Figuring the Financier: Dos Passos and Pierpontifex Maximus

By Wainwright, Michael | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Figuring the Financier: Dos Passos and Pierpontifex Maximus


Wainwright, Michael, Papers on Language & Literature


Pierpont Morgan sat in a room in the Arlington Hotel, Washington, playing solitaire.--John K. Winkler, Morgan the Magnificent (142)

Historian John K. Winkler's image of John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) awaiting an interview with Grover Cleveland, the twenty-fourth President of the United States, is paradoxically singular. Alone in his hotel suite on 8 February 1895, the Wall Street financier whiles away time with a deck of cards. John Pierpont pits his wits against himself. He is patient--the president must soon lay his own cards on the table. "The Government," explains Winkler, "did not dare permit the press and public to learn in actual measure how close the Treasury was to repudiation" (143-44). Two weeks before Morgan's arrival in the capital, Secretary of the Treasury, John G. Carlisle, had mooted the possibility of an emergency loan floated in Europe. Cleveland had discounted the idea. The Rothschilds had then been approached, but they would only deal in government bonds payable in gold, and the Federal Reserve could not guarantee the transaction. Under advice, though reluctantly, Cleveland had summoned Morgan to Washington. Still unwilling to concede defeat, the president kept Morgan waiting at the Arlington. The financier bided his time with solitaire.

What makes this image paradoxically singular is its almost immediate reappearance in American letters: Winkler's testimony from 1931 being recycled by John Dos Passos (1896-1970) for his novel 1919 (1932). This reiteration responded to the growing presence of capitalism as an environing narrative in twentieth-century America. Ethically minded writers wished to examine the nature of economic self-interest, or the capitalist imperative, which financiers of the previous generation had refined into concerted practice. Dos Passos was especially keen to discover a formal literary approach that would support this examination. The anti-capitalist principles of the Soviet Union beckoned. He first visited in 1921, but his second trip in 1928 was more propitious: he met film director Sergei Eisenstein and soon recognized the potential of montage. Eisenstein's method loosened the grip of chronological narration and empowered simultaneous patterns of consonance and dissonance. Dos Passos learned to apply this approach to literature. "By contrast, juxtaposition, montage," he recalled for the National Review in 1968, "[the writer] could build drama into his narrative" (31).

Dos Passos's resultant form of modernism found its first expression in The 42nd Parallel (1930). This novel interlaces four genres: "The Camera Eye," the "Newsreel," and biographical vignettes disrupting a set of more traditional Bildungsromans. Lisa Nanney calls this version of Eisenstein's technique "modal" (225). Stream of consciousness sequences come from "The Camera Eye." This transference of sense impressions directly into words is Dos Passos's way of relating personal experiences. The "Newsreel" is a method that cuts and pastes newspaper headlines with other newspaper excerpts, notable speeches, documents of national importance, and popular songs. Dos Passos's vignettes draw on the ironic portraits popularized by Thomas Beer in which carefully selected and rearranged biographical details attempt to reverse received opinion concerning national figures. Politicians, businessmen, industrialists, and scientists were Dos Passos's favored targets. Gamaliel Bradford's term for these studies is "psychography" (9). Each psychograph exhibits two major characteristics: documentary sources rather than interior monologue supply the concrete details; selection and arrangement of these items alongside barbed narratorial remarks produce an effect that resonates with the irony of the biographical title. Mixing four literary modes, Donald Pizer concludes, "Dos Passos was raising the stakes, so to speak, beyond those present either in most films or in the fiction of other modernists (Faulkner, for example)" (86). …

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