Sunday 19 August 2012

John Dos Passos' U.S.A.

Please nobody say reading 1200 pages of literature is not hard work! But in a way, I didn't much notice how long it took me or how much of my time it occupied. In fact, I loved reading those pages! I am talking about John Dos Passos' Trilogy 'U.S.A.', a brilliant if somewhat postmodern account of life in that most exasperating of all countries during the first quarter of the 20th century. 

John Dos Passos may not be a familiar name to many reader nowadays but he was certainly somebody who influenced the style of the so-called 'Lost Generation' writers in the early 20th century. His book 'Manhattan Transfer' is still widely read today. However, few probably still read his main work, the trilogy U.S.A. which he published over more than 20 years. One reason may be because he employed a cut and paste method for some of the sections in the book, including snippets from newspaper reports or newsreels. This gives his writing a slightly jumpy tone. Yet the main narrative in the book, following several protagonists through the upheaval of the first world war and its aftermath, is brilliantly executed and a gripping read.

John Dos Passos

Dos Passos had sympathies for the political left but his disenchantment with Communist politics of the Stalinist variety shines through clearly in his writings. What he captured more than anything else however in the book is the arbitrary nature of human destiny as people move through the jungle of social commitments and rejections. He also, perhaps unwittingly, formulated one of the greatest examples of why revolutions are so rare in human history. In a chapter on one of his protagonists (Richard Elseworth Savage) who volunteered for the Medical Corps of the US Army, Dos Passos writes of his determination to join the anti-war campaign. 

'One day he saw a pocket compass in a jeweler's window on the Rue de Tivoli. He went in and bought it, there was suddenly a fullformed plan in his head to buy a civilian suit, leave his uniform in a heap on the wharf at Bordeaux and make for the Spanish border. ... He even got ready a letter to send his mother... By gum, he must write some verse: what people needed was stirring poems to nerve them for revolt against their cannibal government. Sitting in the secondclass compartment he was so busy building a daydream of himself living in a sunscorched Spanish town, sending out flaming poems and manifestoes, calling young men to revolt against their butchers, poems that would be published by secret presses all over the world... At noon Dick got hungry and went to the diner to eat a last deluxe meal. He sat down at a table opposite a goodlooking young man in a French officer's uniform ... They lifted their glasses and looked into each other's eyes and laughed. ... They were never sober after eleven in the morning; it was calm misty weather; they were very happy. One night, when he was standing alone in the stern beside the small gun, Dick was searching his pocket for a cigarette when his fingers felt something hard in the lining of his coat. It was the little compass he had bought to help him across the Spanish border. Guiltily, he fished it out and dropped it overboard.' 

It seems our plans for personal happiness only temporarily intersect with the grand plans of history. Perhaps that's for the better.

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