It was somewhere back in the 1970s that The Clash sang “I’m so bored with the U.S.A., but what can I do?” The song both derided the American scene, as Joe Strummer and company perceived it, and lamented the cultural power of that scene. Considering television, the song noted, “the killers in America work seven days a week.”
Recently, I’ve been making my way through John Dos Passos
U.S.A. trilogy. Although I haven’t yet managed to get through the first novel, 42nd Parallel, I’m already ready to opine on the work as a whole.
This is a work that the Modern Library named as the 23rd best novel in English in the twentieth century. Granted, 23rd isn’t exactly the top of the list, but let’s recall that the twentieth was the century that gave us Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, O’Connor, Bellow, Lawrence, and a host of others. Apparently this list did not follow the convention of only allowing an author to appear once; therefore, for Dos Passos to place so highly amid such heady company is a great accomplishment, which leads me to my question.
Why does Dos Passos in general and this 23rd greatest English novel (or its components) of the twentieth century receive so little attention. Despite considerable coursework in modernism, your faithful correspondent never encountered any work by Dos Passos in graduate school. If for nothing other than his formal experimentation and its influence on other writers, this guy deserves a mention, yet literary history seems to have written him off as a writer of no greater reputation than, say, Frank Norris. He’s significant. You’ll have heard his name, but you needn’t trouble yourself to read him.
I’ve also been reading Louis Bromfield of late. That’s another American writer of the thirties who seems to have fallen off the planet, yet in Bromfield’s case, I understand (but don’t agree) with the lack of attention. Bromfield, to the contrary of Dos Passos, swam against the thematic and stylistic streams of his day. Bromfield’s work has been described as post-Victorian and his politics were relatively conservative. Plus there’s that whole farming thing. Dos Passos has no such strikes against him. Nobody is placing Bromfield on the list of 100 best novels, but there sits Dos Passos at number 23.
As another example of the inexplicable lack of attention given to #23, I turn to the Fount of All Knowledge, Wikipedia. Consider the entry for the aforementioned Frank Norris and The Octopus, which does not appear on the Modern Library list at all. That entry is considerably longer than the one for U.S.A., despite the much greater length and complexity of the latter work. In fact, if one took out the material on the four modes of narration from U.S.A., there’d be little in its entry. The Octopus is not an Ayn Rand or L. Ron Hubbard novel, shamelessly glorified by its breathless ideologues. It’s just a book, yet it has received more attention than Dos Passos.
Is U.S.A. simply one of those works that one must admire even without reading it, rather like Proust or Finnegan’s Wake? That’s a question I’d like to consider as I wade through its three parts. For now, though, I can’t join The Clash in proclaiming boredom for the work.