Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand

One word crops up unexpectedly often in The Metaphysical Club: "invidious." Well, it only turns up seven times (and two of those are actually "invidiousness"), but I sincerely doubt I (or you) have read many books, even of greater length, which use the word or its inflections more frequently.*

This frequency should not, after some reflection, be all that surprising; one of the consistent themes of much writing about pragmatism—particularly the version we receive from Richard Rorty—is its impatience if not antipathy toward dualisms which smuggle preferences in under the cover of either nature or truth, a trick which makes for a pretty good definition of the word "invidious." What Menand says of Dewey here goes for the most part for his readings of James, Peirce, and Holmes, as well as for the secondary characters like Chauncey Wright, James Marsh, Horace Kallen, Franz Boas, Jane Addams, Alain Locke, and (a little distortedly) Randolph Bourne:
The "Reflex Arc" paper is the essential expression of Dewey's particular mode of intelligence. It is the strategy he followed in approaching every problem: expose a tacit hierarchy in the terms in which people conventionally think about it. We think that a response follows a stimulus; Dewey taught that there is a stimulus only because there is already a response. We think that first there are individuals and then there is society; Dewey taught that there is no such thing as an individual without society. We think we know in order to do; Dewey taught that doing is why there is knowing.

Dewey was not reversing the priority of the terms he identified in these analyses. Invidiousness was precisely what he wished always to avoid. In condemning (as he did) the elevation of thinking over doing as a reflection of class bias (Veblen would have said that philosophical speculation is a form of conspicuous consumption: it shows we can afford not to work with our hands), Dewey was not proposing to elevate doing over thinking instead. He was only applying the idea Addams was trying to explain to him when she said that antagonism is unreal: he was showing that 'doing' and 'thinking,' like 'stimulus' and 'response,' are just practical distinctions we make when tensions arise in the process of adjustment between the organism and its world. Later in his career, Dewey would criticize, in the same manner, the distinctions between mind and reality, means and ends, nature and culture. As Henry Steele Commager testified, a generation (or part of a generation, anyway) seems to have found Dewey's manner of calmly and often rather colorlessly chewing through received ideas irresistible and indispensable.
What is striking about Menand's writing in The Metaphysical Club (but which uncharacteristically does not come across in this passage) is the linearity and curtness of the vast majority of Menand's sentences**; where there are semicolons or colons, they serve mainly to hold a thought just long enough for it to be completed or reinforced. Rarely are they used to extend a point onto adjacent ground or to make even the slightest of tangents. Parallelism or antithesis is also, as far as I can remember, if not infrequent, at least quite understated; strong oppositions are not Menand's choice for pursuing his narrative. (Even the treatment on Agassiz, who is the closest thing we may have here to a villain, is directed more to showing how William James's reaction to the fights between Agassiz and the Darwinians was crucial in pointing him toward his notion of pluralism {143}.) Strong oppositions are inevitably always too close to "invidious distinctions."

The other really notable stylistic trait of the book is its huge number of parenthetical comments, each one basically like the parentheses about Veblen above: effectively self-contained, of small pertinence to the sentence off of which it is hanging, usually either recapitulating a point made earlier or tossing in a value-added factoid. Effectively, they're non-citational footnotes—not meant to direct the reader to a particular source for further research or to acknowledge the origin of the information or quote, just meant to use up all the scraps of information Menand gathered. One of my favorites is this: "(James's assignment seems to have been to investigate the effects of a particular brand of baking powder on the kidneys—in other words, self-urinalysis. After three weeks, he asked [Charles William] Eliot to assign the experiment to someone else. It was the beginning of a lifelong aversion to laboratory work.)"

