The Great American Novel That Wasn’t

By Ted GioiaJanuary 20, 2013

    The Great American Novel That Wasn’t

    U.S.A. by John Dos Passos. 0

    75 years ago this month, Harcourt Brace reissued John Dos Passos’s three previous books under the name the U.S.A. Trilogy in a calculated bid to position them as the Great American Novel. Can this ambitious, sprawling work still live up to that title today?


    DO AUTHORS STILL ASPIRE to writing the Great American Novel? Certainly critics still enjoy debating which books might merit that heavy mantle. In the last year Michael Gorra (in The Daily Beast), Maria Konnikova (in Slate), Julia Ingalls (in Salon), and other arbiters of literary taste have weighed in on the subject. And if no agreement is in sight on which book deserves the title, fans of American fiction at least have some worthy candidates.

    Many of the most likely aspirants to the throne have a quirk or flaw that threatens to disqualify them from consideration. Even as Michael Gorra makes a case for Henry James’s A Portrait of a Lady as the Great American Novel, he needs to point out that the book is set in Europe. I agree that James may be the best American novelist, although I prefer his later works The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, and (my favorite American novel) The Ambassadors — but these also take place mostly in the Old World. My backup choice is Moby-Dick, but it too transpires beyond US national limits. The same geographical concern plagues Hemingway’s candidacy. On the other hand, The Great Gatsby is brilliant and entirely based on native soil, but clocking in at under 50,000 words it’s far too short for such a lofty title as Great American Novel. What’s left? Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece … well, at least until Twain fumbled the ending. Faulkner’s too dark, Pynchon’s too hard. On and on the faultfinding goes.

    Then we come to John Dos Passos’s entry in the race, a series of three novels originally published separately — The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936) — but eventually combined into a single imposing 1,200 page edition entitled U.S.A. Seventy-five years ago this month, in January 1938, Dos Passos’s publisher put out the first edition under this new name, and with the addition of a grandiloquent prologue by the author:

    U.S.A. is the slice of a continent. […] U.S.A. is the world’s greatest rivervalley fringed with mountains and hills, U.S.A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bank accounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men in their uniforms buried in Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.

    Mr. Dos Passos (and his publisher) clearly had their eyes on the prize. But no dice.

    To give this writer his due: no author in the history of the U.S. worked harder to construct a literary work that would meet all the requirements of the Great American Novel. The whole continent, from Hollywood to New York and the flyover states too, shows up in this sprawling trilogy. We also get minibiographies of prominent Americans — Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers and others — inserted into the text, forced into place by Dos Passos even when the accounts have no connection to the main narrative and fall outside the chronology of the story. He also tosses in hundreds of newspaper headlines, fragments of news stories, song lyrics, and other cultural bric-à-brac into this mosaic of a text. Like the potted biographies, these disruptive bumps in the reader’s way have no bearing on the story, but add Americana-flavored flamboyance to the proceedings.

    The prose style is as variable as the contents. Dos Passos realizes that a great American novel must capture the pragmatic American spirit, yet it also must be daring and experimental. How does he reconcile these opposing demands? It’s easy! Every 40 pages, more or less, he inserts a few pages of stream-of-consciousness writing, without any punctuation marks. I am told that these sections, entitled “The Camera Eye,” are autobiographical, but frankly I would never have figured this out from reading them. They come across as intrusions from another work, perhaps a bad imitation of James Joyce. Here’s a little taste:

    [I]n the morning the shadows of the poplars point west and in the afternoon they point out east where Persia is the jagged bits of old iron cut into our hands through the canvas gloves a kind of grey slagdust plugs our noses and ears stings eyes four hunkies a couple of wops a bohunk dagoes guineas two little dark guys with blue chins nobody can talk to [...]

    It’s hard to understand the purpose of these 51 interludes, except perhaps to impress us that John Dos Passos is a bold, experimental fellow who refuses to be hemmed in by traditional narrative techniques. One can almost hear the author muttering under his breath as he writes the same boastful words his character Charley Anderson delivers in the third volume of U.S.A.: “I’ve made some dust fly … the boy wizard, eh? . . . Well, you just tell ‘em they ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

    As this bit of dialogue makes clear, Dos Passos stood by his claim, in the prologue, that, “U.S.A. is the speech of the people.” Even before he had embarked on this magnum opus, our novelist had taken pride in capturing the different dialects and accents of America. In his bestselling 1925 novel Manhattan Transfer, Dos Passos offered up the full gamut of ethnic voices. Can you guess the nationality of this speaker?

    A man vat is ambeetious must take chances. Ambeetions is vat I came here from Frankfort mit at the age of tvelf years, und now that I haf a son to vork for … Ach, his name shall be Vilhelm after the mighty Kaiser.

    No, it’s not very subtle. The U.S.A. Trilogy delivers more of the same. Plain folk offer comments such as: “Sure, pard, I used to feel that way when I was a young feller […] I agree with you absholootely, pard.” A black servant will moan: “It shoa is too bad, Mr. Dick.” The workingclass hero muses: “It gits you down thinkin’ how they got all the guns an’ all the money an’ we ain’t got nothin’.” An Irish character remarks: “I’m goin’ to have the honorr and pleasurr of introducin’ dear Eleanor into the mysteries of the true church.” Perhaps this mimicry possessed more charm back in the 1930s, but readers nowadays will cringe at the stale stereotypes, and be reminded not so much of the Great American Novel, but of bad B- movies of the same era.

