Wednesday, June 29, 2022

1919 by John Dos Passos

The U.S.A. trilogy goes to war in Europe
The novel entitled 1919, published in 1932, is the second book in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, following the The 42nd Parallel. Like its predecessor, 1919 is written in a modernist experimental format combining narratives of its characters’ lives with verbal collages (called “Newsreels”) of headlines and snippets from news stories, stream-of-consciousness vignettes (“The Camera Eye”), and biographical sketches of historical figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, John Reed, and J. P. Morgan. With these components Dos Passos constructs a sweeping yet intimate vision of American society, with this particular novel focusing on the World War I era.

The second book in the U.S.A. Trilogy is not quite as impressive as the first. The 42nd Parallel felt like it was building up to something big, but 1919 feels like the saga has taken a step backward, sometimes literally. In this novel, the major players of The 42nd Parallel are relegated to supporting roles while the background extras from the first book—Janey Williams’s brother Joe, Eleanor Stoddard’s roommate Eveline Hutchins—are elevated to starring roles. This involves going back in time not only to tell these new characters’ back stories but also to offer different perspectives of the events and relationships depicted in the first novel.

Though this may be the U.S.A. trilogy, 1919 takes place almost entirely in Europe as it chronicles its ensemble cast’s experiences during World War I. The roles they play in that conflict are hardly typical, however. None of the main characters is a soldier in the traditional sense. Almost everyone in the book finds jobs with the Red Cross or the ambulance service, and little if any combat factors into the plot of the novel. Everyone just seems to drift through France from town to town, dining and drinking. Of the latter activity, Dos Passos seems obsessed. Hardly a paragraph goes by that doesn’t include a reference to a specific beverage, alcoholic or not, as if citing the name of a liquid were enough to create instant atmosphere. Despite the fact that Dos Passos is quite skilled at sketching realistic lives and relationships, the endless imbibing gets annoying and monotonous after a while. The story also gets bogged down in its romances at the expense of history and politics. Towards the end of the book, the chapter on Ben Compton, a Jewish radical activist, is a step in the right direction. Too bad more ink wasn’t devoted to that character’s compelling story. Dos Passos closes the novel with a prose poem about an unknown soldier killed in the war. This brief piece is a bit pretentious in execution, but it does bring up aspects of the wartime experience that one wishes would have been covered more explicitly in the rest of the novel.

Dos Passos was a radical leftist when he wrote the trilogy, and he definitely takes a “people’s history” approach to the war, but he deliberately stops short of penning an overtly political screed like Upton Sinclair might have written. The book could have benefited, however, from more of Ben Compton’s experiences with socialism and the I.W.W. and less of the wine-sipping romance of PR man J. Ward Moorehouse and his employees. The most vivid historical impressions in the novel are those of the rampant jingoism and xenophobia of the World War I era. Anyone who expressed pacifist, socialist, or vaguely “un-American” views was in danger of being persecuted, imprisoned, or killed—a valuable cautionary tale for these divisive times in which we live.

1919 isn’t perfect but it certainly isn’t boring. If you’ve already read The 42nd Parallel then by all means proceed through the trilogy. It’s all just really one big novel anyway. As a whole, the three books comprise one great work of American literature. I look forward to following the story back to America in the third and final installment, The Big Money.
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