Analysis of John Dos Passos’s Novels

Readers of Dos Passos’s unusual novels have attempted to define the writer as a chronicler, a historian, or a critic of twentieth century America. To these titles, Dos Passos added another dimension by calling himself “an architect of history.” Indeed, his works move in skillfully drawn directions—horizontally across continents, vertically through socioeconomic strata, temporally to the deepest places of memory. Considering further Dos Passos’s training in architecture and painting, it is not solely by conventional literary means that students can come to grips with his novels; the reader must also be a good viewer. In fact, in the best of his long fiction— Three Soldiers, Manhattan Transfer, and the U.S.A. trilogy—the image and the word are often synonymous.

Three Soldiers
Three Soldiers emerged from Dos Passos’s post-World War I travels through Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Published in 1921, it was not the writer’s first novel, but it refined an artistic process he had begun during his ambulance service, a process that yielded his first novel, One Man’s Initiation, in 1920. Both this novel and Three Soldiers were drawn from sketchbooks of notes, highly descriptive entries, diagrams and sketches of landscapes, characters, and confrontations. Although they are both antiwar books, Three Soldiers is clearly a better experiment in realism. Recalling Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), the novel presents war through the eyes of the common soldier in France. Widening the range, Dos Passos poignantly captures the disillusionment and dehumanization of war for all soldiers.

True to his architectural design, Dos Passos allows for three geographical and individual perspectives—that of Dan Fuselli, a Californian; that of Chrisfield, a restless Indiana farmer boy; and that of Andrews, a Virginian and a composer. Through a thick buildup of violent encounters, he vividly portrays the army’s destruction of the individual. Each responds to the regimentation and absurd conformity in different ways. Dan accepts the fantasy that conforming will result in promotion and the ultimate possession of his girl. Chrisfield plans to avenge himself on the hated sergeant. Andrews, the artist, struggles to find his creative place. In a series of violent confrontations, each soldier fails miserably to achieve his personal goals. Dan is promoted to corporal, but only after total exploitation by his superiors; Mabe, his girl, has married another man. Chrisfield vows to murder the sergeant. Having practiced on a solitary German in an abandoned house, he throws his last two grenades at the wounded sergeant in the woods. Dos Passos focuses on the artist, Andrews, who has managed to study legitimately in Paris and meet a sympathizer, Geneviève. Finally, he decides to go absent without leave (AWOL) and is discovered and beaten by the military police. As Andrews is dramatically removed from his hiding place, a gust of wind scatters his unfinished composition titled “John Brown,” an homage to the liberator of slaves.

Although simplistic when compared to the later works, Three Soldiers is an exercise in an important visual process. First, he planned his novel from collected verbal and visual sketches. Second, his strong sense of painterly composition allowed for three diverse perspectives in Chrisfield, Fuselli, and Andrews. The reader will discover this geographical interest later in the U.S.A. trilogy, as well. Finally, he positioned images of violent confrontations against serene French landscapes. The violent action is shockingly portrayed while the images of the countryside are almost nostagically impressionistic. The effect is similar to the anxiety created in cubist paintings, where familiar objects and spaces are reshaped and limited. In the juxtaposition of images, the reader will sense Dos Passos’s extreme personal disdain for war and his appreciation of a lost world.

Manhattan Transfer
The writing that followed Three Soldiers was not so much a futher refinement as it was a sudden explosion of artistic innovation, yet the germination of Manhattan Transfer was like that which produced Dos Passos’s first two novels: a rich collage of images, impressions, notes, and sketches. Just as Three Soldiers is critical of war, so Manhattan Transfer focuses on the dehumanizing effects of the city, particularly on immigrants or outsiders. To convey his theme, Dos Passos transformed the conventional components of character, setting, and plot in much the same way that cubist painters distorted familiar objects and transformed the viewer’s perception of them. New York, for example, is not really a setting or a backdrop, to use a visual term, but a major and monstrous character. Similarly, while there are approximately twelve identifiable characters out of the masses, they are important only as facets of the portrait of the real antagonist, the city. Finally, while there is a complicated network of overlapping and chaotic activities among and between the characters, there is no single plot. Instead, the novel is like a roller coaster or rapid transit ride; the reader experiences flashes of sense, sound, color, and conflict. It is, then, a collective novel—a compilation of the notes and pictures created while Dos Passos himself was in motion as a traveler.

