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Sure

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?

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26 comments to Sure

  • Scott, I am touched by your desire to defend John Dos Passos’s bloated, rambling book. But there is a reason why almost no one reads this book any more, and the few who do feel like they have suffered through it. The U.S.A. Trilogy has not aged well. And the day when a writer could impress critics by inserting half-baked stream-of-consciousness passages into a text – even though they have no relation to the plot or characters – has come and gone.

    Dos Passos had certain views on the future evolution of American society, but they simply didn’t come true. Revolutionaries did not rise up and seize the means of production. A different war arrived instead – literally within months of the publication of these novels as a trilogy – and he didn’t envision its arrival or outcome or aftermath. For an author who prided himself on understanding the inner workings of society and devotes so much attention to political ideology and rhetoric, these are huge shortcomings.

    As for pragmatism, your attempts to school me are unnecessary. I did graduate with first class status with an honors degree in philosophy from Oxford, and have read William James and other writers on pragmatism as a philosophical movement. But when I speak of American pragmatism in my essay, I use that term – as you should realize – in the more colloquial sense of the term.

    But your carping here is typical of your approach in general. You seem more interested in denouncing me than dealing with my specific criticisms of the book. And when you do come up with an actual defense of Dos Passos, it is risible – for example, your suggestion that the author deliberately wrote a confused and chaotic book because he was writing about America, a confused and chaotic place. I could use that argument to defend almost any piece of writing. But who would find it plausible?

  • Sam

    The really tricky thing about Dos Passos’ amazing trilogy is that, politically and ideologically, it really is pretty tendentious. Dos Passos was a socialist and he believed that capitalists had driven the country into World War I and that the country’s monomaniacal pursuit of ‘The Big Money’ was eating away at its soul. The novels chart the country’s trajectory through its extraordinary cast of characters, from a comparative youthful innocence (the characters tend to be younger, unestablished, up-and-coming, naive, sometimes idealistic) to a financial boom period of incredible bleakness (the characters are now mostly alcoholic, obese, aged, manic-depressive, suicidal, or simply disgustingly complacent with their wealth. The exceptions, the shining hope for the future, are the dogged activists trying to stop the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti).

    It’s an explicitly ideological story arc, there’s no getting around it. I think to some degree that really does diminish the book’s great achievement–not because it’s top-heavy with Marxists or because I don’t like the politics, but because the last books, and the last one in particularly, are so smotheringly dark and unhappy that they are genuinely taxing to read. (I love ‘The 42nd Parallel’ the most, because the balance of lights and darks is more even.)

    Even so, the thing about the trilogy is that it’s a great work of art, ideology and all. Dos Passos may not fairly represent all political perspectives (although, as you ask, why should he have to?)(and also, Mary French and the others trying to get a reprieve for Sacco and Vanzetti are indeed working within the democratic system, nor do they, or anyone really, want to overthrow it. They want to overthrow the industrialists and big-businessmen they think sway the politicians)–but he does more than any 20th century writer to capture the country artistically: through the characters’ speech (which contrasts and clashes with the Newsreel sections), their appearance, their backgrounds, how they act when they are working within a story and they think no one is looking (hence the Camera Eye sections), their stations in life, their ambitions, their fortunes, and most of all their weaknesses and temptations.

    The essay is at least good to get people thinking of the book again–as have your blog posts been. There’s really no novel like this one, and everyone should try reading it.

  • Rachel Owlglass

    I’m not a fan of the trilogy, but find Scott’s critique of your review to be completely valid. You really don’t think the reader can’t relate the stream-of-consciousness passages to the rest of the novel? You seemed to manage relating the headlines to them okay. I don’t really know how to help you…

    Authors aren’t judged in the same way as prophets and you seem like you are conflating the author with his characters.

  • Rachel Owlglass

    er pretend I don’t have that double negative.

