppression is new tonight in the mouth of an old woman from Pittsburgh of a husky boilermaker from Frisco who hopped freights clear from the Coast to come here in the mouth of a Back Bay socialworker in the mouth of an Italian printer of a hobo from Arkansas    the language of the beaten nation is not forgotten in our ears tonight
   the men in the deathhouse made the old words new before they died…
Camera Eye 49 is also among the more famous passages in the novel, dealing with basically the same themes, material, and even diction:
   rebuild the ruined words worn slimy in the mouths of lawyers   district-attorneys   collegepresidents   Judges without the old words the immigrants haters of oppression brought to Plymouth how can you know who are your betrayers America
    or that this fishpeddler you have in Charlestown Jail is one of your founders Massachusetts?
Not only do these passages sit quite comfortably as a sort of midpoint between Langston Hughes ("Let America Be America Again") and Allen Ginsberg ("America"), but they also recall (or rather look forward to) the collective invocation Dos Passos would give to the trilogy when it was released as a one-volume edition in 1938: "But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people."

The Big Money features nine biographies: Frederick Winslow Taylor, Henry Ford, Thorstein Veblen, Isadora Duncan (the only biography of a woman in the entire trilogy), Rudolph Valentino, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Randolph Hearst, and Samuel Insull. Although Veblen was acerbically critical of the way Americans used their wealth, none of these figures can be reasonably called a radical (or working-class) hero; in the previous two volumes, there had been some balance between the portraits of industrialists and those of the advocates for the working class, but Dos Passos denies that a balance exists any longer. The closest we come is Rudolph Valentino, a representative of mass culture, not mass democracy.

The narrative sections follow around just four different characters, and one of them, Richard Ellsworth Savage, has only one section and that only at the very end of the book. So for the whole first 86% of The Big Money, the action is dominated by three protagonists: Charley Anderson (seven sections; he was also one of the protagonists of The 42nd Parallel); Mary French (four sections); and Margo Dowling (five sections). Of course, as with the other two books, many if not most of the previously introduced protagonists run around inside this volume's narratives: Ben Compton is in a relationship with Mary French for a good portion of her narrative; Charley Anderson has an affair with Eveline Hutchins and runs in her circle, encountering Richard Ellsworth Savagee; Savage's own section also features J. Ward Moorehouse, Janey Williams and Eleanor Stoddard, who is marrying a Russian prince. Margo and Charley also have an affair.

Charley Anderson returns from his war-time experiences as a hero; after some time in the ambulance corps, he becomes a pilot and, evidently, an ace. Once back in America, he goes to his brother Jim's in St. Paul; Jim attempts to trade on his war record to get publicity and sales for his Ford dealership, which he appears to be mismanaging. After Charley's mother dies, Jim coerces him into signing a power-of-attorney deed to manage his share of the estate; Jim intends to use the whole estate to pull his dealership back into profitability. Charley, angry, takes a small lump sum and leaves for New York, where he is supposed to start a business for airplane parts with a wartime buddy. The business takes off in large part due to Charley's engineering acumen, but Charley's interests get diverted by playing the stock market and chasing Doris, a frivolous society girl who eventually does sleep with him but arbitrarily marries an Anglo-American who has "people in the Doomsday Book… [and who] have copper interests. They are almost like the Guggenheims except of course they are not Jewish." Unfortunately, Charley ends up with Gladys, who is in her own way probably worse for Charley than Doris would have been (although it must be said that Charley is himself a rotten husband). Already by this time, Charley's drinking has seriously affected his work, but he is spied by a Detroit airplane manufacturer who, impressed with the engine starter he was instrumental in designing, convinces him to leave the small company he helped to found. Now in "the big money," he lives much closer to the edge, drunk most of the time and completely irresponsible, and always putting as much of his money as he fails to spend on liquor and luxury items into the stock market. An airplane crash allows his wife and his rivals in business to make their move, not ruining him but making him completely reliant on playing the market; his job as a vice president at the airplane company is effectively over. Charley does not respond well, drinking even more, spending more, and generally being reckless Margo is a part of this prolonged spree; we get much of the narrative of his decline from Margo's point of view, as he travels around Florida and New York as her lover and patron (Margo is pursuing a performing career of a sort). In his last section he falls completely apart, leaving a dance he's attending with Margo in anger when she becomes jealous of the attention he's paying to another girl; he takes the other girl with him and drunkenly plays chicken with a train. He loses, the girl dies, he ends up in the hospital, eventually dying of peritonitis (like Rudolph Valentino), but not before his brother Jim is able to swoop in to try to convince him to make him his executor and not before Margo is able to get one last check out of him. The check bounces.