The novel is divided into three sections, demarcated not by logical, literary closures but by highly visual introductory commentaries. Each section also contains several divisions, the headings of which allude to the metals and myths of great cities: “Ferryslip,” “Tracks,” “Rollercoaster,” “Steamroller,” “Revolving Doors,” “Skyscrapers,” and “The Burthen of Nineveh.” What occurs within each division is not an unfolding of ideas or action, but an envelopment of the reader into a frenzy of lives colliding in the city’s mainstream.

To create this collage, Dos Passos welds fragments of dialogue, action, newspaper clippings, signs, city sights, and time. In “Ferryslip,” a child is born to an uncertain father, Ed Thatcher, and a hysterical mother, Susie. The child suddenly becomes Ellie, Ellen, or Elaine, depending upon the fortunes and fame of the gentlemen she lures. In “Tracks,” the reader meets Jimmy Herf, an immigrant newspaper reporter who is the only figure eventually to escape the city’s grasp. There is George Baldwin, a manipulative attorney who turns politician; Congo and Emile, two Frenchmen who represent the extremes of survival in a new land—one marries and conforms while the other returns to sea. Joe O’Keefe, a labor organizer, is juxtaposed with a successful Broadway producer, Harry Goldweiser. Almost all the characters collide with one another or else their adventures are butted against one another’s in the same section of the novel. Herf provides the final view as he waits for a ferry to take him from Manhattan. Broken by every component of life in New York, he decides to hitchhike out of the city on a furniture truck, glistening and yellow. He provides the reader with an uncertain perspective; when asked how far he is going, Herf replies aimlessly that he wants to go far away.

Recalling the collective portrayal of the army in Three Soldiers, Manhattan Transfer captures the entirety and enormity of the city. The realism of Three Soldiers, however, was brilliantly and vividly transformed into a masterful expressionistic style. Instead of a conventional linear narrative about the dehumanization of the modern city, Dos Passos chose to re-create the eclectic experience of Manhattan. He verbally reproduced the rhythms, forms, plasticity, and chaotic activity of the city without the traditional literary processes of describing, developing, or narrating. The novel initially shocks the reader, forces a complicated sensual experience, and convinces the reader of the city’s power by its sheer visual frenzy. The innovative techniques of Manhattan Transfer won for Dos Passos the praise of eminent contemporaries: Sinclair Lewis compared the novel to the modernist masterpieces of Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce. Certainly, Dos Passos had concocted a work in which the mass of the image and the word were of equal weight.

U.S.A. trilogy
If Manhattan Transfer represented a heightened style and structure in comparison to Three Soldiers, then the U.S.A. trilogy was the apex of Dos Passos’s expressionistic novels; generally acknowledged as his masterpiece, it is on this work that his reputation rests. The trilogy is a panoramic fictional history of America in the first three decades of the twentieth century. The title of the first novel in the trilogy, The 42nd Parallel, suggests the sweep of the work, across the United States from Plymouth, Massachusetts, through the industrial centers of Detroit and Chicago, over to the gold coast of northern California. Along the way, history is not remembered or narrated, but reproduced by a series of modernist devices.

Dos Passos composed his trilogy with fragments of American life—newsreels, headlines, songs, letters, placards, colloquialisms, and biographical pieces of fictional and nonfictional figures. These fragments click away like an early film or newsreel itself, which captures the reader’s attention for the narrative that follows. Dos Passos embellished this superstructure, more elaborate in scope than the divisions of Manhattan Transfer, with illustrations and with the ingenious and provocative device of the “Camera Eye.” Interspersed and intruding into the narrative, the Camera Eye is composed of images in such a way as to reproduce memory, probably the writer’s memory. The voice seems both deterministic and vulnerable to all that happens around it. Its focus set, the epic catalog of characters, real and imagined, is called to action.

The 42nd Parallel
The characters in the trilogy are representative figures intended to form a composite of the American soul. In The 42nd Parallel, there is Mac Mc Creary, a printer who eventually joins the revolutionary movement in Mexico, following disillusionment with marriage. J. Ward Moorehouse, a charismatic and powerful figure, is then introduced; the reader follows him throughout the trilogy as he is transformed from a public relations man and government servant in France to a wealthy advertising executive. Among the female characters is Eleanor Stoddard, an artsy interior decorator at Marshall Field’s in Chicago; she eventually makes the acquaintance of Moorehouse. There is also Charley Anderson, an opportunist whose mechanical inventiveness leads him to become an airplane manufacturer. The reader observes his steady decline through the trilogy. These are but a few of the many contrasting characters sketched throughout the trilogy.

