By John Dos Passos
Boston: Sentry Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1964
From the 1921 original
433 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2009

Many years ago I read the three volumes of John Dos Passos’s set, The USA Trilogy. I remember thinking they were major works of significance, and that Dos Passos was a great writer. Thus when I came across this volume, Three Soldiers, I was hoping to find that same Dos Passos I had so loved many years ago.

However, I think this is a much weaker work that the more famous trilogy. The cover of my copy says, under the title, “A great novel of the First World War.” But the novel really isn’t about WWI. It’s about the impact of the war and times on the ordinary soldier. We follow three lowly soldiers, Dan Fuselli from San Francisco who is 19 and enlisted in order to appear brave and patriotic to his friends, neither of which he was. Chris Chrisfield is 20 and from a small town in Indiana. He enlisted because small businessman in his town could only hope to do business with the locals if one had served in the war. John Andrews is 22 and from New York City. He is a pianist and composer, the most thoughtful of the three, but not yet at peace with himself.

Fuselli is an unpleasant little fellow, always sucking up to anyone with rank, terrified of them, and hopeful he will please them and be recommended a raise in rank. He finally gets Private First Class, but never the corporal’s rank he so wanted. He’s deeply concerned with pleasing higher ups, terrified of their power and very worried about his image with his own family.

Chrisfield is angry and despairing. His anger is often displayed against his own comrades, especially an officer whom he eventually murders with a grenade. He never seems at all bothered by his murdering the officer, but only with ever being caught and charged with murder.

Andrews is a much more interesting and complex character. He is brighter and much more thoughtful than the other two. He is educated and can read French, and knows a good deal about French literature, and soon learns to speak it quite well. The novel’s structure is disappointing. There are 6 chapters, a first overview chapter which especially disappointed me. It didn’t sound like a novel, but more like a journal of daily life in the army with little character development, and peopled by characters who seemed relatively uninteresting.

That chapter is then followed by 5 chapters which are more satisfying, being character studies of the three main characters, Fuselli, Chrisfield and Andrews. But here there was such an unevenness of structure that I was again disappointed. Their stories were interesting and well done, one by one, but Fuselli’s chapter was about 72 pages, Chrisfield’s about 70 and then three chapters of 280 pages on Andrews. The novel just seemed structurally weak, although quite interesting as character studies in the final five chapters.

These men know virtually nothing about the war, and we read virtually nothing about it. Mainly we follow them in their training stages after they first arrive at boot camp in the U.S. and then follow them into training in France. By the time we get to the individual stories, they are at the edges of combat, and see some action, but the total discussion of the war itself takes a handful of sentences in the novel. Rather, these are character studies of what’s going on in the heads of these three men. They seem to know almost nothing about the war, don’t care to know. They have no idea of the politics of Europe itself and little about France.

The novel is sort of like three separate works, two long short-stories about the lives of Fuselli and Chrisfield, and then a novel about the war years of John Andrews. Andrews sees himself as a free man who must resist giving in to the force of others, thus he despises the army. He talks a great game of freedom and rebellion. Yet, he knuckles under to army discipline, fearing authority, while constantly berating it and planning his resistance which doesn’t come.

However, he does suffer a minor leg wound and is sent to hospital until the end of the war, then, on his way to rejoin his unit in France AFTER the war, he is sort of embarrassed by another free-spirited soldier into going AWOL with him.

This is a clever section by Dos Passos. We have Andrews, very thoughtful about his sense of independence and his hatred of the system and disgusted with himself who too often still caves into the system. And we have this very unthoughtful soldier who lives with his gut. The soldier, Henslowe, is already AWOL, and plans to keep on going, always wanting to be in some place other than where he is. He is obviously a free spirit, much like the ideal which Andrews constantly proclaims to himself, but never lives. Henslowe is rather incoherent about his spirit of freedom, but driven by most of the same things about which Andrews is so thoughtful. This is a very nicely done section.

Andrews ends up getting a G.I. spot at university in Paris. He doesn’t get caught being AWOL at this time, and has a very nice situation of being paid by the U.S. government to go to university and study music.

Henslowe, however, is relentless and continues his pressure on Andrews to go fully AWOL with him and the two will see the world. He says: “There’s only one real evil in the world: being somewhere without being able to get away.”

Andrews is attracted to Henslowe’s spirit, but wants his life to be more centered in music. And he has no courage to live out his seeming convictions about freedom. He lives a nice life in Paris, enjoying school, first having an affair with a lovely young French working girl, Jeanne, and then with a somewhat superficial girl out of the intellectual/artistic class.

There is an anger in Andrews with himself and his inability to live the freedom he so thinks he believes in. When he rails against Jeanne one day about his values and he goes on about freedom, she challenges him and asks:

“But what’s the good of freedom? What can you do with it? What one wants is to live well and have a beautiful house, and be respected by people.”

That’s sort of the beginning of the end of that relationship. He moves on and begins he second relationship, and this time goes AWOL accidently! The two of them travel to southern France and he forgets to carry his papers. He is arrested and put on a work detail that finally breaks him and gives him the courage to finally rebel against the army, to escape the work detail and to go underground as an AWOL soldier. However, he is deeply reliant on his girlfriend for support.

Henslowe again finds him and is encouraging him to break fully from not only the army but from France as well. Henslowe denounces his inaction and his dreams of some ideal world. He argues

“… human society … will always be that … organizations growing and stifling individuals and individuals revolting hopelessly against them, and at last forming new societies to crush the old societies and becoming slaves again in their turn.”

Andrews is a very interesting character. He reminded me of many students I had in the 1960s and 70s in classes I taught on Existential Philosophy. The students would often seem to be deeply moved by the arguments and lives of Existentialists and they would preach the dogmas just as Andrews did. Yet, like Andrews, they lived lives well within the world of respectability that wouldn’t endanger their own position of privilege and comfort. At least Andrews was internally struggling with his own contradictions and could recognize the freedom which he so admired in Henslowe.

I’m not unhappy I read the book. However, if I had had a better idea of what it was like it might well have been one I would have skipped. I’m tempted to go back and re-read at least one volume of Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy to see if my memories of those books are too friendly to Dos Passos, or if they really were as good as I remembered them to be. It’s been many years…..

Bob Corbett


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