The impulse behind this habit probably is a combination of wanting to entertain and also not to waste any research; certainly not bad impulses, and these little nuggets rarely seriously distract, but these ephemera also do the job of making the principal characters of the book a good deal weirder, but in a rather superficial manner. The "lifelong aversion to laboratory work" is kind of funny when one thinks of it as the result of James taking the piss out of himself, but it also truncates a better (and necessary) discussion of James's relation to the scientific method or to fieldwork. Menand does broach these subjects (particularly in the chapter titled "Brazil") but all too often he abbreviates or curtails such topics with these pat parentheticals. Perhaps this is in fact a method or a principle: maybe Menand means to say that our more immediate reactions like this one are the better places to look for our habits, inclinations, and dispositions, and that the trail of our more thoughtfully considered rationales and philosophies are basically just a forest of garnishes blocking our view of this slenderer meat, to mix metaphors rather carelessly. I actually wouldn't go quite so far as to say that—Menand does a very creditable (but not overwhelming) amount of source work—but there is a sense in which these parenthetical asides assume a surprisingly foundational role in building the narrative.

* [Later edit:] This was before I read Thorstein Veblen. Theory of the Leisure Class uses the word "invidious" 75 times!

** My friend Craig Fehrman pointed out to me before I read The Metaphysical Club how uncannily short Menand is able to keep so many of his sentences. As Craig noted, this curtness is in excess of even the relative directness of his New Yorker essays or his other work. It's my feeling that it is precisely the effort to avoid "invidious distinctions" that Menand is aiming at with these very linear sentences.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why Muckraking Was Successful

Reading Richard Hofstadter's classic (though by absolutely no means unimpeachable) history of the Progressive Era, The Age of Reform, I came across this very provocative quote from an article by Robert Cantwell in a collection of essays about American culture. Here's the quote:
The political side of the muckrakers' contribution was unquestionably great, but it has been overvalued, and the simple journalistic boldness and effectiveness of their writing has been overlooked. After thirty years the simple bulk of their work is astonishing; in five years' time a handful of gifted writers conducted a searching exploration of American society—industrial, financial, political, moral. Moreover, they did this with a wealth of local color, with wonderful savory names and places that had never been elevated into prose before. It was not because muckrakers exposed the corruption of Minneapolis, for example, that they were widely read, but because they wrote about Minneapolis at a time when it had not been written about, without patronizing or boosting it, and with an attempt to explore its life realistically and intelligently.

They wrote, in short, an intimate, anecdotal, behind-the-scenes history of their own times—or, rather, they tried to write it, for they often fell down. They traced the intricate relationship of the police, the underworld, the local political bosses, the secret connections between the new corporations (then consolidating at an unprecedented rate) and the legislatures and the courts. In doing this they drew a new cast of characters for the drama of American society: bosses, professional politicians, reformers, racketeers, captains of industry. Everybody recognized these native types; everybody knew about them; but they had not been characterized before; their social functions had not been analyzed. At the same time, the muckrakers pictured stage settings that everybody recognized but that nobody had written about—oil refineries, slums, the red-light districts, the hotel rooms where political deals were made—the familiar, unadorned, homely stages where the teeming day-to-day dramas of American life were enacted. How could the aloof literary magazines of the East, with their essays and their contributions from distinguished novelists, tap this rich material?

For literary, and not for political reasons, the muckrakers were successful. Their writing was jagged and hasty, and their moralizing now sounds not only dull but a little phony, yet they charged into situations that were deliberately obscured by the people involved in them; they sized up hundreds of complicated and intense struggles at their moment of greatest intensity; they dealt with material subject to great pressure and about which journalists could easily be misled. In a time of oppressive literary gentility they covered the histories of the great fortunes and the histories of corporations—something that had not been done before and that has scarcely been done well since—the real estate holdings of churches, the ownership of houses of prostitution, insurance scandals, railway scandals, the political set-ups of Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francsisco, New York. The new huge cities of the West had not been explored after their growth through the 70's and 80's (just as, say, Tulsa, Oklahoma, has not been written about after its astonishing growth through the 1920's) and because they wrote of them, the writing of the muckrakers was packed with local color, the names and appearances of hotels and bars, crusading ministers and town bosses and bankers. They told people who owned the factories they worked in, who rigged the votes they cast, who profited from the new bond issue, the new street-railway franchise and the new city hall, who foreclosed the mortgage, tightened credit, and controlled the Irish vote on the other side of the river. Their exposures, as such, were not so sensational. People knew all the scandals, and worse ones. But they liked to read about towns they knew, characters they recognized, and a setting they understood. The old magazines had never given them that.
To some extent, I think this interest or impulse that Cantwell is describing never really has gone away. An argument can be made that HBO is a sort of modern-day McClure's, with its (fictional) shows each carving a subculture off the American body politic and presenting it in the round with all its familiar character types and settings which, in many cases, also have not had the benefit of such devoted depiction, at least not "with an attempt to explore its life realistically and intelligently." The Italian mob, the Baltimore drug trade, Utah polygamists, the vampire underground, Larry David's life (okay, that one's a stretch), a South Dakotan frontier town, New Orleans music (?—haven't seen Treme yet, sorry), etc. The new Boardwalk Empire even looks like it's supposed to be a sort of attempt at historical muckraking—its source material was subtitled, "The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City."

