While reading an excellent piece of fiction about America around the first world war, I was reminded of two things. The first is a realization that things never change: “… the war won’t ever be over … too damn profitable …” and the second is a sign that this country actually has changed: “Help the Food Administration By Reporting War Profiteers.” Nowadays we reward what back then was considered war profiteering. But in the end, isn’t it greed that fuels the American dream?
All this talk about Historical Fiction and I realize that I recently finished reading the first part of John Dos Passos’ excellent U. S. A. trilogy, The 49th Parallel. It’s so good and compelling that I can’t believe I didn’t read it years ago. Of course, my true but oft repeated excuse is that I was trained to eschew American literature and have only tried to catch-up in my waning years. My work was always Keats, Joyce, Wycherley, and Milton; who knew there was great writing in America? … and Dos Passos is a great writer. Reading his fiction makes writers like Hemingway even more disappointing.
The story is that Ralph Ellison, disillusioned by the promise that the Communist Party would overcome the racial inequities in the world, started writing what became Invisible Man in 1945 when he was still in the Merchant Marine service. Five years later it was published in full to great acclaim, winning the National Book Award for 1953. It’s an important book but why is it on the Modern Library and many other lists of the best literature in the twentieth century?
Ellison suggested that the novel was experimental attitude. It does start in the middle and rely upon a first-person narrator that knows how it all turns out. That’s not unusual. It was Ellison’s background in music, and especially jazz, which inevitably forms the structure and texture of his writing. Here is what Wikipedia says:
In his speech accepting the 1953 National Book Award, Ellison says that he considered the novel’s chief significance to be its experimental attitude. Rejecting the idea of social protest—as Ellison would later put it—he did not want to write another protest novel, and also seeing the highly regarded styles of Naturalism and Realism too limiting to speak to the broader issues of race and America, Ellison created an open style, one that did not restrict his ideas to a movement but was more free-flowing in its delivery. What Ellison finally settled on was a style based heavily upon modern symbolism. It was the kind of symbolism that Ellison first encountered in the poem The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot. Ellison had read this poem as a freshman at the Tuskegee Institute and was immediately impressed by The Waste Land‘s ability to merge his two greatest passions, that of music and literature, for it was in The Waste Land that he first saw jazz set to words. When asked later what he had learned from the poem, Ellison responded: imagery, and also improvisation—techniques he had only before seen in jazz.
In a short novel called One Man’s Initiation – 1917 John Dos Passos, through his character Will, comments on war as represented by World War I:
It’s all so like an ash-heap, a huge garbage-dump of men and equipment.
And to that the incessant tedium and war seems sounds like an costly and wasteful indictment of man’s pettiness and stupidity. Later in the same work there is similar statement made by the narrator:
The woods all about him were a vast rubbish-heap; the jagged, splintered boles of leafless trees rose in every direction from heaps of brass shell-cases, of tin cans, of bits of uniform and equipment. The wind came in puffs laden with an odor as of dead rats in an attic. And this was what all the centuries of civilization had struggled for. For this had generations worn away their lives in mines and factories and forges, in fields and workshops, toiling, screwing higher and higher the tension of their minds and muscles, polishing brighter and brighter the mirror of their intelligence. For this!
Dos Passos had graduated from Harvard and gone to Europe where he was an ambulance driver alongside Ernest Hemingway. After the Armistice, both future-writers travelled down to Spain for some additional experience. But Dos Passos’s father died suddenly and he returned to America.
The life of Dos Passos is full of twists, some tragic: his parents were married to other partners when he was born, his parents eventually married but both died suddenly, his Aunt stole his inheritance, his wife was killed in an automobile accident, he lost an eye, and the one-time social liberal turned his support to Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
But Dos Passos had already assured his place in American literature with the USA Trilogy: 42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money. Norman Mailer spoke of the Trilogy: “Those three volumes of U.S.A. make up the idea of a great American novel.” Dos Passos also did some experimenting in the process of writing fiction, especially what was called “automatic-writing.” I consider Manhattan Transfer to be one of the top novels in American Literature and I don’t see much of a challenge coming from the current crop of American novelists.