The ‘mixed curse’ of the United States of America
Almost a hundred years ago, the ‘U.S.A.’ trilogy of novels turned a spotlight on America’s simultaneous genius and potent capacity for ill. A resurrection of John dos Passos’s masterpiece.
Norman Mailer deemed it “the single greatest novel any of us has written… in this country in the last one hundred years”. The Modern Library ranked it 23rd of the best 100 English-language novels of the 20th century.
Comprising three interlinked works totalling 1,400 pages, The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936), it offers a sprawling, Renaissance-style panorama of US life so audacious in its narrative technique that it still startles. It is a “non-linear” creation with no clear beginning, middle or end. The myriad intersecting characters appear and disappear, sometimes to resurface hundreds of pages later.
Stylistically, Dos Passos belongs to the “Lost Generation” of writers. Like Hemingway he reflects the hard face of his age in terse, dispassionate bulletins; elsewhere he captures the moment in Joycean thought streams.
Punctuating the narrative are sharply drawn pen portraits of the American luminaries and villains of the period, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and others; autobiographical sketches based on the author’s own wanderings; and scene-setting snatches of popular songs, headlines and news items (“GENERAL STRIKE NOW THREATENS … It’s moonlight fair upon the Wa-abash.”)
Dos Passos set out to capture the spirit of the crucible years between the turn of the 19th century and the Great Depression when the US emerged as the motor of the world economy and a great imperial power that eclipsed the crumbling principalities of Old Europe.
It was the age of the first global conflict and military megadeath; of the first mass media and mass entertainment; of the first large-scale automotive and aeronautical travel; of a developing world financial ecosystem and the first global slump.
Above all, it saw the rise of modern class warfare, between a flint-faced cohort of industrial millionaires and the growing army of helots in the docks, railways, mines and factories of a new and ruthlessly acquisitive society.
Social conflict and breakdown
The title of the first novel points to Dos Passos’s overarching theme of social conflict and breakdown. It refers to an obscure meteorological text which noted that storms tend to aggregate around the 42nd line of latitude — the northern axis of US industry from New York to Oregon and California.
At the centre of the storms stood the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, aka the Wobblies), who invented the slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all”, believed in “one big union”, and thought they were on the brink of a social revolution.
In most ways, the USA of Dos Passos’s novel is the same country whose atmosphere we all still breathe. The starkest contrast is that in the early 20th century, the radical left was a real force in the US.
Home-grown class antagonisms were amplified by the arrival of “the huddled masses” of Europe, bringing the collectivism of the Jewish shtetl and the anarchist traditions of rural Italy and Spain.
Incredibly, IWW co-founder Eugene Debs, a former railwayman that The 42nd Parallel profiles as a “Lover of Mankind”, garnered almost a million votes — more than Roosevelt — on a socialist ticket in the 1921 presidential election.
And he did this while serving a 10-year sentence in the Atlanta Penitentiary for “sedition” — his crime was to speak out against the US’s entry into World War 1.
The “Red Scare” of 1917-1920, fuelled by the Russian Revolution and anti-immigrant nativism, was met with police brutality, newspaper hysteria (“IWW PLOT TO KILL WILSON”) and a statutory crackdown that permanently marked the US mind and political system. In addition to the 1918 Sedition Act, which outlawed disloyalty to the government or military on pain of 20 years’ imprisonment, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the “Palmer Raids”, which rounded up 10,000 suspected socialists, anarchists, and Bolshevists, many of whom were jailed and more than 500 deported.
Dos Passos himself was involved in efforts to save the Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, executed after a deeply flawed murder trial in defiance of history’s biggest international clemency campaign.
In the trilogy’s closing pages, Dos Passos draws a pointed contrast between the assassination of union activist Eddie Spellman and the suicide of Eveline Hutchins, unstrung by artistic failure and the despairing hedonism of the Roaring Twenties.
(The novel’s many developed female characters reflect the large-scale arrival of women in the labour market. In a still-familiar pattern, they shine in entertainment, public relations and other secondary industries.)
