I’ve finished up 1919, and started on The Big Money.
Anyone who abandoned the project before the end of 1919, go grab your copy, skip to the end of the book, and read “The Body of an American” chapter. It stands alone as a prose poem, a sort of “I Hear America Putrefying.” But it also pulls together Dos Passos’ ambitions and his omnivorous approach to portraying WWI-era Americans. Well, white WWI-era Americans, but that’s another conversation.
The idea of the Unknown Soldier always had an imaginative pull to me: as a kid, I was fascinated by the way indeterminacy could stand for universality. (Uh, spoiler alert: the Unknown Soldier dies near the end.) In this one chapter, Dos Passos does for the dismembered doughboy what he does for all his other characters, but more so. He follows the soldier not just from birth, but from conception, all the way to his confused, shell-splattered demise. Along the way, the soldier’s identity slips from one person to the next, and since Dos Passos’ characters often serve as little more than cameras through which we see places, the soldier stands for the land in all its variety as much as for the American people. Read it.
For those of you still keeping up, here are some topics for consideration.
What a miserable bunch of sad sacks these characters are, fumbling along in frustration until someone gets pregnant, at which point everything falls apart. The revolutionaries all talk big about freeing themselves from bourgeois notions of sexual propriety, but their revolution never quite arrives. Sexual liberation proves just as elusive — or illusory — as the workers’ uprising, and the two ideals are caustically juxtaposed. The bourgeois characters also dabble in liberated rhetoric when it suits their urges, but always fall back on convention somehow. Pregnancy, in almost every case, sets the rules.
So I keep wondering: if these characters could exercise the autonomy they claim they’d enjoy, what would they do with it? Would they be any happier?
Dos Passos makes no secret of his sympathies for the Wobblies and other heroes of American socialism, and his account of the Seattle General Strike, and the brutal response of the forces of reaction, makes Howard Zinn’s version seem cool and dispassionate. But there’s nothing about these earnest revolutionaries that suggests they’d be any less eager to employ rifle butts than Ole Hanson was. Just as with sex, none of the characters seem to have what it would take to wisely use the power they’re chasing. A pessimistic read of the series (is there any other kind?) suggests that by WWI, our institutions were already beyond democratic control, even by the well-intended, and that in the U.S., force and only force would dictate peoples’ economic and political lives.
Conspicuously absent in the book is a “war is hell” thread. Dos Passos hints at the horrors of trench combat, but the American characters who volunteer for service in WWI, whether in the military or driving ambulances, spend their time whoring and cafe-hopping. Pregnancy is a bigger threat to their well-being than Zeppelins or mustard gas. Americans are revered by the French not for their heroism, but for the material abundance they represent. I consider this one of the novels’ finest touches.
Did you know someone made a rock opera about the Seattle General Strike? Now you do.