Chapter VI John Dos Passos
When John Dos Passos was a little boy he seemed always to be
travelling with his mother, a middle-aged
Years later, and now a prep school boy, Jack ran into a youth dozing in a boxcar on a siding near the Maryland farm of Jack’s father, John R. Dos Passos, the famous corporation lawyer. The kid wasn’t much older than Jack, but he’d seen life. He had wisps of hay in his hair and smelled of cornstalks. The guy wasn’t of much account, Jack thought, but he had worked the harvest fields as far west as Minnesota, and now, brown to the waist beneath his shirt, he was going south, hitching freights. 1
These experiences in the writer’s life, recorded in two “Camera Eye” sequences in The 42nd Parallel, provide us with two images of life under industrialism which recur again and again in Dos Passos’ fiction and plays. The factory, pithead or mill, the architectural expression of the industrial order, is usually seen from a distance—from the deck of a ship entering harbor, through a train window, from across a marsh, from the window of a worker’s house. Never are such places entered. They serve as ominous presences, reminders of the bleak and unrewarding lives led by the silent millions who work in them. In Dos Passos’ plays The Garbage Man and Airways, Inc., factories serve as backdrops. As The Garbage Man opens, Jane Carroll and her childhood sweetheart Tom Burns are coming home from a party at dawn and encounter a squad of workers trudging to factory gates to begin another day. “The sound of engines soars pounding behind the curtains,” reads a stage direction. “Listen, they’re angry with us,” says Jane, and Tom replies, “They don’t want us to be happy. They want us to be shovelling coal, pounding typewriters, filling greasecups.” 2 The young lovers contemplate their fates. They too must soon enter the great industrial army.
Inc. opens to reveal a jerrybuilt tract of typical late-1920’s
lower-middle class bungalows, with a vista of “endless factory buildings” stage
rear. The developer of the tract tells a fellow businessman that
The possibility of a different
relationship of a worker to the system is suggested, however, by that sunburned
young harveststiff whom Dos Passos came upon near his father’s farm. It is the
relationship to the system of the man who simply refuses to enter the factory—the
itinerant, the vagrant, the journeyman printer, the ordinary seaman. In the
whole of the U,
These men and several others
like them in the
Since they are all barred from
conceiving of their personal futures within the conventional terms of marriage,
child-rearing, promotions and bank accounts, they scarcely think of the future
at all. Some, it is true, speak of and even work and organize for one Big Union
and the revolution that will overthrow the bosses, but few have any real
conviction that this is possible, or, indeed, any notion of how it is to be
achieved. The revolution, that millennial event, is for all but Ben Compton a
sort of twentieth century
There is, however, a resigned wisdom behind this shiftlessness. Each of these workingstiffs knows that the future holds nothing for him, and in saying to hell with it, he at least achieves a temporary release, a taste of the freedom as well as the privation of being on the move. When the seaman Joe Williams breaks off from his fiancé’, quits a course in navigation at the Alexander Hamilton Institute, and gets a berth on an oil-tanker bound for Tampico, he feels a fullness of spirit that life on the beach will forever deny him: 5
It is also good to be on the road again. Thus, to the
consternation of some critics and, one must suppose, many readers as well, Manhattan Transfer ends with Jimmy Herf,
the novel’s center of consciousness, simply walking out of a Greenwich Village
party, taking a ferry over to the Jersey shore, and hitting the road. “How fur
ye goin?,” a truck driver asks. “I dunno....,” Herf replies. “Pretty far.” 6 Similarly The Big Money, and of course the
While Manhattan Transfer is an indictment of capitalism at its seemingly most robust, and the ending of The Big Money is an indictment of capitalism in collapse, both are curiously affirmative. Herf and Vag both attest in their flight to the fact that it is still possible in this country to move on, that the factories have not yet closed in, that the open road remains before. It is not Whitman’s open road that beckons these young men forward, to be sure—Herf walks a cement road between dumps, piles of rubbish, “rusty donkey-engines, skeleton trucks, wishbones of Fords, shapeless masses of corroding metal”—but an open road nevertheless, one going “pretty far.”
John William Ward has said that
while U.S.A. looked like a Marxist
book to many of its contemporaries, it was in fact “an American book in the
agrarian tradition which sees the defeat of America in the victory of a
mechanized society worshipping power and money over a society of simplicity
devoted to the needs of human beings and individual felicity.” 7
One suspects that the young man
who wrote these novels and plays (Dos Passos was barely forty when he completed
the Book of Job, who was coming “from going up and down the earth.” “Don’t you want to go up and down the earth?,” Dos Passos asked. 9 “Freedom” to the young Dos Passos, then, meant not the freedom of the independent freeholder, secure in his modest estate and beholden to no man—the agrarian ideal—but the freedom of the wanderer, the kind of freedom experienced by the young men of his novels, the freedom to move on, to take it all in, to “run up the gangplanks of all the steamboats,” as he wrote in the preface to U.S.A., to “register at all the hotels, work in the cities, answer the wantads, learn the trades,” and so on. 10
Where, then, is “freedom” to be found? In what period of history is it to be located? The answer of orthodox agrarianism is straightforward enough: freedom existed when the great majority of men were farmers, when government was unoppressive and taxes were mild—back, say, between 1780 and 1800; at the latest, 1830 (we are speaking here of a mythic tradition, of course, not of fact). In the case of Dos Passos’ kind of freedom, however, no such straightforward answer suggests itself. There is a limited correspondence, one might say, between the requirements of the agrarian’s freedom and those of Dos Passos’ freedom; the Jacksonian period of American history was a time of circuit-riding preachers, Yankee traders, wandering tinkers and itinerant journeymen as well as of independent freeholders. But Dos Passos’ kind of freedom might just as easily by located in the 1920’s as the 1820’s.
Dos Passos, however, located it
before the First World War. “Can anyone really remember,” he wrote in 1935, “the
free curiosity, the need to know what different jobs were like, the careless
throwing up of one job and moving to another, the working man’s sense of
freedom in the
In the novel Three Soldiers this anxiety is given shape and circumscribed by the conventions of romantic protest. John Andrews, the young composer-hero of the novel has a specific and convincing grievance against the massed machinery of the modern Army: it will not leave him alone to get on with his work. 13 But in the expressionist play The Garbage Man, the grievance felt by Tom Burns against all the machinery of the industrial world is neither principled nor founded on any compelling sense of purpose. The “message” of the play is that the machine—that is, the business civilization—blights all human spontaneity, poetry, and innocence. Tom and his sweetheart Jane Carroll, who represent these qualities and capacities, express their yearnings in an extravagantly “lyrical” language seemingly got from hit songs and magazine poetry. When Jane asks Tom how the two of them would live in defiance of the machine discipline, Tom replies, “We’d pick up raindrops for quarters. We’d skim greenbacks off the rollers out at sea. There’s a lot of gold in your hair Jane.” 14 In the last act of the play, Tom and Jane are re-united after a separation of several years. Now, after many adventures, both are resigned to their fate. “Tomorrow,” Tom says, “we’ll be working, banging typewriters, shoveling coal, filling greasecups, running with the oil can for the service of the dynamo.” But Jane, showing that her capacity for childlike fantasy is fully the equal of Tom’s, replies, “Today we’ll dance with the skyscrapers like stilts and straddle the street cars like hobbyhorses and weave the clotted colored lights into scarves for our shoulders.” 15
The Garbage Man was originally titled The Moon Is a Gong, a reference to Tom’s fantasy as a small child that if he could only climb high enough in the night he could ring the moon like a gong. It is that fantasy which Tom continues to cherish until the play’s end, and, in this expressionist drama, finally succeeds in enacting. When the imperatives of the machine are thundered over a “radiophone” toward the play’s end (“NO MAN SHALL LIVE FOR HIMSELF ALONE ... FOR THE SAKE OF NATIONAL PROSPERITY NO MAN SHALL THINK FOR HIMSELF ALONE NO MAN SHALL WORK FOR HIMSELF ALONE”), Tom grabs a megaphone and shouts back, “Voice of the machine, voice of the machine, I defy you.” 16 In so doing, it is implied, he speaks for all the numbed workingstiffs of the world. But really Tom does not speak in behalf of the proletariat. His defiance of the machine is simply a refusal to surrender the prerogatives of childhood.
The Garbage Man is an hysterical play—obsessive, melodramatic, and even cheap in its rigidly single-minded exploitation of all anti-machine symbolism. If all the characters in the play but the doomed lovers are moral morons incapable of decency and kindness, incapable of doing other than spouting the slogans of massman, then, one resentfully feels, it is not because they were born into the machine age but because they had the misfortune to be in this play, creatures of the playwright, tokens of his fears. One of the disturbing things about The Garbage Man is that while Dos Passos is indulgently sentimental about Tom and Jane (appropriate primer names), he seems to hate almost everyone else. In The Garbage Man, the “us” versus “them” dichotomy is absolute and totally self-isolating
The Garbage Man is expressive of the Dos Passos who was frightened by potteries in the night and dreamed of vengeful guillotines for all scientists and inventors. But there was the other side of him, fascinated by the industrial society around him and even drawn to it. In 1918, to a young friend who had just got a job in a shipyard, Dos Passos wrote ecstatically, 17
0 mirabile puer—insigne homo!
Nothing but bad latin can express the fervor of my admiration. You’ve pulled off something that I’ve never had the guts to do more than theorize about. I’ve all my life wanted to work in a shipyard—They are the most wonderful places in the world, and doing “unskilled” labor must make one lay hold on the elementary facts of existence in a wonderful way.
The lure of those elementary facts of existence had by the
late Twenties drawn Dos Passos away from the aesthetic-romantic concerns of Three Soldiers, The Garbage Man and Manhattan
Transfer. In the play Airways, Inc.,
Dad Turner, an old inventor in
At the play’s opening, Elmer has just set a new altitude record for light planes and is something of a celebrity. But while he gets a kick out of this sudden fame and is ready to trade upon it, his main interest is in building a new plane he has just designed. Elmer possesses Veblen’s instinct of workmanship—a hatred of waste, a willingness to take pains, and an easy command of technical processes. These qualities are all that separate Elmer from the ordinary run of young lower-middle class men, however, and in the end they are not enough to save him. The young hero is persuaded by Jonathan P. Davis, a an oily promoter, to become a “technical consultant” and a member of the board of Airways, Inc., a new company that Davis is organizing which will combine the production of airplanes with airline service coast-to-coast. The frame of action in Airways, Inc. is provided by a strike at the factory behind Glenside Gardens, a strike which at the play’s opening has been dragging on for months, and one in which all members of the Turner household have got involved in one way or another. Fresh from setting his altitude record, Elmer is persuaded by the factory owners to fly over a rally of striking workers and drop pro-company leaflets. But Elmer has been out on an all-night bender and goes up drunk. He crashes and breaks his spine. His publicity value now considerably diminished, Elmer is eased out of Airways, Inc., and now totally incapacitated, he seeks only the oblivion of sleep at the play’s end.
As in all of Dos Passos’ plays
and novels through
The career of Charley Anderson of The Big Money is both a comment on the hollowness of the American success myth during the boom years of the Twenties and an almost diagramatic demonstration of the sabotage of production by the pursuit of profit. Charley, like Elmer Turner before him, is one of the “boys with the know-how,” but unlike Elmer, who wants only to design and produce airplanes, Charley thinks that with all the money floating around, “a man ‘ud be a damn fool to keep his nose on his draftin’ board all his life.” 20
Money begins with Charley and his pal Joe Askew standing on the
deck of a liner steaming into
During the first year or so
after Charley and Joe get Wall Street backing for their scheme, Charley throws
himself into the tasks of designing an engine and starter, setting up jigs,
installing tools and turning out a product. But then he begins to take an
occasional flyer on the market, and once hooked, spends more and more time away
from the plant, talking stocks with his broker, having long “working lunches”
with the finance boys in downtown speakeasies, and chasing a society girl. Jilted
by her, Charley goes on a three-day bender which he ends by double-crossing Joe
and jumping to Tern, a big outfit in
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction, sexuality and wealth meld to produce a kind of glamor irresistible to poor young men: the golden girl in the dream palace who invites adoration as a right. To Fitzgerald there was deep pathos in the young man’s pursuit, and in the inevitability of his failure. Dos Passos, however, looked upon the seductive power of wealth from the outside, as a revolutionary moralist, and to him there was nothing pathetic or mysterious about such a quest. Charley is simply a sucker and a sell-out.
What he sells out is, of course,
the instinct of workmanship, the one basis of integrity that he possesses. The “Charley
Anderson” chapters of The Big Money
are a fictional equivalent of Veblen’s The
Engineers and the Price System. When Charley is shown around the plant at
Occasionally, Charley has a dim perception that in moving up from the shop floor to the front office he is losing his soul. These moments occur only when he takes to gabbing over drinks with his loyal mechanic Bill Cermak. When Charley gets drunk with Bill he is distressed by the mechanic’s insistence on calling him “boss.” “Hell, I ain’t no boss,” Charley protests. “I belong with the mechanics...don’t I, Bill? You and me, Bill, the mechanics against the world...” On one occasion the real issue between the two men is joined. Bill tells Charley, who is now so removed from production that he no longer knows what goes on in the shop, that Stauch, the German foreman at Tern, is a slavedriver and that the workers are exhausted. “You’ll lose all your best guys,” says Bill. “Slavedrivin’ may be all right in the automobile business, but buildin’ an airplane motor’s skilled labor.” Charley comes back with an irrelevant piece of self-indulgence: “Aw, Christ, I wish I was still tinkerin’ with that damn motor and didn’t have to worry about money all the time...” But after another drink, Charley has sufficiently recovered from Bill’s candor to lay it out straight. “I know what the boys are up against, but I know what the management’s up against too,” he says. “The oldtime shop was a great thing, everybody kidded and smoked and told smutty stories, but the pressure’s too great now. If every department don’t click like a machine, we’re rooked.” 21a
A disaster a day or two later seems to prove that the pressure to which Charley refers is not the pressure of industrial efficiency but of technically careless profit expansion. Charley and Bill are to test-fly the new Tern lightplane. The plane is lovingly described as a “tiny aluminum ship” that “glistened in the sun out on the green grass like something in a jeweller’s window.” But there is a flaw. Somewhere in the plane, something goes wrong, and she cracks up on take-off. Charlie is badly hurt but Bill is killed immediately, a victim of the sabotage by speed-up against which he had vainly protested. Charley, the nominal supervisor of the ship’s construction, has lost the engineer’s capacity for taking pains—the clearest possible evidence of his own degredation.
John William Ward has suggested that Charley may have been “a conscious inversion by Dos Passos of Charles A. Lindbergh,” inasmuch as Charley Anderson sells out, whereas Lindbergh, although he eventually made money in aviation shares, “did not cash in; he did not take the quick buck.” 22 However, in the one “Newsreel” in The Big Money in which Lindbergh appears, Dos Passos ignores the Lone Eagle’s trans-Atlantic flight altogether and gives us instead a series of headlines marking the aviator’s triumphant progress home. Dos Passos, that is, gives us not the self-reliant hero but the instant idol, the media-crowned celebrity, and the last of
these headlines, “LINDY TO HEAD BIG AIRLINE,” seems to suggest, however unfairly, that Lindgergh has indeed cashed in. 23
The standard against which Charley’s behavior is to be measured is contained in the lives of Orville and Wilbur Wright, who are given a “biography” in The Big Money. Charley is bowled over by success, whereas the Wright brothers, for all their fame and honors, “don’t seem to have been very much impressed by the upholstery and the braid and the gold medals and the parades of plush horses.” 24 Charley, temporarily chastened after dropping a cool
half-million in the market, tells an acquaintance that he would like to recoup because, “if I could pull out with enough jack I’d like to build me a windtunnel all my own.” 25 When he does make a comeback, this ambition is forgotten. Dos Passos notes that the Wright brothers, when still poor young bicycle mechanics, built an airtunnel, their first great contribution to the science of flying, and tried out model planes in it.” Above all, the Wright brothers refused to delegate even the smallest responsibility: “they were practical mechanics; when they needed anything they built it themselves.” 26
Almost everything that Dos Passos says in praise of the Wright brothers might have been said just as legitimately of Charles A. Lindbergh. The question arises as to why Dos Passos did not choose to contrast the apostasy of Charley Anderson with the integrity of Lindbergh, his contemporary, and instead chose to represent Lindbergh as a synthetic hero of the decade. The answer would seem to be that in Dos Passos’ mind, the kind of integrity which the Wright brothers represented was incompatible with advanced industrial organization. As Ward has so brilliantly demonstrated, Lindbergh was a compelling symbolic figure to Americans because his trans-Atlantic flight was capable of supporting meanings. Lindbergh the aviator seemed a throwback to the pioneer type, a proof that the traditional virtues still lived. On the other hand, his airplane attested to the superiority of advanced American manufacturing techniques, and hence to the truth of “progress.” 27 In the case of the Wright brothers, however, this symbolic ambiguity is avoided. They were pioneers of the pure type and the simple craft they put in the air at Kittyhawk was their own creation.
