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Comments by Bob Corbett
This is volume two of John Dos Passos’ trilogy, U.S.A. It follows the same pattern that one finds in the first volume. I recently reread the first volume after some years and commented on it within my book review page. My overview notes for the first volume seem to me relevant here as well:
The 42nd Parallel is the first volume of Dos Passos’ famous U.S.A. Trilogy. This is structurally one of the most challenging of forms. It is the story of the U.S.A. from about the early days of the 20th century until about late 1918, centering toward the end of the war in Europe. In this first volume we follow the lives of six main fictional characters. The life of each is told in a very creative manner, and eventually all six of them merge, meeting each other in one form or another.
The work was originally published as a three volume trilogy and the separation of volumes is not as clear as most multi-volume works. At the very end of The 42nd Parallel we are introduced to the last of the main characters, Charley Anderson, but his story is simply left hanging and not directly tied to the other five main characters. Thus one ends the last chapter and is simply looking for the next chapter, which will take one to volume two, a totally different volume in most modes of publishing these books in later years.
The full set of notes on this earlier volume may be found at: http://www2.webster.edu/~corbetre/personal/reading/dos-passos-42nd.html
This second volume, 1919, follows much of the same pattern of The 42nd Parallel but focusses much more attention onto the fictional characters than the non-fictional bits and pieces about the time.
The action of this volume is set mainly in France. While the title of the work is 1919, we actually follow a good deal of the action in France, at times even before the U.S. was formally in the war.
There five key fictional characters whose stories move in and out of the action. Joe Williams is a sailor who had been in the U.S. Navy for a bit, but didn’t like it and went AWOL. He works on various commercial ships during the war, always saying he wishes he could just get a land job, but he isn’t able to make it on the land and always returns to the sea.
Richard (Dick) Savage wants to avoid the war so he joins the French ambulance service to avoid being drafted. He is a pacifist and spends much of the war in Paris.
Later on friends in the military help him out. His grandfather was a known military officer in the past and thus these high ranking folks help Dick to “regularize” his position and in no time he is a Captain working for the Post Dispatch Service, travelling often between Paris and Rome.
He meets another central character from this volume, Anne Trent. She is a fairly innocent young woman from Texas who joins an aide agency in Paris to help the war effort. Dick and Anne have a fling and she gets pregnant, though Dick completely renounces any responsibility for her pregnancy, though never doubting he is the pregnating male.
Dick is bright and moves well among people, but he isn’t a very likeable character.
Two other characters from the first volume, Eleanor and Eveline are now in Paris and Dick is closely associated with their little circle in Paris. That association leads Dick to meet another key character from the first volume,
Back in Paris he meets again with Eleanor and Eveline and tries to avoid Anne, telling her to get rid of the baby; he’s not ready for such responsibility.
Through those two women he meets J. Ward Moorehouse, who offers him a job after the war.
In the first volume Eveline Hutchins was not one of the main characters, but her good friend Eleanor Stoddard was. Now the two are in Paris, living a rather luxurious life, and working closely with Moorehouse, another main figure in the first volume.
Eveline always operates within Eleanor’s shadow, but in France she meet a soldier a few years younger than she, and they eventually marry.
In the section devoted to Eveline we meet Jerry Burnham who is a newspaper man working for U.P. news service. He is vehemently against the war, condemning it as having the making of money as a primary motivation. He talks a big game, yet his columns themselves are pro-war. Within his circle he wines all the time that his columns were fully censored. He swears he’ll write a novel when the war is over and tell it as it is. I couldn’t help but wonder if this character might not well have been Dos Passos himself!
The sad character of Anne Trent (also called Daughter) is tragic. She’s a decent young woman from Texas. She becomes very anti-war after her brother is killed flying a training airplane in Texas as a member of the air force. She is convinced that the plane was not well made by a company that was cutting corners to make more money. She wants to tackle the company and fight to expose them, but her wealthy father persuades her not to. She then joins a service agency in Paris to try to do something constructive for the war effort.
She is a decent and fairly innocent kid. When she meets Dick Savage she falls wildly in love, has sex with him and gets pregnant. He wants nothing to do with her or the baby and urges her to get rid of the baby.
She tries but can’t and is ready to go home and “face the music” of her family. However, on the night before she is to go she cons a French pilot to take her up in his plane and they both die is a crash, the pilot being completely drunk.
These characters and the ones who carry over from the first volume do tend to mainly agree the war is a disaster. They claim that even the soldiers on both sides do not take it seriously. This is quite a strange position for me to digest when one looks at the casualty rates for this war. It certainly seems that some significant number of the warriors was taking it quite seriously and so many died in the process.
But these main characters are out of harm’s way, most having no money problems and they live rather exotic and exciting lives in Paris.
As I mentioned above, John Dos Passos does not do nearly as much with the non-fiction sections of this novel as he did with The 42nd Parallel. However, in a short biographical clip on Paxton Hibben, who was a great admirer of John Reed, Dos Passos shares a clip from Hibben’s writings:
“The rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer, small farmers were being squeezed out, workingmen were working twelve hours a day for a bare living; profits for the rich, the law was for the rich, the cops were for the rich; . . . was it for that the pilgrims had bent their heads into the storm, filled the fleeing Indians with slugs out of their blunderbusses and worked the stony farms of New England; was it for that the pioneers had crossed the Appalachians, long squirrel guns slung along lean backs, a fistful of corn in the pocket of the buckskin vest, was it for that the Indiana farmboys had turned out to shoot Johnny Reb and make the black man free?”
Overall I found this volume to be weaker than the first, and will be happy to soon get back to a second read of the third volume to see how Dos Passos handles the end of the war and the coming of prosperity.
There was certain a clear position of Dos Passos that the war itself was not something that made sense outside of a way for the rich to get richer and to keep the poor under the rule of the rich. Character after character refuses to take the war seriously, and Dos Passos’ sympathy, if there is any, during this period is with the Russian revolution’s attempt to address the issues and needs of the masses.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com