What John Dos Passos’s “1919” Got Right About 2019

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From The New Yorker:

U.S.A. is the slice of a continent,” John Dos Passos wrote, in his novel “The 42nd Parallel,” from 1930. “U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stockquotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a public-library full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. U.S.A. is the world’s greatest rivervalley fringed with mountains and hills, U.S.A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.”

The “U.S.A.” trilogy—written by Dos Passos in the late nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties, and consisting of “The 42nd Parallel,” “1919,” and “The Big Money”—was an attempt to describe American life in tumult, from top to bottom. Writing at a moment of economic dissolution and technological transformation, Dos Passos hoped to show how Americans of all kinds were responding to the bustling mess of modernity—what his friend Edmund Wilson called “the American jitters.” In its time, the trilogy sold well, and it was highly praised by Jean-Paul Sartre, William Faulkner, and others. But since then its fortunes have been jittery, too. For many decades, the “U.S.A.” novels, often published as a single volume, were a yellowing tome, more respected than read. Dos Passos came to be seen as an also-ran—a secondary character in the stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other writers of the Lost Generation. Then, in 1998, a board of luminaries convened by the Modern Library placed the trilogy on its list of the best novels of the twentieth century. In 2013, David Bowie listed “The 42nd Parallel” as one of his favorite books; that same year, George Packer—who has written about Dos Passos for The New Yorker—used the trilogy as a structural inspiration for “The Unwinding,” his nonfictional account of twenty-first-century America on the fritz.

There’s a reason that Dos Passos’s Depression-era modernism seemed suddenly relevant. The present was coming to look a lot like the past. The novels combined the stylistic innovations of the European modernists, which Dos Passos had used to evoke a shifting media landscape, with fiercely committed leftist politics that were resurgent in the new millennium. He had written a linguistically adventurous national portrait for a precarious age—his, and ours.

. . . .

In the “Newsreel” sections, text from actual newsreels flows together with snippets from newspaper articles, lines from popular songs, and excerpts from radio broadcasts. These bursts of information seem random but were carefully selected for maximum effect. Hurtling themselves at the reader, they are too brief to be fully explicable, but too portentous to be ignored:

It is difficult to realize the colossal scale upon which Europe will have to borrow in order to make good the destruction of war
bags 28 huns singlehanded
Peace Talk Beginning To Have Its Effect On Southern Iron Market
local boy captures officer
one third war allotments fraudulent
There are smiles that make us happy
There are smiles that make us blue . . . .

Today, of course, the “Newsreel” sections evoke the social-media feed—another venue for the associative, sometimes surreal juxtaposition of image, sound, and text. Usually, online randomness doesn’t cohere: video clips and cat memes fit randomly alongside disturbing headlines or worrisome data points. But sometimes sudden, unexpected juxtapositions can speak volumes about the state of the country. The other night, scrolling through Facebook, I saw a clip from James Baldwin’s famous debate with William F. Buckley, Jr., in 1965. Baldwin talks about his place in American history: “I am stating very seriously . . . that I picked the cotton . . . and I built the railroads, under someone else’s whip, for nothing,” he said. The next item in the feed was a Fox News segment urging viewers to call their local schools to inquire about whether students were saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker