- John Dos Passos, Anglo-Saxon
After 1865, the United States was a nation in a new sense, as much from the new uprootings, the new mobility, and the growth of big organization as from the political conception affirmed by the northern victory; and it was only natural that out of the epic military struggle and the epic of taming the continental distances the New American would expect a new Aeneid for his new Rome. The word “epic” grew common on literary lips.—Cleanth Brooks, R.W.B. Lewis, and Robert Penn Warren, American Literature: The Makers and the Making
Do you know what we are, Anne Elizabeth? we’re the Romans of the Twentieth Century . . . and I always wanted to be a Greek.—John Dos Passos, 1919
Part of becoming American involves English. It is vital historically to assert and establish that English is the common language at the heart of our civilization.—Newt Gingrich, qtd. in “Gingrich Says English Must Be the ‘Common Language’”
Literary nationalism is not doing too well. The great American “epics” of the past decade have been hemispheric in scope, rewriting— [End Page 282] with a breadth not seen since Parkman—New World history as a hemisphere-wide conflict not of nations but of cultures, races: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, Eduardo Galeano’s La Memoria del Fuego trilogy, William Vollman’s half-finished Seven Dreams series. Among critics, several factors are contributing to a similar, so-called (by Donald Pease) “post-Americanist” sensibility—perhaps more properly a “broad,” “original,” or “hemispheric” Americanism: NAFTA; a general trend toward interdisciplinarity in the humanities; the collapse of the Soviet Other; growing recognition of the linguistic and cultural porosity of the U.S.-Mexico border; an internal interrogation of the “whiteness” of American literature instigated by increasingly vocal “minority” U.S. critics; the growth of environmentalist concern and a consequent “literary bioregionalism” attending to ecosystems whose borders ignore politics and whose demonstrated interconnectedness questions the very usefulness of the term borders. It’s an exciting time to be an Americanist, if you enjoy flux, a moment that provokes us to reconsider the deeply conflicted nationalism of the trilogy that, at least until these recent productions, constituted the most ambitious attempt to chronicle—and define—the “American” experience: U.S.A.
That is, at the end of the twentieth century whose fictional history John Dos Passos made it his life’s work to write, our changing sense of (North and South) American unities and differences puts us in a particularly good position to reexamine the trilogy in the light of what has become its most-quoted paragraph, the remarkably sentimental series of prefatory assertions culminating with “mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.” Barbara Foley has drawn on this passage to argue that Dos Passos’s deepest concern is less with language, as critics have generally concluded, than with class (427); but both these concerns—as well as Dos Passos’s oft-chronicled shift from left- to right-wing politics—are, I believe, surface manifestations of a deeper conflict. Dos Passos ascribed both his chief hate, the injustice of Anglo-American imperialism and capitalism, and his chief loves, the English language and the Jeffersonian system of democracy, to what he saw as his own and his country’s Anglo-Saxon heritage and race destiny. Instead of placing Dos Passos in the Whitmanian grain, as have literary nationalists from Alfred Kazin and Malcolm Cowley to Donald Pizer, or seeking the trilogy’s generic roots in international proletarian experimental [End Page 283] fiction, as have Marxists from Granville Hicks and Mike Gold to Barbara Foley, we might more fruitfully position the trilogy’s ideology and form in more popular contexts: the racialist theories of national identity that continued to prevail in this country into the early Thirties, and the genre of the popular novel trilogy, which peaked here at the same time. Their temporal correspondence is no coincidence: both the ideology of “race conservation” and the form of the novel trilogy were imported to the U.S. as attempts to reunify “Anglo-Saxon” Americans after the “divisions” of the Civil War and...