U.S.A. Trilogy update.
The American Scene announced this season as Fall of the USA, and I had high hopes that we’d be treated to cornucopia upon cornucopia of reflections on John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy. Alas, it’s not nearly as popular an idea as Infinite Summer. In part, it must be that autumn’s a busier time. But surely another factor is that while both Dos Passos and David Foster Wallace are intent on getting inside the problems of their eras, David Foster Wallace’s milieu is very much our own. John Dos Passos is writing about the first few decades of the twentieth century, which in some ways might as well be another planet. Nevertheless, here’s my progress report and some thoughts so far.
I finished The 42nd Parallel a few months ago, and then took too long a break. I’m square in the middle of 1919 right now, and I really hope to finish the trilogy before Christmas. While I liked The 42nd Parallel, 1919 seems to be shaping up to be a better book. A few sections of the first book took place in Mexico and Canada, but 1919 sends characters to Europe for various WWI-related reasons, where they dally insouciantly around the edges of Europe’s first great and terrible self-immolation, and thereby sheds some light on what Dos Passos might mean by singling these books out as the USA trilogy even though large swathes of the USA go unvisited and non-white Americans don’t get to do very much. In the prose sections so far, our Americans maybe imagine themselves to be part of a great cause or movement, but then tend to get distracted by sex and booze. Which sort of describes how all the fictional characters — and just maybe the nation as a whole — act: bright and ambitious, then distracted.
As I said, one of the reasons it’s hard to write personal reactions to the trilogy is that Dos Passos describes a world so far removed from our own. Here’s some of the things that jump out.
First of all, there’s labor. Dos Passos writes about a time when blue-collar workers dreamed a beautiful future for labor in this country. They don’t see the service economy coming, but the service economy is all I’ve ever lived with: we reside on opposite sides of Detroit’s rise and fall. Now, Dos Passos is pretty pessimistic about the prospects of a victory for labor: where the workers are easily distracted, the capitalists are focused and dedicated. Many of the characters let go of their ideals; while some do so by joining the capitalist machine, none let go of them (the ideals) by becoming labor advocates. It’s implied, I think, that a victory for labor would take a kind of consciousness that our poor dissatisfied protagonists just aren’t capable of. Managing capital, on the other hand, doesn’t take nearly so much effort, as self-interest is easier to summon than superhuman love of one’s fellow workers. Dos Passos fairly well predicts that labor will choose middle-class comforts over radical struggle. On the other hand, perhaps one reason Dos Passos’s evocation of labor’s dreams is so foreign to me is that I have grown up in North Carolina, which has always been one of the most union-hostile states in the nation.
Sex is a drag for most everyone in these books. Protagonists find themselves variously chained down by needy spouses, ignored by those they desperately love, or angrily faithful to cheating-hearted lovers. A sexual relationship almost always vies for attention with some worthy goal, and then sex usually wins. Sex is a major part of our characters’ lives; curiously, it’s basically absent from the stylized, satirical biographies of Great Men of History that appear every forty pages or so. Somewhere in the comments at The American Scene, a fellow named Sanjay observed that these biographies carry much more thematic weight than you might imagine; our main characters are so unlike Eugene V. Debs and Andrew Carnegie and William Jennings Bryan and Minor C. Keith and Jack Reed as to be nearly a different species. These Great Men of History — and so far they’re all men — may get married, but they aren’t stuck on sex like the characters in the prose passages. It may be that for Dos Passos, most people’s sexual desires trap them in mediocrity. On the other hand, the main characters are all driven by a certain restless unfocused ambition, and it might be this sort of unsettledness that makes the characters get bogged down in doomed relationships. Is it the restless unfocused ambition that characterizes the USA, makes us so good at creative destruction, makes us not at peace among ourselves?
Obviously, the media environment of a novel set in the early twentieth century is different from our own. Curiously, I find that Dos Passos’s “Newsreel” sections, which are little collages made up of newspaper headlines and excerpts and fragments of lyrics from popular songs, evoke the same kind of conceptual dizziness I get when I try to go through my RSS reader too quickly. At first I thought Dos Passos was trying to mimic news saturation, but now I’m not so sure. The characters spend very little time reading newspapers or listening to the radio, getting their news mostly from other people. Maybe it’s the whirlwind of rumor Dos Passos is trying to capture.
Another bewildering aspect of the book is the Camera Eye sections, lush prose poems based (I think) on Dos Passos’s own memories. I don’t know what to make of them except that several are gorgeously written.
Like I said, I’m right at the midpoint of the trilogy, so I don’t want to say too much now. I’ll reconsider these points when I’m done, and I also want to look at travel and gender.
One last little thought: I like this book, but it’s not the kind of writing that I get really enthusiastic about. Still, I think the American canon needs books that grapple this directly with politics.