U. S. A. By John Dos Passos. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. To Have and Have Not. By Ernest Hemingway. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50. The Prodigal Parents. By Sinclair Lewis. Garden City: ’ Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50.
No other nation has sat for so many portraits in fiction as America has, from the time of Howells up to the recent novels of Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos. These three novelists use partly similar methods in depicting American society. One expects from them detailed presentation of concrete, observed fact—they are realists. But one does not find in them the strict objectivity of pure realism. In Lewis there is the modification of satiric broadening, in Dos Passos that of deliberate pattern-making, in Hemingway that of romantic coloring, and in all three there is social comment, direct or implied—for they are also critics. Furthermore, none of their characters, however complex and interesting as an individual, is created in their minds and received in ours without awareness of the vast category of Americans which he represents; nor does action often occur without a suggestion that it is typical of action occurring at a thousand points between New York and San Francisco. Theirs is instance-art. Personality and incident are rarely introduced for their own sake.
Evaluation of these writers, of course, must be based, not only on their use of these methods, but also on the truth and the effectiveness of the resulting work. By this evaluation Dos Passos’s “U, S. A.” ranks somewhat above Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not” and infinitely above Lewis’s “The Prodigal Parents.” Since it consists of three long novels, published separately between 1930 and 1936 as “The 42nd Parallel,” “1919,” and “The Big Money,” it has much larger dimensions; in fact, it surpasses, in breadth and depth, any other single piece of imaginative writing on the American scene. It follows an assortment of restless, vigorous people from the beginning of the century to the 1929 crash—people setting out from widely scattered and socially diverse homes on a road of exciting enterprise. The War transforms them from questers to drifters, from hopefuls to might-have-beens. Society feeds only their worthless qualities; their illusions and natural talents and sense of values die by the wayside. Wallowing in waste and indifference and cruelty and sex and drink, they pursue “the big money” or perhaps nothing at all. And in the end that’s what most of them get: “the big money” or nothing at all.
Fault has been found with the characters of Dos Passos. A common complaint is that they fail to stimulate the reader’s interest and sympathy. For example, Herbert J. Muller, in “Modern Fiction,” remarks: “His many characters are with few exceptions shrewdly observed, carefully individualized, sharply projected—thoroughly life-like; but they are never compelling. One is not deeply interested in them as persons, and hence not particularly moved by their fate.” It is true that Dos Passos’s men and women are not dramatically arresting or intellectually sensitive or morally admirable. They are closer to Emma Bovary and to living people than to figures of strongly colored traditional romance. In time the taste of more and more readers will become adjusted to characters whose struggle is not with a tangible antagonist but with a half-understood, slow-working jumble of psychological and social forces. The belief that only the fall of the noble or exceptional human being constitutes an absorbing tragic subject has yet to be driven from criticism. But Dos Passos is not to blame. And his “U. S. A.” furnishes a model for the treatment of ordinary human beings, typical of the mass.
Another frequent objection is that his characters are difficult for readers to follow through his maze of “devices.” He abandons conventional fiction technique: unbroken narration of what befalls one character or set of characters. Thus, Charley Anderson, who appears near the end of the first volume, is omitted from the second (for he is at the front, whereas “1919” is limited to the effects of the War on non-fighters) ; then in volume three the corruption of his mechanical talent is graphically described. But there are interruptions even here, as chapters are devoted to other characters, some of them quite unassociated with Charley. Moreover, the various chapters are mortared with Dos Passos’s now-famous trio of inventions: the “Camera Eye” (his stream-of-consciousness autobiography, collateral with the main narrative, but more interpretive in approach); the “Newsreel” (a pastiche of headlines and popular songs, designed to record the country’s voice and mood); and the thumb-nail biographies of representative Americans, ranging from Veblen and Joe Hill to Hearst and Woodrow Wilson. So numerous and obvious are the advantages of this combination of devices in creating a substantial image of America, that the sacrifice of sustained attention to one narrative-strand seems a small matter. Besides, the Dos Passos chapters are long, and our acquaintance with each new character is too firmly established for us to forget him, regardless of interruptions. The availability of the three books in one volume makes the difficulty even slighter.