    But, you ask, what about the plot of U.S.A.? Well, try to find one. Dos Passos creates plenty of characters, and they offer up many opinions — there is absholootely no shortage of those in this work — but the occasional conflicts and dramas of their lives are overwhelmed by all the posturing and blustering. One of the more prominent protagonists in this work, J. Ward Morehouse, makes his name and fortune as public relations guru, but almost every other character here also works as a round-the-clock spinmeister, packaging the ideology du jour in the best possible light.

    These characters and their concerns occasionally intersect, by means of innumerable coincidences that even Dickens would have been embarrassed to employ. But when they meet up, Dos Passos’s characters remain wrapped up in their own personal concerns. These tend to fall into three categories in the U.S.A. Trilogy. Characters who have no money want to get some. Characters who have some money want to get more. And the characters who are already rich want to get richer.

    You might infer from this obsession with getting and spending that the people in this novel are practical, results-oriented folks. If the great American philosophy is pragmatism, shouldn’t the great American novel celebrate the same virtue? Not in the world of John Dos Passos. One of the most curious qualities of this unusual book is the mismatch between the worldviews offered up for consideration and the world actually depicted in its pages.

    If you just went by the worldviews, you might think that Dos Passos had aimed to write the Great Russian Novel. Almost everyone in this book is planning a revolution, including many of the characters who are most zealous in scheming about ways of making a buck. Fortunately for their fellow citizens, they can’t agree on the purpose of their revolution. Some are anarchists. Others are Marxists. We also encounter syndicalists, Wobblies, Trotskyites, and others of various stripes, who may disagree on the most basic principles, but all look forward to the day, coming soon, when the system will be brought to its knees. If any of the innumerable characters in the U.S.A. Trilogy actually believe in peaceful political change by means of voting in a functional democracy … well, they aren’t given any opportunity to express their views in this work. Maybe U.S.A. the country stands for democracy, but U.S.A. the novel doesn’t acknowledge its existence.

    Even when we get into the second novel in the trilogy, 1919, where Dos Passos has an opportunity to inject the drama and tragedy of World War I into his narrative, he fumbles the chance. This is a war novel with no combat scenes. Instead his characters spend most of their time thinking and talking about the “next big war” — not World War II, a conflict that Mr. Dos Passos didn’t seem to anticipate (although he wrote the trilogy during the period of Hitler’s rise to power and militarization of the German economy), but the war led by the angry (fill in the blank: anarchists, proletariat, union members, etc.) who will seize the means of production and implement their worldview by brute force.

    Characters in this book are inclined to say things like: “I ain’t goin’ to take a drink until after the revolution.” Or: “That’s nothing to how hard we’ll have to work when we have Soviets in America.” When Ben Compton, party organizer, hears his girlfriend talk about getting married and having kids, he tells her to wait until the U.S. government is overthrown in a violent uprising. John Dos Passos could have presented these sentiments with a dose of irony — see Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebooks (a book with many similarities to U.S.A.) for an example of how this can be done by a better, more nuanced writer — but he is too caught up in the ideological crosscurrents himself to notice the dark humor latent in them.

    The U.S.A. Trilogy gets better as it goes on, and in the final volume, The Big Money, our author inserts some promising narratives about major currents in American life. The portion of the book that takes place in Hollywood exposes the shallowness of celebrity culture — and the hypocrisies Dos Passos deals with here are just as relevant in the current day. Another short section on an American bride’s nightmarish move to Cuba to live with her husband’s interfering family also plays on hot multicultural issues and conflicts that still can grab a reader’s attention in the 21st century. But these short bursts of inspiration pass quickly, and soon we are back in the morass of sloganeering and bluster that make almost everything in this novel seem phony and calculated.

    The rise of war hero Charley Anderson to success as an entrepreneur in the aviation industry emerges as the dominant story in the final volume, and for once Dos Passos has a real plot on his hands, with potential both for social commentary and also old-fashioned storytelling. But he constantly settles for unintentional parody and stereotypes just when he should be bringing his trilogy to a grand conclusion. Anderson gets involved in dangerous Wall Street intrigues, but Dos Passos can’t seem to explain what they are. Is this battle about a merger or is it a takeover bid? Or is it a proxy battle for control of the board? Or is this a question of insider trading and stock manipulation? While reading Dos Passos’s vague, uncentered account, I couldn’t help thinking of poor David Foster Wallace taking classes in tax accounting in order to write The Pale King with scrupulous accuracy. Dos Passos, in contrast, doesn’t seem to have much grasp of the world of finance he hoped to expose in this work. Instead we are left with cardboard characters mouthing comments such as: “You just watch, little girl, I’m goin’ to show ‘em. In five years they’ll come crawlin’ to me on their bellies. I don’t know what it is, but I got a kind of feel for the big money.” This is high finance described in the style of an Archie comic book.

    Dos Passos does have one big idea. And it’s a good one. He wants us to understand how people of commitment and principle betray their own dreams. In a literary work with too few connections between the many characters, this is one quality almost all of them share. They don’t live up to their own loudly proclaimed ideals. Or, if they do, they are so battered and shattered by the process that they might have been better off selling out with the rest of their generation. In the hands of a writer of genius, someone with the insight of a Henry James or F. Scott Fitzgerald or the prose style of either a William Faulkner or an Ernest Hemingway, this might have served as the basis for a real classic, maybe even a Great American Novel. But the U.S.A. Trilogy is not that work.

    And, worst of all for John Dos Passos, his own life story after he published this supposed masterpiece follows the identical path as those of the characters he most despises in its pages. For Mr. Dos Passos, who started out waiting for the revolution as a young man, ended up as a supporter of Barry Goldwater 30 years later. That kind of a turnaround would also make for an interesting novel, probably a much more interesting one than the U.S.A. Trilogy.


    LARB Contributor

    Ted Gioia writes on music, books and popular culture. His latest book is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.


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