This is a guest post by Andrew Seal, who is currently a graduate student in American studies at Yale. His writing has previously appeared in n + 1, The Valve, and The Quarterly Conversation.
Why should you read U.S.A., the 1300-page novel by John Dos Passos?
You may well regard that as an unexpected or even irrelevant question, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have thought to have posed it myself, had not a tempest spilled out of its teacup when an evaluation of the novel by Ted Gioia for the Los Angeles Review of Books spawned Scott’s two http://conversationalreading.com/sure/”>responses on this site. The less said about Gioia’s embarrassingly superficial reading of the novel the better, but his haughty dismissal (and his comical performance in the comments to Scott’s rebuttals) prompted me to revisit what I wrote about the novel while I was reading it a few years ago and try to update my thoughts.
Because I certainly do feel that U.S.A. should be read—by you, right now, or in the near future. Whether you’re an American or not, whether you like big shaggy novels or whittled stiletto-like novelettes, make time. Put down your Gaddis or your Karen Russell or (excuse me, Scott) your Oulipians, and read U.S.A. And here’s why.
U.S.A. is the only novel in the nation’s literary history that is both truly panoramic and utterly unfamiliar, that gives you the whole nation (and more) but that maps an entirely unknown continent. It is both an exceedingly rich historical novel and a wildly imaginative alternative history. And even after seventy-five years of world literature’s most deliberate assaults on the boundaries of literary form and content, it can change what you think a novel can do or will attempt.
I think you will enjoy the hell out of it no matter who you are or what your tastes, but not if you let your tastes predetermine how you read it (which is what soured Gioia so). For the way we are taught to read any of the three broad traditions which most of us encounter somewhat regularly in school or after—realism, high modernism, and post-modernism—train us to look for things which we will find only in disappointing forms in U.S.A. We look for character and plot from realism; linguistic intensity and clever devices for drawing attention to the medium and conventions of literature from high modernism; and bumptious intertextuality and hyper-reflexivity from postmodernism. Don’t make the mistake of judging U.S.A. by those yardsticks.
U.S.A. has characters (twelve principals, legions of others), but you don’t “follow” them the way you do in a realist novel. You can’t really think or expect to know what they’re doing “offstage” (i.e., when the novel’s not talking about them) and their (re)appearances in the novel’s foreground aren’t really indicative of their (renewed) importance. The characters’ relationship to the novel’s attentions is best thought of as aleatory and arbitrary, and you’d do best to enjoy them while they last, but don’t worry when they’re gone.
Similarly, plots creak with disuse or end abruptly, but they may also cross implausibly. But what governs them is not so much a linear sense of time and a planar sense of space (have fun trying to calculate when Charley Anderson was born, for instance) but a vivid sense of the volatility of history… or History. Dos Passos is intentionally depicting a world being shaken like a snow globe by war, technological marvels, unprecedentedly dynamic intellectual currents, and vertiginous economic expansions. To capture these phenomena in full flight (as I think Dos Passos is one of the few authors to have done) would not really be possible or desirable with a realist’s sense of scalar order and regularity. One needs a logarithmic fictional world, and plots that metastasize rather than just grow.
Gioia and others have knocked U.S.A. for what they take to be clumsy pseudo-Joycean flourishes—the sections known as the Camera Eye. These are, candidly, aspects of the novel I don’t think anyone has ever gotten a proper handle on, least of all me. But I do firmly think that reading them as high modernist experiments of briefly sustained linguistic intensity is to force upon them goals and qualities about which Dos Passos cared little. Even in the most “poetic” of the Camera Eyes, the diction is typically pedestrian, unmusical but repetitious. What then, was he doing? In some comments which most critics try to shoehorn into an autobiographical interpretation of the Camera Eyes, Dos Passos explained that the sections served to “indicate the position of the observer” or to insert but also quarantine his “own subjective feelings.”
While industrious scholars have extracted a large number of episodes from Dos Passos’s boyhood and adolescence from the Camera Eyes, I think it is best to read them not as an encoded autobiography or as a prose poem to be parsed, but as, literally, rest breaks for your mind, moments to let your eye go soft and your attention go slack. The Camera Eyes, I think, with a couple of exceptions in The Big Money, the third volume of the novel, are dumping grounds for Dos Passos’s fragmented memories and irritations, wooly ideas and half-felt intuitions, intentionally pointless injections of his subjectivity, not meant for deciphering or, frankly, enjoyment. But don’t skip them! They’re palate-cleansers, and belong there.