  • Ted: I am touched by your failure to know what it is to be alive, to believe that any stylistic technique which you cannot find it within your acumen to grok is something that has “come and gone” when, in fact, that kind of humorless systematic inventory system is antithetical to how art works. I’m wondering why you don’t just give up and sell life insurance or something. It is clear that you lack the spunk and the romance to comprehend that the beauty of a fictional vantage point is a hypothetical, not the Sudoku approach of filling it in to your preordained prejudices. John Dos Passos died before I was born. Did you know him? How the hell can a fool like you know what he had in mind? And why do you cling to the desperate straw of author intention? Are you really that daft a critic? I don’t give a good goddam where you graduated or what you did. What matters is your ability to articulate the text. And if this LARB essay is any indication, you’re an utter fool.

  • admin

    Ted:

    You say, “If the great American philosophy is pragmatism . . .” I’ll let my readers decide what you referring to. And FYI, I graduated from UC Berkeley and met plenty of pretentious philosophy students who didn’t have a clue. Not saying this is you, but a degree doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

    You say, “You seem more interested in denouncing me than dealing with my specific criticisms of the book.” I’ll let my readers decide if I have dealt with your criticisms of the book specifically enough.

    And Ted, The Big Money was published in 1936. Do you really think Dos Passos was ignorant of It Can’t Happen Here, one of the biggest books of the decade?

    As to your claim that “your suggestion that the author deliberately wrote a confused and chaotic book because he was writing about America,” I don’t see how anyone who has read my defense of Dos Passos could come to that conclusion. I do not think that Dos Passos’s book is confused. I understood it perfectly well. Perhaps you did not.

  • I am interested to see such reliance on personal attacks here. Although maybe less so from Mr. Champion, who has tried to build a career on invective. But your desire to rant about me does nothing to further the cause of Mr. Dos Passos. As for whether Dos Passos wrote a confused and chaotic book: I took those words from Scott Esposito, who seemed to think these words applied to the U.S.A. Trilogy. But they weren’t bad choices on his part.

    • As numerous people have already articulated quite clearly to you (something that seems outside your purview), what’s important here is how you comprehend a book and convey it in an essay. You have failed to do that. For example, Sam above is able to do something that you cannot — namely, point to the fact that the USA Trilogy is tendentious, but not dismiss the work because of it. This is what’s known as a nuanced take. Your position is clearly that of a terrified marmoset unwilling to dip into perspectives, whether stylistic or philosophical, beyond his ossified comfort zone. And you trot out your Oxford pedigree, which matters not a jot.

      And, Mr. Oxford Philosophy, since you’re more interested in Tu quoque (“build a career of invective”) and you enjoy evading the issue, let me address your hilarious mischaracterization. Actually I’ve broken several news stories that were discussed by the likes of Poynter and Romenesko, exposed plagiarists, conducted more than 500 pithy and informed radio conversations with some of the finest writers of our time based, and, most recently, made a fun documentary about Gary Shteyngart’s blurbs — among many other accomplishments. But here’s some invective for you: why don’t you stick with jazz and go fuck off? You have little of value to contribute on books, although I can sympathize over how difficult it must be to stand in your brother’s shadow and not even come close to his achievements.

      • Let me understand this, Ed. You want to question my qualifications, but I’m not allowed to respond by mentioning them? I ask, who turned my discussion of John Dos Passos into a discussion about me?

        Then again, you and I differ. I prefer to write about books. You prefer to make snarky comments about people. So I can hardly be surprised at how the conversation has turned.

        Case in point: your ‘go fuck off’ comment. What a sad man you are.

        • Are you going to argue or are you going to run away? I’m fine with either.

          The discussion here, Teddy Boy, once again, is about your failure to explicate. You can trot out all your qualifications until you are blue in the face, but claiming superiority (“I’m from Oxford. Do you know who I am?”) is an argumentum ad verecundiam fallacy. (Funny. For all the Oxford talk, I don’t see you actually using any Latin or specifying any philosophy. Saying you have read William James doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expand your remarks so that we can avoid the nastiness that you introduced into this thread with your smugness.) As I’ve pointed out downthread, whenever you dip into literary criticism, you resort to reductionist takes, trying to categorize a book upon a spectrum so general that it is utterly pointless. The sad person here is you: a middle-aged loser who would rather mine family and educational connection than have a casual though serious conversation about literature. Me? I’m laughing my ass off that someone as lacking in humor and argument as you is actually taken seriously.

