I just finished John Dos Passos’ 1919, the second installment of U.S.A., one of the Great American Novels. When I looked for it on Bedford Avenue, the bookseller told me that not many people read him any more, which is a shame because he really is great. As Norman Mailer said, “Hemingway, Faulkner, Dreiser, and Henry James were the greatest American writers of the [twentieth] century, but U.S.A. may be the single greatest novel any of us have written in this country in these last one hundred years.” Sho ’nuff Norm. It’s really three novels though, but it is up there with Moby Dick. I’ve resolved to champion Dos Passos in the same way Eliot and Pound championed the Metaphysical Poets.
The novels capture the zeitgeist of the the twentieth century’s first three decades. Between the Joycean “Camera’s Eye,” the Newsreel, which features headlines from the era, the stories of famous Americans such as J.P. Morgan and Woodrow Wilson, and the fictional characters he invents, Dos Passos weaves a modernist epic novel.
I have this theory about how culture perceives history, that we long periodically for past eras. It’s been nearly a hundred since the Great War and the Lost Generation; coincidence “Midnight in Paris” is released? Or forty years after the height of the Civil Rights Movement and about a hundred and fifty after the Civil War we elect a black president–coincidence? I don’t know. But if you’re longing to learn about American a hundred years ago, read U.S.A.