Finally, reading U.S.A. as if it’s a game—the way many postmodern novels explicitly instruct us to do—will lead you, I’m sorry to say, to disappointment. There aren’t hidden intertextual jokes and, while the novel’s canvas is broad enough to contain a number of self-reflexive moments, so what? It’s just big, and it is incredibly inclusive. Look up what you don’t know—I learned more about the years the novel covers (1898-1929) through it than through many straight historical accounts of the period. In fact, the novel continuously surprises with what it chooses to include—or not to include, like the fighting of WWI—from these years. It is an account unlike any other of these thirty years—an impressive feat, given how much has been written about the First World War and the Roaring Twenties. And that idiosyncrasy, that uniqueness, that offhanded shuffling of what was important or irrelevant in history, is, I find, more pleasurable than the more deliberate remixing and splicing of, say, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or DeLillo’s Underworld. Your mileage may vary, but what is important, I think, is that it is a different goal and a different feat, and what Dos Passos accomplished using the raw material of history and fiction is both continuously challenging and effortlessly pleasurable.
I almost wrote above that, while U.S.A. can satisfy any literary taste, it probably requires a reader of a certain political bent. But on further reflection, I don’t think that’s the case. Dos Passos was famous for a mid-life political turnaround, becoming an arch-conservative where once he had publicly pledged to vote Communist in 1932 (FDR’s first year running for President). But more diligent readings of Dos Passos’s whole career have found that he espoused essentially the same vision of the US from the 1920s through the 1960s. What changed was not his political philosophy, but the felt imminence of a revolution that would remake the nation on more egalitarian principles. In 1932 that remaking seemed a practical and tangible reality, something which you could actually work for in measurable steps, not something you had to hope for or pine for or turn to the past to find a mirage-like approximation of that society you thought you could build.
So I don’t think you have to be a man or woman of the Left to enjoy U.S.A.; I think it will speak to centrists or even right-wingers in tones they can appreciate. Because what is captured in U.S.A.—better than any other novel of its time, before, or since, and, believe me, I and many other literary historians have looked—is a sense of a fully malleable society which stood ready to be fundamentally reshaped into something that would have a hope of maintaining a just balance between power and weakness, privilege and lucklessness, ambition and fairness, liberty and equality.
That sense of malleability evaporated not long after 1932—whether because of the New Deal, in spite of it, or because of entirely different factors is something you, Dos Passos, and I probably won’t agree on—and the sudden drought of dreams embittered and warped many people, though some didn’t quite know it, and others never became aware of how parched their political landscape became. U.S.A. is both an account of the coming of that drought and a heartrending account of the last moments before it. It is a novel entirely on edge.
I read U.S.A. over the summer of 2010, and when I read it I felt that it was a remarkable monument of literary history which really had no precedent in American literature—but which also had no successor, and which was never going to have a successor. It was, I thought, a sterile book which had a lot to say, but not a lot to give.
Since then, the events of Occupy Wall Street—which I did not participate in but was near enough palpably to feel the energy and abundance of imagination emerging from it—have given me a different perspective on the novel. (If I were someone who leaned to the right, I imagine the Tea Party a couple years earlier may have done the same.)
While I don’t think the fall of 2011 matched the wide-openness of 1932, because of OWS I understand better the limits of reading U.S.A. as trying to operate as a high modernist novel, or a cluttered and idiosyncratic realist novel, or a proto-post-modernist novel. Even the ways that we think about literary innovation are not enough fully to comprehend what Dos Passos was doing with U.S.A. The only comparisons I can think of are some of the great novels that came out of the process of decolonization, where a similar sense of the political landscape suddenly turning protean and immediate, unrestrained and enigmatic, obtained. I don’t think it’s helpful to think of U.S.A. as a magical realist novel, exactly, but American literature simply does not have an analogue. (Some US histories, I think, come close, especially those about the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877). A sharper comparison, though, might be to C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins, which is a history of the Haitian Revolution.)