Even if the muck's not always there in these shows (though it almost always is), something's generally being raked out into the open, and mostly with a more systematic mentality than the more "private life of…" approach than, say, Showtime takes to its programming. (In this sense, Mad Men certainly does demonstrate its HBO roots—it's a lot more panoramic, or panoptic. If it were on Showtime, I imagine it being called Draper.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Nicholas Dames on Attention and the Future of the Book

Rather than picking a single paragraph (or even a few) from Dames's excellent (and very terse) essay in n+1, I'll just offer the link. It should be read in its entirety. I would phrase a few things differently in terms of tone, perhaps, but his points about how we measure this "decline" we're supposedly in are absolutely what I would have liked to have said when I was talking about Gary Shteyngart and distraction a few weeks ago.

Oh well, I'll grab a specific chunk for highlighting anyway:
[E]ven if one grants that cultural standards of concentration or attention have declined, one has to ask what conditions of life for most individuals (industrialized labor, for a start) make it hard to “attend” to text. The answer is not simply that technologies of text, or literary standards, changed. It is a more complicated and possibly more discouraging picture of the needs and capacities of those outside the boundary of high-literate schooling. As Williams put it: the question isn’t whether ephemeral, fragmented consumption of text or images is a drug of choice for many; it’s what social conditions make such a drug necessary—ways of life that produce no satisfactions, only a momentarily appeasable itch for sensation.
I most certainly agree, although I would probably change the language of narcotics to something that emphasizes the actual social usefulness of this form of consumption, particularly for the class which has undergone "high-literate schooling." "[E]phemeral, fragmented consumption of text or images" are frequently not merely enjoyed in solitude, but are often part of a process of "sharing" in various forms. These forms of communication (Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader/Buzz, etc.) are among the primary means of maintaining a network of friends who may be widely dispersed geographically or even just temporally (i.e., all your friends work crazy hours). And even if they are not, social media memes or items quite often serve as conversation topics "in real life" in much the same way that sports or politics or film do. In fact, I think the analogy is pretty good between those realms and watching YouTube clips or whatever. One watches a sporting event or checks up on the news in part for private enjoyment, but these experiences also are constitutively social, even when they are being enjoyed alone. One expects to talk about sports or about politics or film with one's friends, even if that is not the conscious reason one consumes them.

Assuming that the main purpose of social media is private, individual enjoyment seems like an odd premise, but I find it is often the underlying concern for many attacks on the degradations of our digital life. But the emphasis that Dames (via Williams) makes about the necessity of examining the social conditions which make a given form of consumption necessary or at the very least useful is extremely important to remember.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Some Thoughts on Kunkel's Letter to Norway

Mark Athitakis brings to my attention a piece by Benjamin Kunkel in n+1, a "report on American fiction of the last decade." Kunkel's piece is short—the prompt to which he is writing limited responses to 1200 words—and ostensibly directed toward a non-American audience—the prompt came from the Norwegian literary journal Bokvennen.

