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October 21, 2017

Dos Passos and U.S.A.

On this day in 1970 John Dos Passos died at the age of seventy-four. He is now one of the more forgotten Lost Generation writers, but the U.S.A. trilogy (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money, published 1930-36) was important reading in the forties and fifties, both for its angry indictment of the "prosperity myth" and its style. Influenced by Joyce, Dos Passos incorporated a 'stream-of-society' technique into his best fiction: "newsreels" (pastiches of headlines, popular songs, etc.), biography (of the economic elite, juxtaposed against the radicals and downtrodden), personal memory, and roving, "camera eye" passages. The cumulative effect is difficult to capture, but the following excerpt gives a taste; it is part of "Camera Eye 50" from The Big Money, and "the men in the deathhouse" are Saccho and Vanzetti, the incorporated quotation taken from Vanzetti's famous death row letter to his son:
    America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have bought the laws and fenced off the meadows and cut down the woods and turned our pleasant cities into slums and sweated the wealth out of our people and when they want to hire the executioner to throw the switch

    but do they know that the old words of the immigrants are being renewed in blood and agony tonight do they know that the old american speech of the haters of oppression is new tonight in the mouth of an old women from Pittsburgh of a husky boilermaker from Frisco who hopped freights clear from the Coast to come here in the mouth of a Back bay socialworker in the mouth of an Italian printer of a hobo in arkansas the language of the beaten nation is not forgotten in our ears tonight

    the men in the deathhouse made the old words new before they died

    If it had not been for these things, I might have lived out my life talking at streetcorners to scorning men. I might have died unknown, unmarked, a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man's understanding of man as we do by accident.

    now their work is over the immigrants haters of oppression lie quiet in black suits in the little undertaking parlor in the North End the city is quiet the men of the conquering nation are not to be seen on the streets tonight

    they have won why are they scared to be seen on the streets? on the streets you see only the downcast faces of the beaten the streets belong to the beaten nation all the way to the cemetery where the bodies of the immigrants are to be burned we line the curbs in the drizzling rain we crowd the wet sidewalks elbow to elbow silent pale looking with scared eyes at the coffins

    we stand defeated America
Dos Passos was also a modernist artist, sometimes creating illustrations and dust-jackets for his own books. He sent F. Scott Fitzgerald a personal invitation to his first public exhibition in 1923: "Come and bring a lot of drunks." On Edmund Wilson's invitation he wrote, "Follow the green line to the cocktail shaker. Any person caught looking at a picture will be fined for infringement of rules."

The painting above is "Mexican Men and Women Drinking From Straws."

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