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.


Shelley said...

Since I write American lit, I like, if nothing else, just the ambition of Dos Passos with this work: what he was trying to do.

Hard to capture a country this big.

David Stormer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Stormer said...

I agree that U.S.A. is an odd work, difficult to pigeonhole, and with a certain datedness about it. A modernist work? Dos Passos certainly experimented with style, even if less ambitiously than Joyce or Hemingway. U.S.A. feels like Tolstoy in its grand scope and in how the narrative is sustained so tirelessly. There is a very clever, intuitive balance between detail and broad sketchwork, and the everyday lives of the characters are invested with the kind of tension that keeps you reading, without recourse to dramatic plot devices. I am in awe of Dos Passos's incredibly fertile imagination where every observation rings true and his uncontrived poesy.

Stephan White said...

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.

Public Relations

Wolfgang Scarlatti said...

After a while I stopped reading the Newsreel and the Camera Eye--too much trouble to decipher.
I've never seen such rampant drinking, and it would be safe to say that many of the main characters were full blown or borderline alcoholics.
It highlighted the shabbiness of the American Dream,and everybody's life revolved in having enough "jack", which wouldn't be so bad if there was more to their dreams than that.
The racism was incredibly blatant. At first I assumed this was the character's talking, but it was relentless--every other page with nigger, wop, dago, greaser--and hard to ignore.He didn't just name call, but went out of his way to show why their behavior and lifestyle were inferior or intolerable.
And yet, there was a constant buzzing energy in the work, a free form, Kerouacian exuberance, though without any of that author's rhapsodic Zen like musings.
Some of the characters appealed to me, like Charly Anderson, Margo Dowling, and Mary French for their straightforward and earnest personalities. and there are marvelous vignettes in flop houses, seedy bars,and working ships that really paint an accurate picture of the times, ie, things were wide open, but very tough.