If all the dispersed sections relating to a single character in “U. S. A.” were collected and printed as a unit, the resulting novelette would be comparable in scope and effect to “To Have and Have Not,” Hemingway’s first novel in almost a decade, and his first full-length book to deal with America. Instead of analyzing expatriates adrift in Italy or Spain, as before, he goes to the heart of Americans’ problems in their native environment. It is no less the heart because his setting is Key West, for at this outpost congregate all varieties of the “Haves,” fleeing from ennui to inanity, and of the “Have Nots,” fleeing from starvation to desperate brutality. Harry Morgan, the central character, is one of the “Have Nots”: his livelihood and his family’s depend entirely on jobs he can get with his large motor boat. His downfall is faster than that of any character in “U. S. A.”—and more violent and harrowing. Having been played false by wealthy sportsmen, he concludes that one must be a lone wolf playing everybody false in order to get along. Soon he is engaged in smuggling, which leads him to murder and at length to his own death. His last, incoherent words indicate a change of mind; one man alone, he has come to realize, has no chance. Bitter experience has taught him the futility of solitary battle against an army of “Haves”—a conclusion held in common with Dos Passos’s wisest character, Mary French, the social worker.
While Hemingway appears to have lost his old confidence in individualism, Sinclair Lewis has come to the point of actively campaigning for it. “The Prodigal Parents” studies the sort of bourgeois family in which husband can tell wife, “We can do any doggone thing we doggone well want to.” But even the economically secure family in America, Lewis is distressed to find, is threatened with disruption. The twofold revolt, of wife against domestic restrictions and of children against parental domination, has reduced the husband-father to a walking checkbook, to a mere target of abuse. It is the father’s turn to revolt, cries the author. He must shake off his leechlike offspring, and set out with his wife for Samarkand or Brazil to enjoy life. If the Family is to survive, its members must become independent, must neither dominate nor be dominated.
There is enough truth in Lewis’s thesis, if it were built up sagaciously, to convince thousands of his readers. But crude handling has emphasized the fallacies and made the novel hardly worthy of serious discussion. The hero is Fredk. Wm. Cornplow, prosperous middle-aged automobile agent, definitely cut of Babbitt-cloth. But whereas the light from the author’s eyes formerly shone disapprovingly on that type of man, a sympathetic light now brightens him into a very model of manhood. Lewis the Babbitt-baiter has become a Babbitt-idolator. He proclaims Cornplow a symbol of “the eternal bourgeois.” Throughout history, “he has been the eternal doer; equally depended upon—and equally hated— by the savage mob and by the insolent nobility.” In fact, “sometimes his name has been pronounced Babbitt.” We may disregard the practical difficulty of persuading Americans, long drilled to pronounce “Babbitt” slurringly, now to pronounce it reverently. Can we ignore, however, Lewis’s failure to give us positive demonstration of the estimable side of his character? Cornplow is most noteworthy for his general insipidity. Had he bumped into a really strong antagonist at any time during his Buck-the-Reign-of-Youth crusade, his solid exterior would have split wide apart, revealing nothing more than a mainspring and a torn map of Samarkand.
The antagonists are all highly amusing, albeit unintentionally so. My favorite is the surly daughter, who marries a department-store owner after being jilted by a communist organizer, and who is simultaneously occupied with trying to prove her eminently “sane” father a case for the psychiatrists. Nearly as fantastic is the peerlessly stupid son, who charges to Dad all his misadventures in college, socialism, intoxication, and marriage. The minor villains, the radical, the capitalist, and the psychiatrist, are pure slapstick. The inevitable Cordelia in this “King Lear” situation is Corn-plow’s daughter-in-law—supposedly an ideal young woman of today, though she can’t get along with her own father, though she marries a man she knows to be a rotter, and though she can think of nothing better to do than go to Europe when he gets to be too much for her. Her only apparent virtue is a touching understanding of the hard lot of her father-in-law.
As if the characterization weren’t dismaying enough, the dialogue is composed of forced banter and preposterous epigrams, in the manner of an early talking picture, even up to the closing paragraph, so reminiscent of the Hollywood fade-out, when Cornplow says to his wife: “Say! In Brazil we ought to get doggone good coffee. Well, you can sit up and talk until sunrise if you want to, but the old man’s going to turn in. I hear where there’s good coffee in Egypt, too. We’ll see. Good night—good night !” Lewis’s style has grown progressively worse, though even in his heyday it would not stand comparison with the economical, dramatic (if erratic) expression of Hemingway or with the remarkably adaptable expression of Dos Passos, who has Joyce’s power of registering, with perfect appropriateness to subject, the countless shadings between the blunt and the lyrical.
So much for three portraits of America: one a full-length likeness, frank and expertly wrought; one a miniature, equally frank, more intense, and but slightly less effective; and one a middle-sized sketch recognizable only by label. Ironically, fewer present-day Americans will see the first two than the last.