Mary French is a doctor's daughter from Colorado; her father is a self-sacrificing soul who eventually dies in the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. Her mother is less selfless; she disapproves of Mary's public-spiritedness and of Mary's best friend, Ada Cohn. Mary goes off to Vassar for college and Ada follows a year later; eventually both go to Hull-House in Chicago to work for the summer there. After her father dies, she decides not to finish her college education and instead to work full-time at Hull-House. After a few years there she simply leaves, getting a job as a counter-girl in Cleveland. She moves on to Pittsburgh where she gets a job as a reporter; she winds up with an assignment covering a strike. Her editor wants her to find out that there are Russian agitators behind it, but she instead falls in with the organizers and becomes a devoted worker for the union. G. H. Barrow, who has shown up in all three books, comes to town and offers her a job, largely because of ulterior motives, although Mary is a diligent and very competent secretary and researcher. Barrow impregnates her and she runs off to New York to have an abortion, aided by her old friend Ada, who is now an accomplished violinist. She gets involved in radical politics there, and, while sheltering Ben Compton, who has been released from jail and is in a post-traumatic state, falls in love with him. They eventually quarrel, and she leaves New York to work for the Sacco & Vanzetti case in Boston, where she meets Don Stevens, who also appeared in 1919. Mary then goes back to New York and gets involved with a coal strike going on near Pittsburgh; she also gets involved with Don Stevens, although he leaves her for Russia and ends up marrying another girl. Downcast, Mary attends a party with Ada that is being hosted by Eveline. Remarking, "You know, it does seem too silly to spend your life filling up rooms with illassorted people who really hate each other, Eveline wishes Ada and Mary goodnight. Mary finds out the next day that Eveline killed herself later that night. Mary returns to her work.

Margo Dowling is born in New York; her father runs out on her and the woman, Agnes, who is raising her. Agnes gets involved with a vaudeville performer, Frank Mandeville. Mandeville eventually brings Margo into his act as a child actress; when she is perhaps 14, he rapes her. She runs off at 16 with a Cuban young man named Tony; they go to Havana, she hates it, and she gets a young boy at the consulate to smuggle her out of the country. She returns to New York and dances as a chorus girl. A wealthy young man named Tad begins to take her out, and eventually takes her down to Florida to go boating. The trip goes to smash when they run into Tony; Tad leaves. After spending a few days with Tony, he steals what is left of her money and vanishes. She goes to a lunchcounter despairing of what she'll do; it is there she meets Charley. Charley takes her back to New York and sets her up nicely. She becomes a model at a French dress shop; the owner arranges for her to have her picture taken by a photographer named Margolies. Margolies asks her to come to his studio and she poses for some other kind of pictures, which Charley pays for. The French dressmaker kills himself (he's going bankrupt) and Margo decides to head back to Miami to sing in a club there. Charley follows her down there as his decline steepens; he dies and she has to figure out how she's going to make some money (her gig never did very well). Tony shows up again, and Agnes has come down from New York for Charley's funeral; the three of them take off for California. While there, Margo bumps into Margolies, who has quickly become a big-time movie producer; remembering Margo, he casts her as his next big star. Tony is killed by a man he may be sleeping with, an Austrian polo-player named Max. Not that it's exactly been a big obstacle for her seeing other men, but with her marriage now over, Margo marries Margolies, although he in effect pimps her out to her co-star, Rodney Cathcart. Her career is about to take off when her narrative cuts out.

Richard Ellsworth Savage has been employed by J. Ward Moorehouse for a few years now and has risen to Moorehouse's second-in-command. We see the public relations business in full swing (it's a little reminiscent of Mad Men, as it's transitioning to advertising) as Savage tries to win over Bingham, a bizarre millionaire who sells patent medicines. Moorehouse gets very ill, meanwhile, and Savage becomes the de facto president of the pr firm and the responsibility of "the molding of the public mind," a phrase which certainly seems like it has a double meaning. Savage gets really drunk and ends up dancing with a young man in Harlem; the young man follows him back to his room and robs Savage while he sleeps. Savage goes into work the next day worried about blackmail, but it appears everything will work out.

There is a final section which is ambiguous in its relationship to the four modes of the trilogy: titled "Vag" (short for vagrant), it is not exactly a narrative section but seems more allegorical. It might be considered, in fact, one of the biographies; in the Table of Contents it is typeset in the same fashion as the other headings for biographies (italicized, all-caps, indented). It is a peculiar close to the trilogy.


The Robinson said...

Thanks for writing this. It really helped me to piece together the narrative, which I had to do a whirlwind tour through for class today...

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