“[M]ostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.” So says John Dos Passos in the prologue to his outstanding U.S.A., a trilogy which spans the first several decades of the 20th century. Dos Passos, talking about the country, fairly summarized his own astounding work of art.
Few literary works manage to be as distinctively original as U.S.A.. I would suggest that this alone warrants picking up the first volume of the trilogy, The 42nd Parallel, and giving it a try. If you need more encouragement, you should know that it has received copious praise from authors as diversely talented as Jean-Paul Sartre, Norman Mailer, and E.L. Doctorow, to name but a few. Further, the trilogy utilized innovative techniques, had an original structure, was ambitious in scope, and brought depth to its subject. Add that it is an entertaining read with well-written prose. What I am saying, is that U.S.A. made it into the canon for a reason.
Now, The Second Pass suggests that Dos Passos’ U.S.A. be “Fired from the Canon.” In support of this heresy, they raise only the specter of Newsreel V from The 42nd Parallel, the first book in the trilogy. Okay, not only. There are some pejoratives leading up to the selective quotation, but, really, the only evidence they supply is Newsreel V. The problem with this criticism is that the Newsreels (a) make up a very small portion of the total, (b) are not meant to “draw in” the reader to a particular narrative, rather the static is the point of these short bits, (c) are actually incoherent out of context, (d) only have the intended effect when interspersed among the more conventional narrative pieces, (e) work better skimmed than misguidedly read for content, and (f) can be skipped entirely if the reader hates them so much that the reader otherwise will not read this fine trilogy.
I took the assault a little personally, maybe.
Had an attack on the equally experimental “Camera Eye” sections of the book been launched, a similar defense could have been raised. The Camera Eye sections consist of stream of consciousness prose in the first person:
…and everything was very kind and grave and very sorry and frigates and the blue Mediterranean and islands and when I was dead I began to cry and I was afraid the other boys would see I had tears in my eyes…I was so sorry I never remembered whether they brought me home or buried me at sea but anyway I was wrapped in Old Glory.
These sections provide a more intimate psychological look at some aspects of America without subjecting readers to an entire stream-of-consciousness book. (Not that I would have any problem with that.) I think the sections work. They help set the mood and, as I said, reach elements of the American psyche that cannot be illuminated via the third person narrative that makes up the vast bulk of the novel.
Basically, I think The Second Pass misunderstood the purpose and proper approach to the very short digressions (Newsreels and Camera Eyes) from the primary narrative.
The Second Pass does not attack, either explicitly or implicitly, the biographical sketches of real people that also break up the primary narrative. This is because the biographical sketches are masterpieces in miniature. Take this excerpt from the section “The Campers at Kitty Hawk” in The Big Money:
The folks claimed it was the bishop’s bringing home a helicopter, a fiftycent mechanical toy made of two fans worked by elastic bands that was supposed to hover in the air, that had got his two youngest boys hipped on the subject of flight so that they stayed home instead of marrying the way the other boys did, and puttered all day about the house picking up a living with jobprinting, bicyclerepair work, sitting up late nights reading books on aerodynamics.
Still they were sincere churchmembers, their bicycle business was prosperous, a man could rely on their word. They were popular in Dayton.
Dos Passos drops these excellent details at a point in the narrative where flight is particularly relevant. The sketches work to enhance the narrative with historical context, while providing short breaks of delicious nonfiction tidbits to be savored. The execution is simply outstanding. As a quick primer on some major (and some minor) public figures of the early 20th century, U.S.A. is worth the price.
The best part of U.S.A. makes up its bulk: the more traditional narrative. I say “more traditional” because the narrative has a unique feel. Partly, this is because U.S.A. is not plot-driven. The trilogy is also not character-driven, at least in any conventional sense. Each section of the narrative is labeled after a particular character; each narrative section utilizes the omniscient third-person. Those looking for plot may be frustrated by the abrupt end to some characters or the fact that others seem sure to return, only they do not. Obviously, the same feature will frustrate those who become too focused on a character who does not subsequently return to the narrative. But no single individual is the subject.
The plot of U.S.A. is history, the central character is the United States of America. It is an American trilogy of the breadth and depth of a Tolstoy novel. While Dos Passos is earnestly concerned with the plight of ordinary individuals, this is not an examination of an everyman at a particular moment in American history as in Bellow’s Sieze the Day nor the examination of the American Dream through a single protagonist as in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Dos Passos’ subject is America writ large, particularly the gritty American experience. To this end, Dos Passos requires multiple “protagonists” who rise and fall in importance relative to the story of America that he is telling. The supporting cast Dos Passos utilizes includes the train-hopping, wannabe newspaperman Fainy McCreary, the upwardly-mobile public relations guru J. Ward Moorehouse, his administrative assistant Janey Williams, the artist and later interior decorator Eveline Hutchins, the mechanic Charley Anderson, journalist and labor-activist Mary French, aspiring actress/entertainer Margo Dowling, sailor Joe Williams, and many others. These supporting characters are all interesting and well drawn.
