E Pluribus Unum
On John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.
John Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A. — comprising The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936) — stands today like an unvisited historical monument in the annals of American literature, a Grant’s Tomb of the bookshelf. Despite its acceptance as a classic, and its being ranked twenty-third on the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century, it seems to be little read today. Yet when we open it again at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first, Dos Passos’s innovative, panoramic documentary of America’s emergence from its nineteenth-century cocoon onto the world stage during and after World War I is as timely a piece of fiction as one could imagine encountering in the echo chamber of our contemporary political discourse.
The author’s reputation preceding him (Gore Vidal once wrote, “Of all the recorders of what happened last summer — or last decade — John Dos Passos is the most dogged”), I was expecting an out-modishness barely tolerable when I reread it myself in 2016. What I found instead was an extraordinary fidelity to the faults at the core of our national identity, then and now. Immigrants of different nationalities are greeted with an all-too-familiar fear and aggression (“those damn lousy furreners”), and the realization of the gulf between the haves and the have-nots — be the having economic means, political power, or constabulary force — is similarly recognizable: “all right we are two nations” we read as The Big Money approaches its conclusion in the turmoil surrounding the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Through it all, we witness the author’s keen eye for the headlines, news flashes, and song lyrics that shaped the public mind in the first flush of mass media (how prescient Dos Passos was in his understanding of both its stimulating and stupefying effects). So if the trilogy is at times dated in expression, it is alive with a kind of scriptural foreshadowing, intuitive in its understanding of our enduring national character and the conflicts at the heart of it — between capitalism and the commonweal, finance and labor, the individual and the community, the familiar and the strange, the little guy and the big guy, us and them. In other words, the same impulses driving our current sense of crisis.
“all right we are two nations”
Dos Passos’s formal ambitions — the works are not conventional novels, but rather collages of voices, found language, stream-of-consciousness descriptions, “newsreels,” set pieces offering capsule biographies of inventors and thinkers such as Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, Thorstein Veblen, and Charles Steinmetz, and running narratives following the development of a handful of characters — were bold at the time of writing and remain striking today. As Alfred Kazin astutely wrote of the first book in the series:
What Dos Passos created with The 42nd Parallel was in fact another American invention — an American thing peculiar to the opportunity and stress of American life, like the Wright Brothers’ airplane, Edison’s phonograph, Luther Burbank’s hybrids, Thorstein Veblen’s social analysis, Frank Lloyd Wright’s first office buildings. (All these fellow inventors are celebrated in U.S.A.) The 42nd Parallel is an artwork. But we soon recognize that Dos Passos’ contraption, his new kind of novel, is in fact … the greatest character in the book itself.
U.S.A. is like a vast history painting, a montage of carefully constructed panels juxtaposed to create a composite “voice” more vivid, more resourceful, more impersonal, and more capacious than that heard in ordinary literary composition. He wanted to find a wavelength strong enough to broadcast the speech of the people entire, with all its messy and often anguished noise. Kazin again:
The artistic aim of his book, one may say, is to represent the litany, the tone, the issue of the time in the voice of the time, the banality, the cliché that finally brings home to us the voice in the crowd: the voice of mass opinion. The voice that might be anyone’s voice brings home to us, as only so powerful a reduction of the many to the one ever can, the vibrating resemblances that make history.
If you read Dos Passos’s dispatches from eight decades ago in tandem with news reports from any recent week, you’ll see how long those vibrating resemblances last. If U.S.A. has been out of fashion, it might be time for it to come back in: it’s like a reading of the entrails of American modernity, an ominous prophecy that is wise to the collective nature of the democratic enterprise, and therefore alert to the desperate disillusion which can threaten that enterprise when our sense of all-being-in-this-together is more real as phantom than as fact — when we embrace too blindly a destiny not manifest but makeshift, afraid of the riskiness inherent in the freedom it purports to espouse.