Although John Dos Passos's career spans half a century, the bulk of his significant work occurred during the 1920s. During this phase of his career, his writing, as it developed from the relatively traditional fictional form of Three Soldiers to the radically innovative The 42nd Parallel, reveals in sharp focus many of the artistic impulses that constitute fictional modernism. By looking closely at Dos Passos's move during the 1920s toward the extraordinary exercise in experimental fiction that is U.S.A., it is possible to come to a better understanding of what was occurring in more fragmentary and less integral form in fictional modernism as a whole during this decade.
Dos Passos's modernism has received consideration over the years, with particular attention given to its relationship to early-twentieth-century painting and film and, more occasionally and recently, to his own secondary career as a watercolourist. (1) Much of this criticism, though valuable, is limited in focus in that it usually concentrates on a single modernistic strain or a single work. Another of its limitations is that the critic frequently fails to distinguish between a specific influence on Dos Passos's shaping of a modernistic technique and a comparative relationship between Dos Passos's technique and a modernist art form. It is often not clear, in other words, whether the critic is writing a source study, a species of literary criticism, or a mix of the two. I will attempt to grasp the larger picture--to describe the logic, so to speak, of the evolution of Dos Passos's modernism during the decade in response to specific art beliefs and movements of the period--the why and how he made his way from Three Soldiers to U.S.A.
Dos Passos himself in his later years, especially in the 1960s, often commented in essays and interviews on his response to the artistic ferment of the post-World War I period and of his own participation in its various phases. Here is a typical example from 1968: "Some of the poets who went along with the cubism of the painters of the School of Paris had talked about simultaneity. There was something about Rimbaud's poetry that tended to stand up off the page. Direct snapshots of life. Reportage was a great slogan. The artist must record the fleeting world the way the motion picture film recorded it. By contrast, juxtaposition, montage, he could build drama into his narrative. Somewhere along the way I had been impressed by Eisenstein's motion pictures, by his version of old D.W. Griffith's technique. Montage was his key word" ("Novelist" 272). This is an important recollection, since it mentions, in evocative terms, a number of the key influences on Dos Passos's engagement with modernism. But the passage also reveals the difficulty of depending on a writer's memory of events that occurred over forty years earlier. The passage ranges in chronological allusion from the 1890s to the late 1920s and in subject matter over poetry, painting, and film. There are almost no signposts as to what happened when and in what sequence or to which of his own works he is referring. These monumental shifts in Dos Passos's artistic intent and method seem to have happened simultaneously in time and to have affected all of his work in a similar fashion. In fact, just the opposite occurred, as I hope to show.
Because Three Soldiers, as its title suggests, tells three distinct stories, with only sporadic plot interaction among them, the novel is often misleadingly viewed as an important precursor to Dos Passos's more pronounced fragmented and discontinuous narrative style in his later works of the decade. This is an especially attractive idea because he began writing Three Soldiers in the spring of 1919, during a period when he was immersed (as a special student at the Sorbonne) in the Paris art scene (Ludington 180). Paris was then the centre of innovation in the various arts. Cubistic styles dominated painting, music was striding away from its traditional sounds and forms, symbolism was a significant strain in poetry, and James Joyce was beginning to write Ulysses.
Dos Passos, however, while he may have begun storing away for later use the modernist ideas he was encountering during this period, was largely impervious to their relationship to the novel he was writing or indeed to the pictures he was painting shortly afterwards. (His watercolours of 1919-20, done during visits to Spain, are for the most part conventional impressionist landscapes.) He was consumed above all by bitterness and anger--by the need to express as directly and powerfully as he could the crushing effect of modern industrialism, especially in its manifestation as war, upon individual destinies, and he thus chose a fictional method that most directly rendered this condition. He would tell how three very different American soldiers were destroyed by a military system that closely mimicked the core values and methods of a modern industrial society. Three Soldiers, despite Dos Passos's use of an expressionist mechanist symbolism throughout the novel, took shape under the impulse of this theme as a traditional multi-plot Victorian novel similar to that of Thackeray, Dickens, or Eliot at their most expansive. It begins, in Part One, by presenting the three central figures interacting in the common setting and experience of their American training camp. After this statement of theme and method (three interwoven stories with a single dominant theme), each of the other four parts of the novel concentrates on a single character while occasionally introducing the two other major characters as they interact with this focus of interest. Apart from this slightly more formalized separation of narratives, Dos Passos's fictional style is conventional. The stories are all forward-moving and the point of view is traditional third-person limited omniscient. The theme of Three Soldiers strongly echoes the modernist concern, brought into sharp relief by the carnage of the war, over the loss of individual identity in modern society, but Dos Passos delivers this theme in an unchallenging conventional form.
Rosinante to the Road Again is, in a sense, a logical follow-up to the issues raised in Three Soldiers. If the first work is a diagnosis of the ills of modern society, the second is an analysis of how these may be both successfully resisted and replaced by more beneficial values and practices. But rather than dramatizing this theme by means of the methods of conventional fiction, Dos Passos now opts for strategies that …