I didn’t really want to go here, but Ted Gioia invited me to in the comments to Monday’s post, so . . .
Gioia completely dismisses the “Camera Eye” sections by saying “It’s hard to understand the purpose of these 51 interludes . . .” I don’t see how “it’s hard to understand the purpose of . . .” is ever sufficient as literary criticism. Furthermore, many, many people have found purposes for these sections—why did Gioia not try and take some of them into account? For my own part, their counterpoint to the narrative sections is quite clear. Gioia fails to critique them in any meaningful way. He says they are “autobiographical, but frankly I would never have figured this out from reading them.” So what? Literature is full of books that are autobiographical yet give no evidence that this is so. Why does it matter?
When Gioia writes the following, he seems to entirely miss the point of the books:
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.
Let’s take that last sentence first: “Maybe U.S.A. the country stands for democracy, but U.S.A. the novel doesn’t acknowledge its existence.” Why should it? This is a counternarrative of America’s dispossessed that disenfranchised; would you really expect democracy? Are we next to condemn DeLillo’s Underworld for portraying America as a paranoid, conspiracy-ridden land of misfits and media spectacles?
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 Gioia fails to mention). But instead of adequately attempting to account for what the novel does, Gioia simply laments that only one viewpoint is represented, which is not even true. How can we have useful criticism of a novel when the critic doesn’t even seem to comprehend what the author is writing toward?
And speaking of those revolutionaries, Gioia writes
You might infer from this obsession with getting and spending that the people in this novel are practical, results-oriented folks. If the great American philosophy is pragmatism, shouldn’t the great American novel celebrate the same virtue? Not in the world of John Dos Passos. One of the most curious qualities of this unusual book is the mismatch between the worldviews offered up for consideration and the world actually depicted in its pages.
Pragmatic philosophy does not mean what Gioia seems to think it does. It has very little to do with the word pragmatic in everyday usage. The pragmatic philosophy pioneered by John Dewey, William James, and Charles Pierce refers to a way of comprehending the world based on empiricism. Moreover, the pragmatic philosophers probably had more to do with Wobblies, Marxists, etc than “results-oriented” capitalists. After all, John Dewey was pro-Soviet through the 1920s and ’30s. William James was a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg and used mood-altering drugs to further his philosophical investigations. What about this seems “practical” and “results-oriented”? And moreover, even if pragmatic philosophy meant what Gioia seems to think it does, why should Dos Passos want to write a novel celebrating the spirit of a system of monetary accumulation that he clearly hated? Should we next condemn Philip Roth for not singing the praises of monogamy in his novels?
Later Gioia writes:
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? The characters in the book Gioia is critiquing live in 1919. Hitler didn’t even exist as a political force then, and neither did fascism. To Dos Passos’s characters, the next big war will be a revolution between the classes—they’re communists! Why in God’s name would they expect World War II, and why would Dos Passos want them to predict it?
But most of all, the entire premise of Gioia’s piece is that Dos Passos has attempted and failed to write the Great American Novel, a very diffuse term that he fails to ever define. In fact, Gioia doesn’t even argue convincingly that this was USA’s intent. What is his evidence that it was Dos Passos’s intent to write the Great American Novel? Gioia quotes his publisher’s ad copy, and notes that this book takes place throughout the U.S. and includes biographies of famous Americans. So then is this to be the criteria of the Great American Novel: represent all 50 states and include historical figures? But this is incoherent, for in the very same review Gioia cites certain novels of Henry James and Moby-Dick as his candidates for Great American Novel, yet none involves any historical figures and do not take place in all 50 states. So then what is the basis for the claim of Dos Passos as attempting a Great American Novel, and why critique the book as such?
Lastly, Gioia condemns USA as a “morass of sloganeering and bluster that make almost everything in this novel seem phony and calculated,” but never seems to entertain the possibility that this is the books’ point. Might it be that USA is meant to capture the confusion and chaos of a tumultuous period in U.S. history, when industrialists were running off the rails creating the new economic order and the best that the people representing an alternative system had were slogans and unimpeachable optimism? Could the sad truth that Dos Passos wants to reveal be that all of his characters are phony? Is it just possible that the nature of this conflict reveals a deep truth about modern America, which Dos Passos beautifully captures in these frenetic works of literature? Could this be the real Great American Novel?