The historical portraits are of eloquent and eccentric figures of the period: Eugene V. Debs, the labor organizer jailed by President Woodrow Wilson; William Jennings Bryan, the silver-tongued midwestern orator and frequent presidential candidate; the socialist mathematician Charles Proteus Steinmetz, who, as the property of General Electric, developed the law of hysteresis that produced electrical transformers for the world. The novel is a portrait collection of real and imagined people. Some are creative, cunning, impassioned; most are naïve. To link them, Dos Passos develops a kind of self-portrait through the Camera Eye series. The reader traces the Eye’s consciousness from young and constant traveler in Europe and feisty adolescent to observer of labor rallies. The very last Camera Eye in The 42nd Parallel parallels the final sequence of Charley Anderson’s crossing to war-torn France. The Eye pans out on the Espagne, dangerously crossing the Atlantic, its passengers caught in ironic responses to the great fear of destruction. The Eye moves quickly to death in the trenches, to the prosperity of vinegrowers, to a town in France unpleasantly interrupted by agents searching bags in well-known hotels. Through one Eye, then, and through the other biographies, the reader views rather than reviews the transition of Americans from naïveté to anticipation of some inevitable doom.

1919
If The 42nd Parallel finishes in fearful anticipation, then 1919 fills the void with the thunder of World War I and the frightened inner voices of the characters. Far more tragic and total a portrayal of war than Three Soldiers, 1919 unmasks the entire absurdity, debauchery, and waste of “Mr.Wilson’sWar” at home and abroad. This second volume in the trilogy opens with a grimly ironic headline concerning the “great” battle of Verdun. The horror implicit in this headline is counterpointed by domestic suffering, by scenes of an America in which the wealthy few prosper at the expense of the masses.

Against this panorama of war and an industrializing nation, Dos Passos paints his imaginary portraits. There is Dick Savage, a literary Harvard graduate who resembles the author in several ways. He serves in the ambulance corps, caring for the mutilated and deranged. His horror is juxtaposed with a farcical censuring and punishment by the army for his mild criticism of war in a letter to a friend. (In a similar incident, Dos Passos himself had been expelled from the Red Cross.) Dick eventually finds his way into J. Ward Moorehouse’s association after the war. There is also Ben Compton, the son of a Jewish immigrant, who travels north, south, east, and west as a political agitator at home. He is jailed, persecuted, and finally broken by the forces of law and order. Eleanor Stoddard begins her climb to the top through a series of affairs ultimately leading to J. Ward Moorehouse in Paris. Together, they exploit all around them to buy into the power of “Big Business” back home.

The historical figures expand Dos Passos’s portrayal of this contradictory world at war. There is Jack Reed, the Harvard man who spoke and wrote revolution. Theodore Roosevelt is portrayed by a series of vivid anecdotes. He was, for Dos Passos, the last major figure of everything American, what Teddy characterized as “bully.” The great J. P. Morgan is last. His family’s empire built upon warmongering, Morgan’s portrait prepares the reader for the monsters to come in The Big Money.

Just as in The 42nd Parallel, the Camera Eye moves the reader’s view from the dying and dead in ambulance vans, to harlots, to soldiers running for cover in city streets, and finally to civilians collecting scrap iron at the war’s end. Moreover, Dos Passos adds to the collage scraps of headlines of suicides and murders at home, news of an uprising of the workers, and bits of melancholy American and French war songs. These grim scraps are collected for the future recycling of postwar industrial and political figures in The Big Money. The reader experiences the change in American consciousness from innocent anticipation to horror.

The end of 1919 is quite poignant both in technique and in meaning. Dos Passos blends the essence of the “newsreels,” the Camera Eye, and the biographies to create a moving elegiac portrait of the Unknown Soldier. From the almost flippant choosing among pieces of bodies in France, to the imagined home and youth of the anony- mous man, to the placing of Wilson’s bouquet of poppies at the Tomb, Dos Passos movingly portrays the common dehumanizing experience of all soldiers and the unique and sacred individuality of every human being.

The Big Money
Following the brilliant design of the first two volumes of the trilogy, The Big Money picks up the pace of 1919 and brings the author’s rather cynical perspective into perfect focus. Against the scenes of war’s end and the anticipation of the Great Depression, Dos Passos draws his ultimate conclusion—that the simple individual, as an American ideal, was not strong enough to confront the new powers of the modern world. It is not so much the individual against the world that is of importance here, however, as it is the composite view of America as one character after all, a collection of all the victims and aggressors of the early twentieth century. America is both protagonist and antagonist in The Big Money; both Dos Passos’s subject and his means of painting it are unsettling.

