LAW & LITERATURE | 1919 by John Dos Passos: A requiem for the defeated and outcasts - LawNow Magazine

LAW & LITERATURE | 1919 by John Dos Passos: A requiem for the defeated and outcasts

I have always intended to work my way through all three volumes of Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, published between 1930 and 1936 and clocking in at 1,300 pages. During today’s strange pandemic times, I have taken advantage of the opportunity to do so. And I can tell you that, while at times it was a steep climb and rocky road, I have reached the final ascent. It is truly a unique trio of novels. U.S.A. is a demanding modernist masterpiece which dispenses with any notion of a conventional plot. Instead, it operates by way of a pattern that illustrates the deepest impulses of the American experience over the first three decades of the twentieth century. It ends with the series of hammer blows that announce the onset of the Great Depression.

1919 is also the year that the worldwide pandemic known as the Spanish flu hit its peak.Dos Passos employs a truly revolutionary prose style and juxtaposes four distinct types of writing in the narrative. These styles serve to operate in a conveyor belt manner to capture the onrush of the new technologically-advanced society that comes into being in these pivotal years. First, the reader must attempt to grasp and make sense of Newsreel sections. These exemplify the rapidly changing circumstances that his generally hapless characters must attempt to adapt to despite the disadvantages of their circumstances – they are not part of the class of wealth and power that will dominate. This is followed by the brilliant short Biographies of key individuals who stand for either the best, or the worst, of the era. We are then funnelled toward the fictional narrative of the novel. We follow the lives and the temptations and challenges that threaten to sweep away 12 different characters living in various parts of the nation (from one end of the 42nd parallel to the other, as it were). The fourth, very different prose style is the “Camera Eye”, which employs impressionistic – and at times poetic accounts – of the world that the diverse characters experience. The subjective viewpoint is Dos Passos’ – one of frequently acute observations of the situations in a much richer prose style than the flat, purposeful and naturalistic style used to describe the fictional characters.

The three novels making up the trilogy are: The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money. I will focus primarily on the middle volume, 1919. In The Guardian’s survey of the 100 best novels, critic Robert McCrum lists 1919 as the outstanding volume of U.S.A. and number 58 on his (necessarily subjective) list.

1919 introduces us to several characters who in one way or another are deeply affected by President Wilson’s decision in 1917 to enter the war. This declaration contradicted his election pledge to keep the country out of the murderous conflict. We encounter supporters of the democratic socialist leader, Eugene Debs, who leads a party dedicated to keeping working men free of the sacrifices incumbent on participation in warfare. Dos Passos gives Debs pride of place in the trilogy by making him the very first biographical subject – “Lover of Mankind”. The sketch ends with Deb’s stirring words at his trial for defending the right of fellow socialists to protest against the war: “While there is a lower class I am of it, while there is a criminal class I am of it, while there is a soul in prison I am not free.”

Dos Passos employs a truly revolutionary prose style and juxtaposes four distinct types of writing in the narrative.In 1919, we witness one character’s initiation into the dangerous world of labour activism. Ben Compton is an idealistic Jewish student who overcomes his timidity. When confronted with the desperate conditions of workers, he finds his calling as a brilliant speaker, condemning the injustices of predatory capitalism. Like Debs, though, Ben cannot escape the punitive spirit of the Wilson administration. He claims to be a conscientious objector but is rejected with disdain. All that stands between Ben and a lengthy prison term is his friend, the radical lawyer and defender of civil liberties of the most vulnerable, Morris Stein. Ben will become yet another lonely rebel in the course of the narrative, his dream of studying for the law under Stein shattered by the effects of wartime fervour.

1919 is also the year that the worldwide pandemic known as the Spanish flu hit its peak. One of the humanitarian doctors who toil in relative anonymity and for little reward is Doc French. His exhausting schedule will cost him dearly. In the final volume of the trilogy, Doc French’s daughter Mary will take the torch from her father and become another of the tale’s fighters for social justice. Mary will emerge as the novel’s most sympathetic character. She will find her way to Chicago to work at the legendary Hull House, caring for vulnerable down and outers.

U.S.A. possesses wide scope and is a unique combination of tragedy (best captured in some of the most brilliant of the Biographies) and satire (the fictional stories juxtaposed with the other elements). Dos Passos ties it together with his commitment to his personal conception of the history of his country through the first three decades of the twentieth century. The second Biography perhaps best captures the sense of tragic loss and missed chances for the country. It is of Randolph Bourne, the radical thinker, musician and educational theorist. He was the leading spokesman for the youthful members of the Progressive movement that had such high hopes for the building of a humane society in the years immediately prior to the war.

1919 introduces us to several characters who in one way or another are deeply affected by President Wilson’s decision in 1917 to enter the war.Bourne overcame gigantic handicaps in his short life – he was deformed at birth by misused forceps and later developed tuberculosis of the spine. His articles were incendiary in their day. “The Handicapped – by One of Them” is now considered a foundational work in disability studies. The article that surely inspired Dos Passos while composing 1919 is“War is the Health of the State.” Bourne was prophetic in fearing the build-up of a large military, and indeed the military industrial complex has developed into a monster that has dominated decision-making in Washington over many decades. Dos Passos, in a prose poem, refers to Bourne as a “little sparrow like man” who nonetheless overcomes his constant pain to put a pebble in his sling and achieve a direct hit on Goliath through his brilliant writing.

Bourne was another socialist who was harried and followed by the secret service in his last year before succumbing to the Spanish Flu. At his end, he was saddened by the repressive practices of the Wilson administration. We are told in the novel though that this prophet-without-honour retained his capacity for joy to the end. Although suffering with pneumonia, a friend brought him an eggnog and he kept exclaiming: “Look at the yellow, it’s beautiful.”

The author imagines Bourne in 1919 to be hopping along the old brick and brownstone streets of New York, a ghost in his famous black cape. For me, Randolph Bourne’s ghost echoes through the pages of the trilogy. It constitutes a prophetic warning and vision of an organic community based on humane values that are distinctly lacking in the fragmented and mechanical world of this haunted novel.

While 1919 is a novel that certainly conveys the pessimistic worldview of the author, nonetheless there is a certain nobility in defeat that merits our attention. The diligent reader who reaches the end of the novel will encounter the brilliant prose poem “the Body of an American”. That final section doesn’t evince faith in the ability of Dos Passos’ characters to avert disaster, but it is a fighting faith in the power of art to strike a meaningful chord.


Rob Normey
Rob Normey is a lawyer who has practised in Edmonton for many years and is a long-standing member of several human rights organizations.

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