          • Ed, you should hold yourself to a higher standard, for the sake of your reputation, not mine. As the saying goes: he who resorts to insults has already lost the argument.

  • Will C.

    Surely “captures the confusion and chaos” isn’t equivalent to “a confused and chaotic book,” Mr. Gioia. A book may easily capture confusion without itself being confused.

    • Birne

      Ha, yes, indeed Will C.

      Already Gioia’s first answer above indicates (“Dos Passos had certain views on the future evolution of American society, but they simply didn’t come true. [...] A different war arrived instead [...] and he didn’t envision its arrival or outcome or aftermath.”) that he does not even bother to read or understand Scott Esposito’s well argued critique.

  • Incidentally, Scott is rightly excoriating a Ted Gioia “critical” strategy that’s been clanging for a long time. Here are more reasons why Gioia should stay out of literary criticism. He feels this compulsive need to frame a book within “fads and fashions,” a strategy not unlike the manner in which the staff of People Magazine closes a weekly issue.

    On TC Boyle’s WHEN THE KILLING’S DONE:

    “Every era has its own fads and fashions, but also its distinctive tone of voice. In our current age, the dominant tone is an aggrieved one. You know what I’m talking about — that self-righteous inflection with an undercurrent of whininess.” Care to cite any examples? Or are you too busy whining yourself?

    On China Mieville’s EMBASSYTOWN:

    “Around a century ago, writers such as H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley demonstrated that science fiction could be more than just escapist literature. For all his hypermodernism, China Miéville is a throwback to that tradition of sci-fi gadfly.” What an astonishingly general and highly limited understanding! It fails to account for the New Wave, the New Weird, the list goes on.

    On Hari Kunzru’s GODS WITHOUT MEN:

    “This shift in fiction reminds me of the comparable change in philosophy and theory during the 1980s, when the systematizers went out of favor, and the anti-systematizers came to the fore. Goodbye Marx, Hegel, Sartre, Husserl. Hello Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze. Put away your Northrop Frye and
    take up your Roland Barthes. Dialectic exits stage left; deconstruction enters stage right.” As Samuel Delany smartly observed in THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE NEXT OF SPIDERS, movements don’t happen instantaneously. They are the sum of numerous contributions. And what the hell does any of this have to do with Kunzru’s book?

    On Steven Hall’s THE RAW SHARK TEXTS:

    “Every so often, a work of imaginative fiction arrives — such as Gibson’s Neuromancer in 1984 or Stephenson’s Snow Crash in 1992 – that shakes things up and opens up a new universe of possibilities.” More than every so often, Gioia grasps at a comparative straw. And this gets away from actually unpacking the book.

    And here’s more from Gioia about what he THINKS he understands on a pragmatic level, but dismisses anyway in his review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s UNACCUSTOMED EARTH:

    “I have spent too many evenings in hotel rooms in various Asian cities, wasting my time watching television shows in languages I don’t understand.
    Then again, I have found that I don’t need to know the native tongue to recognize a recurring theme in the local dramas and soap operas.”

    When you categorize a book on a reductionist spectrum, it is neither helpful nor meaningful to the reader in understanding.

  • When you categorize a review on a reductionist spectrum, it is neither helpful nor meaningful to the reader in understanding.

  • Bickering with Ed seems like a great way to avoid responding to real criticism of your criticism, Ted.

    I agree that your reference to a “philosophy of pragmatism” was a casual, colloquial one that wasn’t intended to raise the specters of William James, et al., but that’s actually part of the problem I had with your piece, which is that it feels tossed off. You expressively dismissed USA, sure, but I didn’t get much from you other than opinion. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but you didn’t really make a case for those opinions and you’re not really making a case against the admin’s now.

