Guest Editorial Week Of 1/10/2022

Paul F. Petrick

Remembering the literary work of Dos Passos

The carnage of World War I produced a cohort of writers unlike anything before or since. These “Lost Generation” novelists are still studied today. This year alone saw Ernest Hemingway given the Ken Burns treatment and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) enter the public domain, paving the way for it to become as ubiquitous among high school drama productions as it is among high school literature classes. Another novel entering the public domain this year (but with considerably less fanfare) is Manhattan Transfer (1925), an early work by John Dos Passos. Unlike his peers, Dos Passos is a lost member of the Lost Generation, his work receiving scant critical attention a century and a quarter after his birth. And no great novel is less known than Dos Passos’ Midcentury (1961), the 60th anniversary of its publication having gone unnoticed.
Dos Passos’ final completed novel, Midcentury is much more than the forgotten novel of a largely forgotten novelist. It is the completion of a personal and literary arc that began when Dos Passos published the trio of novels on which his reputation rests, The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). These novels were republished under the single title U.S.A. and the combined volume made Modern Library’s list of best English-language novels of the 20th Century.
Revolutionary in form and substance, U.S.A. was written in a gritty, realistic style, combining fictional and nonfictional elements to describe the last century’s first three decades. Frequently described as “kaleidoscopic” or “panoramic,” U.S.A. featured a decentralized plot of disparate narratives interspersed with montages of newspaper headlines, news reports, and advertising copy, alongside mini-biographies of noteworthy personalities. Critics correctly identify U.S.A. as Dos Passos’ magnum opus, but mistakenly identify it as a trilogy rather than a tetralogy.
Written decades later, Midcentury is stylistically and thematically similar to U.S.A.’s original installments. Together, the four volumes form a labor-centric history of America from 1900-1960. Politics, however, differentiates Midcentury from U.S.A.’s three synoptic novels. Until the late 1930s, Dos Passos’ politics were radical without being communist. He joined numerous left-wing causes celebres from the Sacco and Vanzetti defense to the republican side of the Spanish Civil War. In Spain supporting the latter, Dos Passos experienced a moment of great clarity. It was not that he became disillusioned with the communists who came to dominate the republican forces in Spain. Dos Passos was always wary of communists. Rather his eyes were opened to the extent the noncommunist Left was willing to excuse communist atrocities in pursuit of power.
“Idealism without ethics is no compass,” Dos Passos observed in Midcentury. And so Dos Passos’ writing subsequently took on a more conservative character. The literary establishment noticed and the reviews of Dos Passos’ novels changed along with his political affiliation. Dos Passos answered his critics in the form of Midcentury. The New York Times recognized it as such stating, “Seldom does a writer retrieve a long-lost reputation at a single stroke.” The narrative portions of Midcentury read like something out of The Enemy Within, Robert F. Kennedy’s account of the U.S. Senate’s investigation of labor union corruption. The tales of union violence and intimidation against rank-and-file members recall the tactics used by Big Business and Big Government to thwart labor organizers in U.S.A.’s earlier novels. In the intervening years, the World War II economy swelled the ranks of organized labor, making unions rich, powerful, and attractive to organized criminals looking for new areas of exploitation after Prohibition’s repeal. Instead of protecting workers, Big Labor joined their oppressors.
“It never occurred to the right thinkers that the resentments they fanned up among the underprivileged might become the sinew of new oppressions,” remarked Dos Passos in Midcentury.
That is the story of Dos Passos’ U.S.A. cycle. Astute reviewers have observed that while Dos Passos’ politics changed, his underlying sympathies did not. Dos Passos championed the working man, whom the powerful conspire against throughout all four novels. His admiration for the radical Industrial
Workers of the World labor union was a constant. As was his embrace of America’s founding principles. When one political path did not lead to his desired destination, he took a different route.
It is lamentable that Dos Passos is not around to capture the zeitgeist of the recent past. No one was better at chronicling events still in the rearview mirror. Instead, we can only wonder what Dos Passos might have written about the fall of Big Labor in the private sector, its rise in the public sector, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Big Business and the Cultural Left. Who would merit a mini-biography in a sequel to Midcentury? I nominate Dos Passos.

Paul F. Petrick is an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio.


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