The second installment of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A trilogy is a world apart from its predecessor. Or, well, an ocean apart. 1919 moves from away the 42nd Parallel‘s rambunctious pre-war American landscape to post-World War I Europe. It is expected to be a time of peace. However, as echoed by various characters in the 1919, “If you thought the War was bad, wait until the Peace.”
While the narrative setting in 1919 has changed, Dos Passos’ intoxicating Modernist style has not. Or, as I like to call it, his “lighting prose”. Dos Passos exceptionally synthesizes individual experience with the then-contemporary cultural atmosphere. While this skill is prevalent in the previous book, the author has matured for a more concise presentation in 1919. Some wonder if Dos Passos actually shared the “historically correct” racial slurs of his characters. Knowing his deeply Leftist sentiments, I find it doubtful. Nevertheless, this atmospheric rendering not only stands as an entertaining historical artifact, but one without any painfully archaic feeling:
“Nedda wouldn’t get undressed, but wanted to see Joe’s money. Joe didn’t have any money, so he brought out the silk stockings. She looked worried and shook her head, but she was darn pretty and had big black eyes and Joe wanted it bad and yelled for Charley and Charley came up the stairs and talked wop to the girl and said sure she’d take the silk stockings and wasn’t America the greatest country in the world and tutti aleati and Presidente Veelson big man for Italia. But the girl wouldn’t go ahead until they’d gotten ahold of the old woman who was in the kitchen, who came wheezing up the stairs and felt the stockings, and musta said they were real silk and worth money, because the girl put her arms around Joe’s neck and Charley said, ‘Sure, pard, she sleepa with you all night, maka love good.'”
Another noticeable improvement in 1919 is the Camera Eye sections. These stream-of-consciousness interludes were undoubtedly the most underdeveloped portions in The 42nd Parallel; even if they were enjoyable and, as many believe, autobiographical. Some blogs, so incensed by the Camera Eye sections, even decry the narrative intrusions as a reason to remove the U.S.A. trilogy from the Canon. In 1919, while the prose remains irreverent, the vision becomes vicarious. The subject is the reality of World War I and the horrors of mustard gas and trench warfare — which any high school graduate knows about. Not to mention, Dos Passos also tackles the nefarious Versailles Peace Treaty that laid the groundwork for World War II. These sections, undboutedly, illuminate readers on why 1919 is labeled the most “anti-war” of the trilogy:
“[R]emembering the gray crooked fingers the thick drip of blood off the canvas the bubbling when the lungcases try to breathe the muddy scraps of flesh you in the ambulance alive and haul out the dead”
I have yet to read The Big Money, the final installment of U.S.A., but hear that Dos Passos noticeably pivots to the political Right. Many credit this ideological shift to the contradictory actions of the Communists in the Spanish Civil War; specifically the murder of José Robles (which irrevocably broke the friendship of Dos and Hemingway). Dos Passos was also turned off by the lockstep adherence of American Leftists to Soviet policy — even under Stalin. Nevertheless, 1919 sees Dos Passos at his farthest Left. Like the anti-war Camera Eye sections, a rigorous strain of pacifism is obvious in the writing. Dos Passos is unequivocally blunt in his sentiments that war is encouraged by potential profiteers (e.g. munitions dealers) and the conflict’s victims are, inevitably, “the working class“:
“Joe got to talking with two guys from Chicago who were drinking whiskey with beer chasers. They said this wartalk was a lot of bushwa propaganda and that if working stiffs stopped working in munitions factories making shells to knock other working stiffs’ blocks off with, there wouldn’t be no goddamn war. Joe said they were goddam right but look at the big money you made. The guys from Chicago said they’d been working in a munitions factory themselves but they were through, goddam it, and that if the working stiffs made a few easy dollars it meant that the war profiteers were making easy millions. They said the Russians had the right idea, make a revolution and shoot the goddam profiteers and that ‘ud happen in this country they didn’t watch out and a damn good thing too. The barkeep leaned across the bar and said they’d oughtn’t talk thataway, folks ‘ud take “em for German spies.”
Opinion on 1919 remains divided. This is the usual consensus on every middle piece of a trilogy, as the narrative is neither a beginning nor an ending. However, middle pieces, especially in the case of U.S.A., are an integral part of the narrative and authorial tapestry.
Dos Passos’ sharp turn against Soviet Communism and its long tentacles seeking to control the American Left would seriously affect his writing. The author’s reaction and political re-alignment was so fierce that he penned op-eds against Roosevelt’s New Deal actions and, eventually, wrote for arch-conservative Bill Buckley’s National Review. This monumental transformation was occurring while Dos Passos’ penned the second installment of U.S.A. and it would permeate throughout the rest of his literature. In fact, many believe that after The Big Money, the author had lost his imagination.
Thus, the importance of this particular middle piece, 1919, is a radical confronting his optimistic idealism for Soviet Communism with the increasingly horrific execution by Stalin (pun heavily intended). And that makes for good literature.