by John Dos PassosPublished 1937 1184 pages
A massive, sprawling, three-work tome about America, about trying to eke out a living in a society where the rich and powerful make the rules, and how those rules wring the life out of folks rich and poor alike. Dos Passos's sympathies are squarely with the poor, and specifically with the workers and the labourers toiling for a pittance, but he gives the wealthy and the powerful their due as well, showing how money erodes them and consumes them from the inside out, to end dead or miserable, (or both!).
“When you’re outa luck in this man’s country, you certainly are outa luck,” said Mac and for some reason they both laughed.
There's not a plot as such—Dos Passos takes in so much of the social milieu in the years leading up to the First World War, through the war, and then into the Roaring Twenties on the other side. Late in the story are intimations of the impending stock market collapse, but Dos Passos mercifully finishes before that catastrophe—finishes on a small victory after some thousand-plus pages of sheer devastation.
Most of the book consists of personal narratives spanning 12 characters, starting with their childhoods and advancing to some pivotal moment in their lives. As new characters are introduced, the earlier characters become side characters, showing up intermittently as the new characters meet them. It's a fun contrivance, and builds a social web that's as entertaining as it is satisfying to unravel. Dos Passos does a passable job of introducing us to folks from different walks of life, but it's disappointing that they're all white folks. Most of the people of colour remain nameless and appear only for a scene or two at a time—and the rest are almost without exception servants (or victims of really heartless racism (or both!)).
The rest of the book consists of collages of newspaper clippings, short (often farcical) biographies of prominent public figures, and stream of consciousness-type vignettes from Dos Passos's own life. The newspaper articles are alright—they never really insist upon the reader, and they give a good sense of the speed of the American press machine, but they don't contribute much to a reader 100 years removed from the events they describe. The biographical vignettes are a bit of a slog—I expect that scholars of Dos Passos's life will get something out of em, but they all sorta went over my head. The biographies, however, are a laugh, and a great opportunity for Dos Passos to express how he really feels about the leading figures of his time—here's a part of Theodore Roosevelt's biography, for instance:
but after the fighting, volunteers warcorrespondents magazinewriters began to want to go home;
it wasn't bully huddling under puptents in the tropical rain or scorching in the morning sun of the seared Cuban hills with malaria mowing them down and dysentery and always yellowjack to be afraid of.
T. R. got up a roundrobin to the President and asked for the regular amateurs warriors to be sent home and leave the dirtywork to the regulars
who were digging trenches and shovelling crap and fighting malaria and dysentery and yellowjack
to make Cuba cozy for the Sugar Trust
and the National City Bank
I like Theodore Roosevelt as much as the next Regular White Guy on the Internet, but phew! Dos Passos doesn't pull punches.
The prose is idiosyncratic, but I think it really works. Dos Passos does a good job of giving the different characters subtly different internal voices, and they go a long way to establishing what kind of people these are. Dos Passos sort of rambles a bit, but the effect is more of a thundering freight train than a meandering stream:
Uncle Tim at that time had his own jobprinting shop on a dusty side street off North Clark in the groundfloor of a cranky old brick building. It only occupied a small section of the building that was mostly used as a warehouse and was famous for its rats. ... Pop puttered around on his crutch for several years, always looking for a job. ... Then one day he got pneumonia and died quietly at the Sacred Heart Hospital. It was about the same time that Uncle Tim bought a linotype machine.
Uncle Tim was so excited he didn't take a drink for three days.
Plus ça change
Probably the most quoted line from the trilogy comes very late in the novel, during one of those biographical "The Camera Eye" vignettes, where Dos Passos, utterly defeated in the wake of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, concedes, "all right we are two nations"—one nation of the powerful and one of the powerless.
This article from the New Yorker about USA claims that Dos Passos viewed division as fundamentally American, and I think I agree with that. There's an old Regular Car Reviews video from—jiminy—_8 years ago_ that comments on the same phenomenon of Americans splitting into opposing camps and absolutely going to town on each other. It was true a hundred years ago and it's true today.
And then there's this gem, from an admittedly extremely closeminded character:
Right away, Mother started talking happily about the war and the Huns and the submarine campaign and what could Mr Wilson be thinking of not teaching those Mexicans a lesson. She was sure it wouldn’t have been like that if Mr Hughes have been elected; in fact, she was sure that he had been elected legally and the Democrats had stolen the election by some skulduggery or other. And that dreadful Bryan was making the country a laughingstock. ‘My dear, Bryan is a traitor and ought to be shot.’
Plus c'est la même chose, eh?
Doing way more running, cycling, and swimming than I ever thought I would. Also: getting back on the motorbike!
Saw Julius Caesar performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle on 13 May 2023. Directed by Atri Banerjee.