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The Battle in the Trenches with Dos Passos

A contemporary reviewer of Willa Cather’s One of Ours complained that Cather, having not seen combat in France, did not present as convincing an account of World War I as did John Dos Passos in
Three Soldiers.
  Dos Passos, we learn, did see action during the war, serving in an ambulance team. Having been there, however, as we learned in the case of Stephen Crane and The Red Badge of Courage is not a prerequisite for creating  a believable fictional world. All of that, though, is irrelevant to the proper consideration of an artistic work.

The titular three soldiers of Dos Passos novel are an odd trio. Their oddness, or rather than odd way in which Dos Passos deploys them, is what leaves the novel unsatisfactory in my opinion. The three men are introduced together in boot camp, but they separate fairly quickly. Fuselli dominates the first two sections of the book, leaving the other two principals, the rubish Chrisfield and the educated Andrews apparently forgotten, aside from a brief meeting on a train platform. Then, after Fuselli’s story is followed for some time, he essentially drops out of the novel, replaced by the other two. Eventually, Andrews is separated from Chrisfield, first by a wound and then by a reassignment, after the Armistice, to study in Paris. From this point on the story is dominated by Andrews with the other two making on brief reappearances.

Since Andrews’ story parallels in some ways that of Dos Passos himself, it seems reasonable to consider him most closely. Although Andrews begins the story as the most level-headed and likely-to-succeed of the three, he winds up mired in a self-destructive spiral. Why Andrews does not thrive in the military setting is never explained. With at least the beginning of a college education and a composed temperament, Andrews seems the perfect candidate for at least an NCO posting if not the officer corps. Dos Passos never really deals with this likelihood. Similarly, he does not provide any rationale for Andrews’ self destructive actions.

After returning from his convalescence, Andrews learns of an opportunity for American personnel to study in Paris. Not surprisingly, the army burdens this opportunity with a great deal of bureaucratic complexity. That Andrews finds these hoops to be annoying is understandable, but his overall sense of rage and despair seems out of proportion. Granted, a veteran of World War I combat might behave in an irrational manner, but Dos Passos does not provide the development leading to Andrews’ disintegration. Ultimately, after gaining this plum posting, the young man is offered an early discharge that would allow him to remain in France and study. It’s perfect. His response then is to inexplicably head out of town, without permission, with his would-be girlfriend. There he is apprehended by undoubtedly the most heavy handed M.P.s ever to wear khaki, guys who make the Stasi seem like civil libertarians, and sent to a labor battalion without his home unit being notified.

At its heart, despite aiming to be a socialist critique of capitalism’s war, this novel provides a study in the anti-hero who refuses to subject himself to any sort of authority. Andrews, at his most basic level, detests the fact that others make decisions that impinge on his life. Fuselli, while initally attempting to play the game of soldier, lets the wheels come off–although how, we are never shown–and winds up as a discipline case. Chrisfield, a hothead from the beginning, frags an officer who had previously offended him, is promoted to corporal, and then deserts when faced with the possibility of his crime being uncovered.

The idea of a novel describing the way in which the war machine not only destroys those on the opposing lines but kills its own is a reasonable one. Unfortunately, Dos Passos does not provide that sort of a novel. Instead, we have three men who, inexplicably, fall to pieces for different and unsatisfactory reasons. Should one do so, we could dismiss him as unsuited to military life, but when all three do so, we’re left to believe that Dos Passos considers them as representative of all soldiers, a demonstrably untrue situation that comes from an attempt to shoehorn a political message into a narrative.

Posted in American Literature, Modernism.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. An Earlier Battle in Newer Trenches – A Noble Theme linked to this post on February 2, 2012

    […] John Dos Passos delivered Three Soldiers, discussed in the previous posting, he honed his collage technique with One Man’s Initiation, 1917. In this brief novel, we […]

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