Friday, July 25, 2014

2014 Classics #15

Three Soldiers – John Dos Passos, 1921

This protest novel profiles three soldiers of WWI. The focus is on their different strategies to deal with the tyranny of army discipline, dirt, stupidity, brutality, boredom, monotonous diet, repetitive labor, and utter lack of privacy. The three solidiers exemplify the strategies of moving toward authority (cringing servility), moving away (desertion), and moving against (murder).

Although city man Fusilli starts army life with enthusiasm, the army treats him and his puny aspirations with contempt. He ends up retreating into indifference and rutting with whores, keeping a low profile to the extent of altogether vanishing. Andrews, an intellectual from a wealthy family, rebels, taking as a hero John Brown. Andrews does not end up on the scaffold, but his final destination is no picnic either. The traditional country man Chrisfield suffers an affront at the hands of an officer. So, according to his pre-modern code he must seek revenge. This saves his self-respect, but at a cost.

Dos Passos seems to be saying that war is the instrument of the powerful against the vulnerable. The goal of the bosses in industrial capitalism is to demoralize people into conformity, make them hopeless and stoic and to kill off troublemakers who believe in art and honor. Dos Passos builds his anti-army case, how persuasive the individual reader will have to consider for herself. For me, the problem is that over the course of 450 pages the polemics begin to feel relentless, and the action so ironic as to be contrived. Dos Passos has characters speak in their own unique idiom, but characterization doesn’t go beyond stereotyping of conformist, artist, and brute.

In August 1917, near Verdun and later in Italy in 1918, Dos Passos worked as an ambulance driver near the front. Like Hemingway and Cummings, writing was a way to tell others about harsh experience and army rigidities. He poured his anti-war rage and anti-authority bitterness into this book – as well as his artistic vision of literature, painting and music:

He hurried along the road, splashing now and then in a shining puddle, until he came to a landing place. The road was very wide, silvery, streaked with pale green and violet, and straw-color from the evening sky. Opposite were bare poplars and behind them clusters of buff-colored houses climbing up a green hill to a church, all repeated upside down in the color-streaked river. The river was very full, and welled up above its banks, the way the water stands up above the rim of a glass filled too full. From the water came an indefinable rustling, flowing sound that rose and fell with quiet rhythm in Andrews's ears.

Andrews forgot everything in the great wave of music that rose impetuously through him, poured with the hot blood through his veins, with the streaked colors of the river and the sky through his eyes, with the rhythm of the flowing river through his ears.

When this book was first published in 1921 it caused a sensation. As we would expect, the right denounced the book as radical, socialistic, anti-American, and anti-army. The left defended it as a portrayal of how some men – not all – dealt with the stern demands of army life and organized butchery. This book has never been out of print. One of the few books by Dos Passos still read in our time, it is probably the most famous American anti-war novel to come out of WWI.

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