Perhaps the most hair-raising incident recounted by Dos Passos, controversial to this day, was the lynching of lumberjack and war veteran Wesley Everest by a mob of American Legionnaires led by the local chamber of commerce.
Arrested for murder while protecting a Wobblies’ meeting — the IWW insisted he was defending himself — Everest was forcibly abducted from jail, castrated and hanged from a bridge under a blaze of car headlights. The coroner found him responsible for his own death.
Roots of US militarism
U.S.A. also sheds light on the roots of US militarism, which by sanctifying the overthrow of governments perceived as unfriendly has embroiled the US in repeated surrogate wars and invasions.
1919, a brilliant satire of the US war effort, starts with a mocking portrayal of the patriotic frenzy triggered by the declaration of war, when the streets were “filled with flags and uniforms”.
In one ludicrous scene, restaurant diners are forced to rise and sit, rise and sit as the band repeatedly strikes up The Star-Spangled Banner.
In the honourable company of such works as A Farewell to Arms and Catch 22, U.S.A. is one of the 20th century’s classic antiwar polemics. Like Hemingway, Dos Passos was a volunteer ambulance driver in World War 1 who saw the horrors of modern mechanised combat first-hand.
US soldiers deride the war as “a cockeyed lunatic asylum” driven by the loans of banker JP Morgan and fellow profiteers, and the jingoistic clamour of the press as “bushwa (bourgeois) propaganda”.
At times the brutal realities break through the tedium, chaos, and incessant whoring and boozing.
The torrent of wounded during the German push on Paris in March 1918 is evoked in a nightmare stream of consciousness flashback: “… the grey crooked fingers the thick drip of blood off the canvas the bubbling when the lung cases try to breathe the muddy scraps of flesh you put in the ambulance alive and haul out dead”.
1919 closes with a sneer at the pious hypocrisy surrounding the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, when the bigwigs “thought how beautiful sad Old Glory God’s Country it was to have the bugler play taps [The Last Post]…
“Where his chest ought to have been they pinned the Congressional Medal, the DSC, the Médaille Militaire… All the Washingtonians brought flowers…
“Woodrow Wilson brought a bouquet of poppies.”
But Dos Passos also highlights the scintillating inventiveness and entrepreneurial flair and daring that were the Janus face of US greed and rapacious self-interest.
Alongside JP Morgan and union-busting steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, the world’s richest man, were Edison, inventor of the light bulb and gramophone; plant wizard Luther Burbank; and the Wright brothers.
The “Emperor of the Caribbean”, Minor C Keith, was the hugely powerful co-founder of the transnational giant United Fruit. But the venture took its toll: Keith lost three brothers to malaria in Panama.
Monopoly and its deformed offspring, inequality, have haunted the American Dream. Dos Passos reveals that Samuel Insull, virtual creator of the national grid, held directorships in 85 companies, chaired 65 and was president of 11. He took three hours to sign all his resignations.
“War shut up the progressives (no more nonsense about trustbusting, controlling monopoly, the public good) and raised… Insull to the peak.”
A hundred years later, five corporate titans control the tech industry and the richest 1% of Americans hold 35% of the country’s wealth.
Dos Passos needed a good editor. His approach is to situate his characters against the backdrop of great events, but some of the personal detail seems excessive.
And there are odd lacunae — beyond his bitterly ironic observation that in choosing the Unknown Soldier “make sure he ain’t a dinge [derogatory term for a black person], boys”, black Americans hardly get a mention.
But U.S.A. is a symphony of charged contrasts: JP Morgan versus architect of genius Frank Lloyd Wright… press magnate and Hitler fan William Randolph Hearst versus Wobblies songwriter Joe Hill… Samuel Insull versus electronic prodigy Charles Proteus Steinmetz…
Dos Passos’s neglected masterpiece raises a key question of our age — how does the world deal with “the mixed curse” of the United States of America? DM/ML/MC