Exploiting the technical innovations of the previous volumes, Dos Passos paints a pessimistic picture of Americans coming to terms with the twentieth century. Charley Anderson, corrupted by money, booze, and sexual affairs, drives south and dies in a car crash in Florida. Eveline Johnson, reaching her lowest point of boredom with Moorehouse and company, takes her life with sleeping pills. Margo Dowling, the ultimate plastic Hollywood starlet, is created and controlled by her powerful producerhusband, Sam Mongolies. In contrast, Mary French remains honest, constant, and determined in her work for the Communist Party, particularly in her protest against the executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Among the real biographies there is Isadora Duncan, who danced for the sake of art, accidentally drowned her children, and died in a joyride when her neck scarf caught in the wheel of an automobile. There is Frank Lloyd Wright, whose functional designs for the rich were not beauty enough to disguise his ugly family squabbles, bankruptcy, and scandalous affairs. Even theWright brothers, whose flying machine becomes a new war machine, present no triumph for the common person—at least, not at first—but they are admiringly portrayed.

The Camera Eye seems surer, more direct than before, more focused as it captures the Great Depression era. The man behind the camera was older, more experienced. The Eye in The Big Money is not reminiscent, as in The 42nd Parallel, or horrified, as in 1919, but strong and clear about the plight of the social worker, the immigrant, and the laborer; about the triumph of the rich, the powerful, and the political. In fact, one of the last Camera Eyes of the trilogy forces the reader to view finally two nations in one, two languages, two experiences—that of the poor and that of the wealthy. Somehow, nevertheless, through Dos Passos’s concentration on the common American, the nation seems on the brink of renewal.

The use of the now-familiar experimental tools of newsreels and cultural fragments is also sharper in The Big Money, especially in Dos Passos’s juxtapositions of realities and absurdities, a technique begun in 1919. One newsreel, for example, proclaims in archaic speech and images that the steel corporation is a marvellous colossus, while bomb scares, suicides, and Georgia’s new controversial dance, Shake That Thing, are stated matter of factly. Another announces America’s air supremacy and a boom year ahead while it simultaneously lists a massacre of six hundred in Canton, the production of gas for warfare, the use of machine guns and steamrollers on strikers. The musical fragments come from the blues and from poetic choruses written for the unemployed. What seems hidden in the portrayal of America as shaken, explosive, and cruelly challenged is a wishful portrait of America as diversified, creative, and positively evolving.

Although Dos Passos continued to explore the themes of his great trilogy in seven subsequent novels, none of them was as provocative, as innovative in visual techniques, or as critically acclaimed as his masterpiece, U.S.A.

Major works
Long fiction One Man’s Initiation—1917, 1920; Three Soldiers, 1921; Streets of Night, 1923; Manhattan Transfer, 1925; The 42nd Parallel, 1930; 1919, 1932; The Big Money, 1936; U.S.A., 1937 (includes previous 3 novels); Adventures of a Young Man, 1939; Number One, 1943; The Grand Design, 1949; Chosen Country, 1951; District of Columbia, 1952 (includes Adventures of a Young Man, Number One, and The Grand Design); Most Likely to Succeed, 1954; The Great Days, 1958; Midcentury, 1961; World in a Glass, 1966; Century’s Ebb: The Thirteenth Chronicle, 1975 (posthumous).
Plays: The Garbage Man, pr., pb. 1926 (pr. as The Moon Is a Gong, pr. 1925); Three Plays, pb. 1934.
Poetry: A Pushcart at the Curb, 1922.
Nonfiction: Rosinante to the Road Again, 1922; Orient Express, 1927; In All Countries, 1934; Journeys Between Wars, 1938; The Ground We Stand On: Some Examples from the History of a Political Creed, 1941; State of the Nation, 1944; Tour of Duty, 1946; The General, 1949; The Prospect Before Us, 1950; The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson, 1954; The Theme Is Freedom, 1956; The Men Who Made the Nation, 1957; Prospects of a Golden Age, 1959; Mr.Wilson’sWar, 1962; Brazil on the Move, 1963; Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, 1964; Occasions and Protests, 1964; Thomas Jefferson: The Making of a President, 1964; The Best Times: An Informal Memoir, 1966; The Shackles of Power: Three Jeffersonian Decades, 1966; The Portugal Story, 1969; Easter Island: Island of Enigmas, 1971; The Fourteenth Chronicle, 1973.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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Categories: American Literature, Historical Fiction, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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