Kunkel makes five basic points about the past decade's American literature:
  • like all decades, the rate of change has been slow; thus, the 2000s are more characterized by what he calls "the perennial novel" than by anything else. Kunkel returns to this point at the end by invoking the dread term "middlebrow": "The disappearance of the term 'middlebrow' over the last decades only confirms the triumph of the thing itself: enjoyable books, not too trashy, not too hard, sentimental and well-plotted but not so much so as to totally traduce the world."
  • yet this perennial novel has also gravitated toward a greater degree of self-consciousness in its traditionalism, to a "neotraditionalism"—an attraction toward well-rounded characters, accident and coincidence as crucial plotting devices, and "a relatively high degree of sentimentality"
  • perhaps as a subset of this neotraditionalism (I think it's a subset, although Kunkel may consider it something distinct—he does call it "another big development," which is a pretty ample overstatement) is what Kunkel's confrère Marco Roth has termed the "neuronovel," a category with which I have some issues, but which is defined here simply as a book "in which novelists bless or afflict their characters with one or another recognizable neurological disorder." Kunkel and Roth adduce Rivka Galchen, John Wray, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Lethem, Mark Haddon, and Richard Powers (two of whom are English) as exemplars
  • Kunkel waves away what many feel to be a significant development in the last ten year's fiction: the "genre-bending" or incorporation of genre elements into "literary" fiction. This trend, Kunkel says, "shouldn’t be given too much credit for formal experimentation or artistic bravery: remodeling a house is not the same as architecture."
  • fifth, Kunkel basically repeats the Katie Roiphe argument that, in Kunkel's words, "a fair amount of fiction by younger writers of the 0’s celebrates moral and sexual innocence and therefore childhood if not childishness." Roiphe used Kunkel as an example in her essay, and the point must have stung a bit. At any rate, Kunkel adds some intellectual firepower to Roiphe's thesis by bringing in Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel, which I've discussed here
Mark points out that Kunkel's argument about the middlebrow flavor of the 2000s is virtually tautological: "it’s forever true that people, in general, gravitate toward things that are more comforting than not, and that trends are created by the stuff that large numbers gravitate toward. If you want to argue that a decade’s tastes are largely middlebrow, you’ll pretty much by definition be right." I agree completely, although I think Kunkel is being a little bit slippery—the term "middlebrow" really abuses the purchasers of the books being indicated more than it does their writers, their publishers, or the critics who praise them, and I feel Kunkel could have been a bit more direct in assessing the origins of this "return" of realism—whether it is the taste of the reading public that has led the way toward neotraditionalism, a more timid publishing establishment that has pushed writers to it, critics (Wood and Grossman are cited momentarily) who have championed it to its resurgence, or writers themselves who have found themselves drawn to older models. Even if (as it always is) the answer is multivariable, a little bit of an attempt to epidemiologize this "spread of the middlebrow" would have been useful.

Turning to what is left out of his account, I am surprised that Kunkel doesn't touch on what I see as the most significant development of the past ten year's literature, which is mostly a sort of personnel change: a large percentage of the most successful novelists have immediate roots in a country other than the U.S. The internationalism or transnationalism of the American novel has become even more direct, less about the struggle for assimilation among the second generation and more about the efforts of the first generation to cope with the transplantation. I'm sure you can fill in your own examples.

Secondly, and maybe this is just a factor of what I've been reading and not a genuine trend, but it seems to me that the comic novel has gotten a new lease on life in the 2000s with Sam Lipsyte, James Hynes, and Ken Kalfus (among others) leading the way. Or, perhaps, this is again a return to a sort of traditionalism—to a more classic form of the comic novel as established by Waugh—and a turn away from the more antic comedy of, say, Vonnegut (although his latter-day disciple George Saunders is obviously going strong).

