John Dos Passos in the 1920s: The Development of a Modernist Style

Article excerpt

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. …