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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