Thirdly, one should make mention of the proliferation of what might be called peri-literature—books about authors or characters from the classics, books that in a sense take up a position around "Capital-L Literature" (hence the prefix peri-). One might also call it, simply, fan fiction, although generally that term is used demeaningly or at least deprecatorily. Examples of peri-literature range from Colm Tóibín's The Master (Henry James) to Edmund White's Hotel de Dream (Stephen Crane) to Jerome Charyn's The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson to the plethora of books about Jane Austen or her characters (e.g., The Jane Austen Book Club, the Pemberley Chronicles) to the Android Karenina type books. This, if anything, is the real sign of a neotraditionalism at work in the fiction of the 2000s, and not some "practical and an ideological return to 'realism,'" which I suspect may be a sort of cover-term for "domestic fiction." The examples given (Franzen, Zadie Smith, Haslett) lead me to wonder if this isn't the case and if a gripe about domesticity wasn't, essentially, Kunkel's point all along.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

An Unexpected Confluence Between Emerson and The Wire

I'm reading Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club now, and I just ran across these lines:
[I]t is clear that [Oliver Wendell] Holmes [Jr.] had adopted [Ralph Waldo] Emerson as his special inspiration. A few years later, he wrote an essay on Plato expressly for Emerson's approval. (Holmes found Plato outdated on one or two points. Emerson's reaction, when Holmes showed him the essay, is choice: "When you strike at a king," he said, "you must kill him.")
Remind you of anything?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Quintessential Jamesian Sentence

I've been reading Henry James's The Ambassadors, about which I may post in the next week or so although I am still processing. Rather late in the novel I ran across the following sentence which strikes me as perhaps the most characteristically Jamesian sentence of the whole book. I wouldn't say it is my favorite sentence (actually, an aggregation of all my favorite sentences in the book would make a decent post in itself), but it seems to me to have all the touches one expects of James—expects either with pleasure or a roll of the eyes. Best of all, though, it is a short sentence (relatively speaking); these elements are represented, but not in profusion.

He perceived soon enough at least that, however reasonable she might be, she wasn't vulgarly confused, and it herewith pressed upon him that their eminent "lie," Chad's and hers, was simply after all such an inevitable tribute to good taste as he couldn't have wished them not to render.

Qualifications, qualifications to qualifications, value-laden adverbs clinging desperately to their rather generic adjectives, appositions which are meant to clarify but are in fact doing their best merely to direct traffic, immensely complex negations—all combining to form a sentence that is basically un-paraphrasable and certainly irreducible. To say it differently would, one feels, be to invite a complete semantic collapse—either nonsense or the barest triviality would result.

What is your favorite Jamesian sentence, or one you consider particularly characteristic of his style?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Party in the U.S.A.: Nineteen Nineteen, by John Dos Passos

As with the first post for The 42nd Parallel, I'll begin by running through some of the basic details of characters, plot, etc.

There are nine "biographies" in this volume: John Reed, Randolph Bourne, Theodore RooseveltPaxton Hibben, Woodrow Wilson, J. P. Morgan, Joe Hill, Wesley Everest, and the Unknown Soldier who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Hill and Everest are sort of labor movement folk heroes; Reed is as well, but is larger than that, occupying a position within our national consciousness as probably the "romantic revolutionary"—someone Warren Beatty could play in an Oscar-winning movie. Paxton Hibben is not even a folk hero, exactly—you'll notice that his link is the only one that doesn't go to Wikipedia; that's because he doesn't have a page (not that this is a definitive sign of one's obscurity). Randolph Bourne is certainly better known, but not by a very wide circle, I think. The ambit of most of these men is certainly tighter than those Dos Passos wrote about in The 42nd Parallel, an interesting contrast to the differences between the plots of the two books: 42nd is mostly confined by the U.S. borders; almost all of 1919 is running around Europe and the Atlantic.

We have five new characters who headline the plot-driven sections: Joe Williams (4 sections), Eveline Hutchins (4 sections), Richard Ellsworth Savage (4 sections), Daughter (2 sections), and Ben Compton (1 section). Well, actually, only Daughter and Richard Ellsworth Savage are "new": Eveline, Joe, and Ben appeared in other people's sections in volume one.

