Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Start Spreading the News: Irony, Public Opinion, and the Aesthetic Politics of U.S.A

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Start Spreading the News: Irony, Public Opinion, and the Aesthetic Politics of U.S.A

Article excerpt

Irony is perhaps democracy's best instrument.
--Public Opinion Quarterly 1938 (T.V. Smith 19)

In 1938, the publication of The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money as a single novel provoked a flood of essays debating how John Dos Passos's U.S.A. related socially, aesthetically, and politically to the U.S.A. (1) While assessments ranged from Lionel Trilling's ambivalent judgment that it was "the important novel of the decade" (26) to Mike Gold's bald declaration that the novel and Dos Passos himself were full of "merde," reviewers recognized the trilogy as both a new form of the novel and as a novel form of news. Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, observed that "John Dos Passos reports all his characters' utterances to us in the style of a statement to the Press" (93); Delmore Schwartz went further, asking readers to "think ... of the newspaper as a representation of American life" and asserting that the "novel seems to ... derive from the newspaper" (229).That print journalism influenced the style of Dos Passos's innovative, "collectivist" novel shouldn't surprise even the most casual reader. The novel is not only formally marked by its salient invocations of "the news" but is also a novel thoroughly about journalism: the famously fragmented Newsreel sections comprise real and imagined newspaper headlines; several characters in the novel are journalists; and several others routinely influence the press as public relations agents.

The political implications of this intermingling of novel and news, however, have always been more contentious. Whereas Schwartz considered U.S.A. to be a political disappointment--"the greatest monument of naturalism because it betrays so fully the poverty and disintegration inherent in that method" (245)--Sartre found that the novel instilled a "revolutionary" spirit in him and regarded Dos Passos as "the greatest writer of our time" (96). In the context of political battles about literary aesthetics and politics among the 1930s literary Left, it is unsurprising that the same novel might frustrate Partisan Review critic Schwartz yet gratify the existentialist Sartre. Like many fellow-traveling reviewers of U.S.A., Schwartz objected that the novel emphasized the negative "facts" of political oppression without delineating the positive "values" that might help readers envision the goals of political praxis. Sartre, meanwhile, found revolutionary potential in the novel's presentation of value-laden facts and in Dos Passos's refusal to compose artificially hopeful blueprints for action.

For more recent critics, Dos Passos's fragmented juxtaposition of song lyrics, speeches, and news copy is understood to exemplify a multigeneric irony, which has itself become curiously emblematic of both high modernist and high postmodernist literary practice. Although the different sections of the novel appear to be wholly separate and equal narrative creations, in the final analysis they have been understood to reflect a common goal: the mimetic representation of the gap between fact and value that is known in literary terms as irony and in political and social-historical terms as "America." As Donald Pizer has written, the "underlying motive for [Dos Passos's] distortion of the 'factual' lies in [his] powerful ironic and thus satiric vision of the immense distance between verbal construct and actuality in twentieth-century America" (185).

Until the relatively recent popularity of The Onion and The Daily Show as sources of political information as well as humor, verbal irony and news might seem to be opposites: reliable information requires that words reliably mean what they say. Yet it is precisely irony that provides a vital heuristic for U.S.A.'s engagement with political journalism and what might be called an aesthetics of information. Here I use aesthetics to refer not only to the conventional, formal study of art and beauty but in the full etymological sense, to refer to certain kinds of sensory, corporeal responses to certain representations, signs that do not just fall upon but actually constitute perception. …

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