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Anti-USA

Ted Gioia’s takedown of John dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy in the LARB feels rather light to me. It’s not so much that I don’t think some of his points are legit, just that the reasons he chooses to critique this trilogy seem, to me, to be light and glancing criticism that doesn’t really consider the depth of what the work is attempting to be. For instance:

For instance, while critiquing the “Camera Eye” sections of the Trilogy:

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.”

Criticism requires much more than jokingly asserting that an experimental technique is incomprehensible to you and that it is being employed for the mere sake of experimentation. Mere dismissal is always lazy criticism, particularly when dealing with a book that many consider a classic. Make no mistake: no matter a critic’s belief in his fervor, the classic, well-protected within a skin that has survived ages of criticism, will shrug off such glancing blows.

Or when attempting to critique its plot:

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.

Again, nothing has been done here but to assert that Gioia doesn’t understand (or even want to understand) whatever Dos Passos may be attempting. If he disagrees with what Dos Passos wants to do, then fine; but this critique, barely adequate as a description, falls far short of intelligently differing with what USA attempts.

I would point to Andrew Seal’s three-month discussion of USA as part of his summer read of the book as a much more insteresting and substantial critique of Dos Passos’s work. Here’s a bit from his final, summary post, although the others critique the trilogy throughout.

U.S.A. is a tricky novel to place, and therefore it’s surprisingly difficult to make a case for why “you,” the general reader, should knock about through its 1300 pages. For reasons I will get into in a moment, it’s not exactly a historical novel, or at least it will not satisfy someone looking for a historical novel. It also fails to satisfy as a modernist novel, regardless of whether your flavor of modernism comes in Hemingway or Joyce. It is experimental, but its experiments push against language and narrative in ways that will probably seem too regular, too machined, and not “difficult” enough to someone of the latter persuasion. To a reader of the former, the Lost Generation mythos is here as well, but the glamour of war-time Paris and Italy or the Jazz Age is much shabbier, less heroic. Drinking here is occasionally if not often boring (one might compare the liquors consumed in Hemingway relative to Dos Passos; I imagine those in Dos Passos are typically cheaper, less savored, and less specific), and violence and sex aren’t Capital-T Themes so much as things characters do or don’t do.

It also won’t really do as a “relevant” novel, a novel which “speaks to our time.” It would take a great deal of effort to discover more than a partial reflection of 2010 in its characters, its plot, or especially its concerns. And yet, unlike, say, Mad Men, it would also be difficult to glean contrasts—favorable or unfavorable—which allow us to congratulate or castigate ourselves on our progress or backsliding. The stories of emergent industries or professions (automobiles, airplanes, public relations) look so little like the internet start-ups of today, and the enormity of class conflict and working-class consciousness which makes up so much of the trilogy is basically unrecognizable in the present.

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4 comments to Anti-USA

  • As you know, if you read my entire essay, I hardly dismiss the stream-of-consciousness passages in U.S.A. via a joke. I point out that these sections have no connection with the plot or characters of the novel – which is hardly a small matter. I also quote an example, to allow readers of my essay to gauge for themselves the clumsiness of these interludes. I stand by my claim: namely that these sections are a second-rate imitation of Joyce.

    Certainly if you want to attack shallowness, you should at least avoid it in your presentation of my views.

    The same is true of your response to my critique of the problems in Dos Passos’s plot. I call attention to the awkward use of coincidences, employed with ludicrous regularity in this novel. I offer specific examples of the disturbing vagueness with which Dos Passos deals with war, finances and a host of other subjects that are central to his book. I look at his substitution of slogans and ideology for true character-driven plotting. Etc. etc.

    And your response to all this? “Giola doesn’t understand (or even want to understand) whatever Dos Passos may be attempting.”

    Who’s shallow here?

    By the way, my name is spelled ‘Gioia.’

  • Gs

    I’ve been told, although I’ve got no experience with the task myself, it’s not easy to find a needle in a haystack.

    Here, it seems – and I say this after having just read the lesser 600 page tome known as Gass’s ‘The Tunnel’ – the needle within the haystack is the one and a half page review summary of a 1300 page monster. Summarizing 1300 pages of subjectivism into a 1 and 1/2 page review, necessarily, does the author a disservice. The resulting frustrations can, then, markedly effect the reviewer’s review.

  • admin

    Hi Ted,

    I read the whole piece. I found it light. Sorry.

    You dismiss the “Camera Eye” sections by saying “It’s hard to understand the purpose of these 51 interludes . . .” Many, many people have found purposes for these sections, and to me the counterpoint to the narrative sections is quite clear. You fail to account for these.

    Yes, you call attention to Dos Passos’s heavy use of coincidences, slogans, and vagueness, but you fail to consider the possibility that these are purposeful. To me, this is a very naive reading of the text, particularly since you seem to recognize that Dos Passos is at pains to speak in the voice of the underclass and represent their experiences. Did you ever consider that the lack of connection between the various threads is part of the novel’s point?

    I don’t even know what to make of something like this:

    “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.”

    Yes, Dos Passos is obviously writing a novel meant to express the fervor in the revolutionary classes of the time (yet the trilogy also contains more than its share of industrialists—certainly not communists by any measure—which you fail to mention here). But instead of adequately attempting to account for what the novel does, you simply lament that only one viewpoint is represented. How is this useful criticism of a novel? Dos Passos was clearly trying to write a book about these people.

    Later you write:

    “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.”

    How is this a critique of Dos Passos? His characters live in 1919 and know nothing of Hitler. To them, the next big war will be a revolution between the classes. Why in God’s name would they expect World War II?

    The entire premise of your piece is that Dos Passos has attempted to write the Great American Novel, a very diffuse term that you fail to ever define. Nor do you argue convincingly that this was USA’s intent. How do you know that this was Dos Passos’s intent? You quote his publisher’s ad copy, instead of backing up this assertion with any textual matter, other than that this book takes place throughout the U.S. and includes biographies of famous Americans. So do many novels, as well as works of history, encyclopedias, etc. And then, having not defined the term “Great American Novel” or adequately argued that this is what USA is aspiring to, you proceed to hold Dos Passos to a standard that seems entirely invented to berate the book and that has little to do with what the book is attempting.

  • [...] I didn’t really want to go here, but Ted Gioia invited me to in the comments to Monday’s post, so . . [...]

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