  • Joe is Janey Williams's sister; like her he grew up in Washington D.C., but after the death of a close friend, he took to the sailor's life, and most of his sections in Nineteen Nineteen depict him either on the sea, in port, or trying to get back to the sea. Joe is a basic seaman for most of the novel, but after he gets married and gets torpedoed (unrelated events), he is given an opportunity to rise from the ranks and takes some classes to become a third and then a second mate. Joe gets in his share of scrapes but he's not particularly belligerent; he sleeps with a lot of women (most of whom give him a venereal disease, it seems) but he's not particularly lusty; he's undirected and frequently "blue" but not particularly anhedonic or mopey. He's much more of a proletarian than other American heroes who went to sea or than any of Conrad's sailors; while, like Ishamel, he sails to avoid the onset of the "damp, drizzly November[s] in my soul," Joe's Novembers blow in when he blows all his money or knocks some girl up or something. He's closer to O'Neill's Hairy Ape, but far less primitive.
  • Eveline Hutchins is Eleanor Stoddard's best friend—the one she meets in the Art Institute of Chicago (an event I wrote about previously). Eveline, unlike Eleanor, is not making up her solidly upper-middle-class origins, and perhaps as a (surprising) result, she seems less self-assured, more wary among the cosmopolitan milieu that the two pursue from Chicago to New York and, in this book, to Paris, Rome, and the French Riviera. Being born with half- or three-quarters of a silver spoon in one's mouth, it seems, induces more timidity (or suppresses temerity more) than being born with none at all. Eveline and Eleanor separate, to some extent, while in Europe, although both are working for the Red Cross and share almost entirely the same social circle, which includes J. Ward Moorehouse, who was having an equivocal (and possibly non-sexual) affair with Eleanor at the end of The 42nd Parallel. Eveline actually has a sexual (but still quite equivocal) affair with Moorehouse, but ends 1919 with another man rather unintentionally on her arm, the younger Paul Johnson. She is pregnant with Paul's baby, and a party celebrating their marriage is the last narrative scene.
  • Also present at that scene is Richard Ellsworth Savage, who after first going to Europe as an ambulance volunteer, gets himself in trouble in Italy by expressing too loudly some pacifist and sarcastically pro-Central Powers remarks. At first he wants to fight for his right to free speech and to take the pacifist message back to America, but just before embarking from France, he runs into one of his old Harvard chums, and his convictions sort of melt away. Through some connections back home he is able to get back to Europe, this time in the Army proper, although his skill with languages and his general charisma get him a fairly cushy job as a courier. He meets the Moorehouse crowd and, eventually, finagles himself into a job working for Moorehouse after the armistice. In the meantime, he has met and become entangled with another character:
  • Anne Elizabeth Trent, whom everyone calls Daughter, is a Texan belle. Her father is wealthy, and his wealth enables her, even though she seems to fit in well with Texan society, to run off to New York confidently. She signs up as a special student at, I think, Columbia (although she lives in University Heights—I don't know New York that well, but might Dos Passos have meant Morningside Heights?) and "went to lectures about Economics and English Literature and Art and talked a little occasionally with some boy who happened to be sitting next to her, but she was so much younger than anybody she met and she didn't seem to have the right line of talk to interest them." She has a couple rather innocent affairs, including one with a Veblen-spouting social worker which ends in a broken engagement after she seeks admission from the Columbia Journalism School over his disapproval (he wants her to study to be a teacher). Daughter meets another Columbia journalism student who introduces her to the world of radical politics; she meets Ben Compton (our next and last main character) during a textile workers strike in Paterson, New Jersey (the 1919 strike, not the more famous 1913 one). There she also has her first real run-in with the law; she slugs a police officer in the face and makes national headlines, causing her father to come out and take her home to Texas. She joins the Red Cross and applies to go abroad. There she runs into both G. H. Barrow, the labor leader from The 42nd Parallel, who falls for her. But she ends up with Dick Savage (you couldn't use that name in a novel today), who impregnates her and then tries to convince her to get an abortion; he had previously talked about marriage with her but backs out. She finds a drunk French aviator whom she convinces to take her on a late night aerial acrobatics display; they crash and she dies.
  • Ben Compton appeared very briefly in The 42nd Parallel as the brother of a secretary in J. Ward Moorehouse's p.r. firm (Janey Williams very briefly stays with the Comptons). The first words of Ben's section have frequently been read as an indication of the ethnic and racial narrowness of Dos Passos's gallery of Americans: even his one Jewish protagonist's section begins "The old people were Jews, but at school Benny always said no he wasn't a Jew, he was an American, because he'd been born in Brooklyn and lived at 2531 Twentyfifth Avenue in Flatbush and they owned their home." Assessing just what Dos Passos's intentions are by introducing such a vehemently assimilating Jew is rather difficult; one could about equally as well say that he was trying to effect in fiction a sort of whitewashing of the history of labor radicalism as one could say that he was trying to illustrate (and maybe ironize) the pressures of assimilation on Jews and, by proxy, other ethnics (Ben becomes good friends with an Italian). To be frank, I find it difficult to come to any single interpretation or even a satisfactory conjunction of interpretations. Whatever the case may be, Ben's section (he only gets one in this book) is my favorite so far; it seemed to be written with greater intensity—even to the point of desperation. Sandwiched between the Joe Hill and Wesley Everest sections, these 36 pages (in my copy) combine spectacularly to protest the reactionary violence perpetrated against the labor movement. Ben is not a terribly likable character, but he doesn't need to be to make Dos Passos's point: perhaps many young men (and women) were foolhardy or just desperate on the picket lines, but the ferocity of the men on the other end of the billy club and at times at the other end of the rope and always at the other end of the law is sheerly breathtaking. 
The fact that all the violence is really bottled up into those 36 pages near the end of the book rather than taking place in the war sections is an obvious statement about where the real violence of the war was directed: at the working class. The only other character who is under consistent threat of physical harm is 1919's other working stiff—Joe. Dick Savage faces fire once, I believe, and I suppose technically Paris is under siege, but the very pronounced effect of the Savage, Hutchins, and Daughter sections is to minimize any real sense that the war is a violent thing being executed by violent men. A line is repeated with variations throughout the novel: "This ain't a war… it's a goddam [whorehouse, Cook's tour, madhouse, etc.]." A more appropriate description of these sections would be "this ain't a war… it's a goddam cocktail party." For that's what most of the action either is or resembles. 