Dos Passos can pull readers into a scene beautifully, this from The 42nd Parallel:
After a while the boys stripped to their bathingsuits that they wore under their clothes. It made Janey’s throat tremble to watch Alec’s back and the bulging muscles of his arm as he paddled, made her feel happy and scared. She sat there in her white dimity dress, trailing her hand in the weedy browngreen water…The cream soda got warm and they drank it that way and kidded each other back and forth and Alec caught a crab and covered Janey’s dress with greenslimy splashes and Janey didn’t care a bit and they called Joe skipper and he loosened up and said he was going to join the navy and Alec said he’d be a civil engineer and build a motorboat and take them all cruising and Janey was happy because they included her when they talked just like she was a boy too.
Or this from the second novel, 1919, where two characters from the first are sitting at a small café in Europe just after Eveline has asked an intimate question of J.W.
Eveline sat looking at him [J.W.] with her lips a little apart, her cheeks blazing. ‘Maybe it’s taken the war to teach us how to live,’ he said. ‘We’ve been too much interested in money and material things, it’s taken the French to show us how to live. Where back home in the States could you find a beautiful atmosphere like this?’ J.W. waved his arm to include in a sweeping gesture the sea, the tables crowded with women dressed in bright colors and men in their best uniforms, the bright glint of blue light on glasses and cutlery. The waiter mistook his gesture and slyly substituted a full bottle for the empty bottle in the champagnepail.
Often, Dos Passos will pull back, summarizing larger segments of time, popping in only the details that matter to his larger point as in this scene encompassing nearly two years from The Big Money:
Their first child was born in December. It was a boy. They named him Wheatley. When Gladys came back from the hospital instead of coming back to the apartment she went into the new house out at Grosse Pointe that still smelt of paint and raw plaster. What with the hospital expenses and the furniture bills and Christmas, Charley had to borrow twenty thousand from the bank. He spent more time than ever talking over the phone to Nat Benton’s [his broker’s] office in New York. Gladys bought a lot of new clothes and kept tiffany glass bowls full of freesias and narcissus all over the house. Even on the dressingtable in her bathroom she always had flowers. Mrs. Wheatley said she got her love of flowers from her grandmother Randolph, because the Wheatleys had never been able to tell one flower from another. When the next child turned out to be a girl, Gladys said, as she lay in the hospital, her face looking drawn and yellow against the white pillows, beside the great bunch of glittering white orchids Charley had ordered from the florist at five dollars a bloom, she wished she could name her Orchid. They ended by naming her Marguerite after Gladys’s grandmother Randolph.
Dos Passos manages in this paragraph to efficiently say so much about the relationships between Gladys, Charley, and Mrs. Wheatley. The paragraph starts in a disinterested, almost clinical, third person. By the fourth sentence, the third person narration has warmed, Gladys could be relating these events to a friend: “the new house….still smelt of paint…Charley had to borrow twenty thousand…He spent more time than ever talking over the phone…” Dos Passos nicely shifts from finances to the flowers. You can hear Mrs. Wheatley going on about her daughter inheriting grandmother Randolph’s affinity for flowers. But there is a small jab with a slight shift, if only for a moment, to Charley’s viewpoint. Charley sees his wife with “her face looking drawn and yellow against the white pillows” and, instead of seeing the aesthetics of the situation, he sees her surrounded by five dollar blooms.
At any rate, Dos Passos is an excellent writer of standard prose, whatever you think of the experimental “Newsreel” or “Camera Eye” breaks. The narrative portions are very engaging and enjoyable. Only if you require a tidy, conventional plot, could you be disappointed in that aspect of the book. Even so, Dos Passos creates enough urgency to keep the reader eager to turn the page. For many, if not all, of the characters, their sections, if pulled out and stitched together, would form a nice novella (for some only a short story). In some ways, the trilogy is like a series of linked short stories and novellas. The difference is that some stories begin before others have ended. Often, a character with his or her own section will show up in the section of another, sometimes with a large role, other times only making a brief appearance. In some ways, it is as if Dos Passos is holding America up to a light and slowly turning it back and forth, letting the light shine on one facet, then another, then the first again.
I would say that I have a hard time imagining there are people who do not enjoy this trilogy, but I do not have to imagine them. They exist. They include The Second Pass. The criticisms The Second Pass has are the same, limited criticisms I have heard and read elsewhere. Apparently, some readers are very turned off by the short experimental sections. As I said before, if you find that you are one of those readers, skim those sections or skip them entirely. While those sections are an important part of the overall aesthetic effect, it is better to cut them off than damn the entire work.
I am a Dos Passos booster. I admit it. Next time you see U.S.A. or The 42nd Parallel (the first book of the trilogy) on a shelf, pick it up and skip through the first Newsreel and the first Camera Eye. Start with Mac. Read a couple pages of his story. You will not regret it.
[Updated some formatting issues at 4:50pm, 7-22-09.]