- Dos Passos's Early Fiction, 1912-1938
Michael Clark's study is an attempt to "show how American traditions can illuminate the aesthetics of John Dos Passos's early fiction." He contends that "few critics have discussed his work in terms of its essential 'Americanness.' " This is a curious contention because the biographies by Melvin Landsberg, Townsend Ludington, and Virginia Spencer Carr, and critical studies, including Linda Wagner's Dos Passos: Artist as American and others, have explored in many different ways Dos Passos' passionate concern with American culture. Although Dos Passos was one of the most cosmopolitan of American modernists in his reading and personal experience, it has been nearly impossible for serious students of his work to overlook the Americanness of the author of U.S.A., several volumes of American history, and many essays and articles on the American experience in the twentieth century. Clark's thesis, however, is that Dos Passos' early work can best be understood as a working through of the ideas of two American giants, Walt Whitman and William James. Although the approach is not as novel as he suggests, it potentially is a promising one.
Clark begins with two very brief chapters on Whitman and James. This opening is a problem, for the quick and superficial discussion of their ideas—and their relation to Dos Passos—does not provide an adequate context for his subsequent discussion of Dos Passos' early published and unpublished work. What is needed is a much more expansive analysis of the place of Whitman and James within an American intellectual tradition. As it is, there is something frustratingly reductionist about his attempts to connect the novelist with his two forebears. In discussing Dos Passos' first published novel, One Man's Initiation—1917, for instance, Clark argues that Whitman's "influence can be detected in three major areas: [End Page 242] in an interest in human psychology, in a continuing appreciation of nature, and in . . . an aesthetics of the word." One wonders why Clark does not look beyond Whitman here—to Emerson or any other number of American thinkers. Clark is right that Whitman and James were important to Dos Passos—and his discussion of James's influence, in particular, is helpful and offers new insights—but too often in this study the two merely seem to be the flypaper to which Dos Passos' words and ideas are meant to stick.
It is unfortunate that Clark so insistently pursues the study of influence, for he is an unusually attentive and skillful reader of the works, clearly at his best in a close reading of the text, in recognizing and explaining allusion and symbol, and in examining structural and thematic parallels. His discussion of time in U.S.A. is interesting; his attention to questions of identity in Manhattan Transfer is skillful; his discussion of pragmatism and idealism in One Man's Initiation—1917, through an analysis of Dos Passos' use of candlelight and shadow, is quite wonderful. Such moments are frequent enough to justify the study and make it worthwhile to the serious student who can overlook the shortcomings in the ways Clark argues his central thesis.