100 Best Novels Guardian list, 1919, 20th century Literature, American literature, Book review, John Dos Passos

1919, by John Dos Passos, 1932

‘1919’ is the second book in Dos Passos’s ‘USA’ trilogy. Which immediately begs the question, why read only the middle book in a trilogy? You wouldn’t read only ‘The Two Towers’, would you? I think there are several reasons why I am going to resist the temptation to read the rest of ‘USA’. Firstly, ‘1919’ (and only ‘1919’) was recommended by the Guardian’s list of 100 best novels written in English; second, having now read this novel, to go back to the first volume seems a bit pointless; third1919, I just don’t have the appetite for another 800 pages of this trilogy. The novels are intended to stand alone and I am going to take the author at his word on this (even though many online reviews argue that reading the whole trilogy is the only way to properly appreciate its constituent parts).

At one time Dos Passos was ranked with the greats of American post-war literature – Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald. While their novels have stood the test of time, I don’t think the same can be said for Dos Passos. ‘1919’ has only two reviews on Amazon’s UK site, compared to over 2,000 for Gatsby, and 1,500 for The Grapes of Wrath (Faulkner, by comparison, is little reviewed – go figure). ‘1919’ uses many innovative techniques, and these are some of the most successful aspects of the novel. Chapters are introduced with short scraps of text from newspaper and magazine headlines, followed by stream of consciousness, camera-reel impressions of the events of the following chapter. Interspersed elsewhere are short pen pictures of a series of American political and military figures who played a part in the First World War, and the industrial struggles in the United States at about the same time. (The Los Angeles Review of Books described these sections of the novels as “disruptive bumps in the reader’s way (which) have no bearing on the story, but add Americana-flavored flamboyance to the proceedings”. (It’s worth reading the whole of this review which is a pretty magisterial take down of the trilogy, describing it as “The Great American Novel That Wasn’t”!)

The body of the novel is a more traditional narrative telling the stories of five principal characters. Although these characters are Americans, the war takes them all to Europe, when the bulk of the novel’s events occur. Despite America’s extensive involvement in the war, none of the characters are involved directly in the conflict, serving as merchant seamen, ambulance drivers, or working with the Red Cross. There is a relentlessness about these stories – things happen, then something else happens, then yet more events; with troubled love affairs acting as the inevitable punctuation to another round of meetings, dinners, drinks, journeys back and forth between Rome and Paris, and so on. Because I didn’t care about these characters – possibly because I had not read about them in the first volume – I found these parts of the novel tiresome.

As an invocation of what it was like to be an American in Europe in 1917-1919 – privileged, largely immune from the conflict, endlessly bumping into one another – I am sure this is a faithful portrait. But apart from the tediousness of the primary narrative, there were other aspects of the novel which jarred. The condescending attitude towards Europeans often found in American popular culture crops up here far too often. Also prevalent is a racist (the n-word is used freely), anti-semitic, misogynist bundle of nasty prejudices which are given full rein and go completely unchallenged, despite Dos Passos’s apparent left wing ideals. As a small concession to this reactionary tide the novel closes with a historically arguable portrait of an attack on American Trade Unionists (the Centralia massacre) which is very sympathetic to the IWW (the international Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies).

As an attempt to describe how a better world could have emerged from the ashes of the First World War ‘1919’ fails completely – it is desperately pessimistic. All strikes are defeated, all socialists are isolated and the Red Scare (which swept post-War America and is in many ways still underway) looks unstoppable. From 1932 Dos Passos’s defeatism is understandable, and probably explains his subsequent steady drift to the Republican right.

‘1919’ was the third from last novel in my current reading challenge. Next up is Henry James’s ‘The Golden Bowl’, leaving’ Ulysses’ to last.


5 thoughts on “1919, by John Dos Passos, 1932

  1. The Reading Bug says:

    I just don’t think it (1919) has stood the test of time. Which makes one wonder which of today’s novelists will still be read in 100 years?


  2. I’m American and studied literature as an undergrad, and I’d never heard of Dos Passos until tackling my list of classics. I can sympathize with your impression of U.S.A., too — I read all three books and didn’t care about any of the characters!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mike says:

    Hi! I chose “1919” because an editor with my novel in progress said I write like him. I thought, “Wow me?”. Of all of Dos Passos’s many works I chose the highly praised,”1919″, because I couldn’t believe I was that good and had to see for myself what his writing was like. I also chose it because I’d read the Guardian places it in the top 100 novels of all times, just like the blog author here notes. I’ve only read 50 pgs and have been disappointed because he violates all of the rules I’ve had to follow like “no info dumping”, “no omniscient narratives only very little limited omniscience”, “no head hopping”. I haven’t noticed any “purple prose” yet. Also publishing giant Houghton Mifflin reprinted it. Just studying Hemingway on my own I knew decades ago about Dos Passos. I only had read I think it was one of his essays about the Spanish Civil War, and that he and Hemingway hung out in Paris, and that he too was a literary giant.
    There’s even an intro with E.L. Doctorow. On the cover it’s called a “masterpiece”. It’s praised by the New Republic, Chicago Tribune, and, The New York Times. I see it as a glimpse into the time period that I appreciate, but I find all the rules, at least the editor rules of today, broken. There has been only very little stream of consciousness and some poetry that I somewhat liked. Mainly 95% of it has been the narrator telling the story and no dialogue. There are whole episodes that transpire and I wonder how they advance the story. Eventually the protag Joe is trying to connect with his loved Della near Newport News. I guess his primary objective is marrying her, yet no development leading up to that. With Joe’s going AWOL from the military there’s been no looming possible arrest for doing so. He just with a brick tosses his uniform into the harbor at Buenas Aires and simple as that. Maybe back then one could easily do that. I guess part of it all is whether or not Joe Williams makes it through all of the strife in the world of that era. I will still read more. I’m glad to find this blog as I felt intimidated so far not agreeing to The Guardian’s list and the renowned top reviews. Can anyone else elaborate on this? I’m probably missing a lot and not nearly as preceptive as some of the intellectuals here. Any input would be appreciated. Top of the Day! Winfred


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