In choosing the Wright brothers as exemplars of the Veblenian virtues, Dos Passos subtlely, and probably quite unconsciously, subverted Veblen. In Veblen’s view, the instinct of workmanship was impersonal, detached, non-anthropomorphic, and cooperative; it was “technique,” the very spirit of industrialism itself, and its effectiveness could only be enhanced by the further development of the industrial process. 28 The Wright brothers, figures of an unrecapturable moment in American history back “before the war” were ideally suited to Dos Passos’ purposes precisely because their example was no longer usable. They stood in rebuke not only of the commercial spirit of the Twenties, but of the decade’s complexity of organization and its impersonality as well.
The American present is also subtely rebuked in the “biography” of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright is presented as a prophet whose vision of “a new clean construction, from the ground up, based on uses and needs” may yet redeem industrial civilization. But Wright the visionary is also a man of an earlier and tragically lost time who preaches “the horizons of his boyhood”—horizons still visible in the 1870’s and Eighties, but long since obscured by the industrial murk of the twentieth century. 29 Thus, bringing into being the spacious Usonian future of Wright’s dreams will require a return to the past. The invocation of Whitman’s name in the Wright “biography” gives further emphasis to the essentially restorative nature of the enterprise. Elsewhere in The Big Money, Dos Passos depicts himself as a young man pondering “what leverage might pry the owners loose from power and bring back (I too Walt Whitman) our story-book democracy.” 30 The words are apt, for the democracy of Dos Passos’ imagination corresponds to no agrarian vision; it is, rather, a democracy out of the story books—or rather, one story book, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, where working-men are free and vigorous and young.
U.S.A. has for
forty years been called a book of defeat, a bleak, cold book, “one of the
saddest books ever written by an American,” as Alfred Kazin wrote in On Native Grounds. 31 But although the book is a chronicle of wrecked
lives, and although Dos Passos insists again and again with a nearly mechanical
despair that in this country and in this century the good must always lose and
the bad must always win, the book somehow survives the writer’s bitter pedantry
and sentimental defeatism to become in the end something splendid. There is
vitality in Dos Passos’ despair, energy in his hate, and a zeal to know and
reveal everything about American life. These qualities, indicative of a writer
in full command of what he knows to be a great theme, make
But more than that,
Through the window he could see black hills powdered with snow, an occasional coaltipple, rows of gray shacks all alike, a riverbed scarred with minedumps and slagheaps, purple lacing of trees along the hill’s edge cut sharp against a red sun; then against the hill, bright and red as the sun, a blob of flame from a smelter.
There are dozens of such moments throughout the trilogy; Dos Passos’ camera eye, a painter’s eye as well, freezes scene after scene with marvellous compression and density. The harshness of the social reality portrayed—those rows of workers’ shacks, all alike, the dreary lives lived in them—is hardly “redeemed” by the beauty of the scene, but beauty is undeniably there. In spite of itself, U.S.A. is a work of praise.