The interesting structural choice that Dos Passos made was to avoid building the sections as a simple ironic counterpoint between episodes of real violence against the working class with the longueurs of cocktail party bedhopping and flirtation of the Moorehouse circle. You have a few Joe sections interspersed through most of the first five-ninths or so of the book, but these actually soften the divide between the violence against the working class and the lassitude of the cosmopolitan class because Joe has connections among them more or less and because Joe has an ideal of (some) personal advancement, of rising from the ranks. But then the Joe Hill, Ben Compton and Wesley Everest sections burst on you almost without preparation, and only then is a note of ironic juxtaposition allowed to emerge, when the book wraps up with Savage's last section, with him pretending to come to terms with the (honestly a little ridiculous and probably intentionally so) death of Daughter. The party's over, and he can walk away whistling Kip Marlowe's line, "but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead." 

I think opinion is generally against 1919 relative to the other two volumes of U.S.A., but I have to put my name down as a defender of it. I think it is a better structured book than The 42nd Parallel, and while tedious, I found the cocktail party sections here much better than the Alger-esque Janey, Moorehouse, and Stoddard sections there; these are more patient, more attentive, and more accurate—most socializing is dull. I can see, however, why it is not so appealing to all readers, and why it might be considered the most boring of the three: like a lot of other middle novels in trilogies, it has the disadvantage of being compared both to one novel the virtues of which you know because you've already experienced them and to another whose virtues and pleasures you are constantly imagining. The first and the third have to deal only with either one's knowledge or one's imagination, but not both. I think 1919 succeeds very well within these terms.