  • Jesse K

    I didn’t find the trilogy worth finishing. In fact, I didn’t even find the first volume worth finishing. However, I think that anyone who says “I did graduate with first class status with an honors degree in philosophy from Oxford” during the course of an allegedly intellectual argument has lost said argument, along with their dignity and the right not to expect the rest of us to actively pursue the interpolation of their being with a sharp object so as to hasten their journey towards the wall that they will inevitably be put up against. Of course, I’m just a dude that reads, not someone who used the university system, in lieu of ExtenZe, to extend my few inches, so what do I know?

  • PTSmith

    Good god. I came in here, excited that there were 16 comments, hoping for fruitful conversation. Little surprise that after seeing Ed posted, that most of it was his absurd grandiosity and pointless attacks. Now, 17 comments, and not much said. Thanks Ed.

  • I’d be interested in comparisons between USA and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, his 1970 SF novel written in clear imitation of Dos Passos’ style (especially in Manhattan Transfer). Brunner was also a committed socialist, yet ironically the ideology seems less heavy-handed in SF than it does in Dos Passos’ “realistic” novels.

    • I agree. Brunner’s novel draws on Dos Passos’s techniques more successfully than Dos Passos does himself. And Stand on Zanzibar has held up much better than the U.S.A. Trilogy. Brunner’s novel, published in 1968, is set in the year 2010, and anticipates a number of current-day trends, from hookups to school shootings. Brunner even includes a character named President Obomi in his 1968 novel(!). It may be the most accurate of the 1960s New Wave sci-fi novels at actually predicting the future. Certainly it’s better at that than the U.S.A. Trilogy.

      I will be publishing an essay on this very topic in the near future.

      • I look forward to reading that essay, and hope it takes a deeper look than the one under discussion here. That would be the sort of thing LARB should be publishing, rather than the quick hit job you did on Dos Passos. As a newspaper review of a brand-new novel, it would have been fine, but I’d like something more when you’re taking on an alleged classic. Otherwise, what’s the point?

        Fun point you made about Zanzibar, but accurate predictions of the future aren’t really what I’m looking for when I read SF (or literary fiction, for that matter). By that criterion, Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan would be the greatest book ever written.

      • Birne

        Yes, predicting he future has not much to do with literary quality…

        But I concur that Stand on Zanzibar (1968) was one of the few English science fiction books at the time that covered relevant topics in a creative and intelligent way. Unfortunately (or naturally) it never got the reputation it deserved. But to be honest, I always considered the conclusion of the book to be a huge failure. It actually destroyed the reading experience for me.

        He wrote another book in this style inspired by Dos Passos, The Sheep Look Up, which I held in higher regard at the time. If you guys have not read it yet, I strongly urge you to do this before writing such an essay. The focus is more on environmental issues, very pessimistic:
        http://amzn.to/14litbp

        Wow, maybe I should to rediscover these books after all those years… see if I still like them…

  • (PS–for what it’s worth, pragmatism was conceived in opposition to traditional Humean empiricism, stressing the holistic and collective nature of knowledge rather than the empiricists’ emphasis on atomic, personal, and imminent sensory experience. James later termed his approach “radical empiricism” in an attempt to distinguish it both from transcendental philosophy and naturalistic empiricism. Peirce was so disgusted by James’ and others’ use of the term he’d invented that he renamed his own philosophy ‘pragmaticism’ because that word was “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers.” Peirce’s own philosophy is wildly holistic and arguably idealistic, closer to Hegel than to Hume. Louis Menand’s account of the pragmatists in The Metaphysical Club is pretty unreliable, and unfortunately has skewed contemporary ideas of what they were all up to.)

  • For those here actually interested in John Dos Passos, I’ve published two more essays on him today.

    First my assessment of Manhattan Transfer (1925)
    http://greatbooksguide.com/Manhattan_Transfer.html

    Second, my “Anatomy of an Author’s Tic: Dos Passos & Reflected Light
    http://greatbooksguide.com/Dos_Passos_Light.html

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