Donald Pizer's Dos Passos' "U.S.A.": A Critical Study makes a lucid and powerful case for reading Dos Passos' trilogy not only as a complex and rich literary work but as a modernist epic American novel. Like Whitman in Leaves of Grass, "Dos Passos was engaged in that distinctively American effort of writing a 'natural' and 'impersonal' epic of American life that was in fact a highly wrought and deeply personal work of art." Pizer reads briefly Dos Passos' early work as a gradual process of refinement, culminating in U.S.A.'s representation of American life that is at once personal, historical, and social.
Aside from the incisive explications and fluid prose that mark Pizer's earlier studies, his study of U.S.A. offers two noteworthy contributions to Dos Passos scholarship: an analysis of the complex and demanding interrelatedness of Dos Passos' four modes of representation and an equally provocative situating of the problem of language at the center of Dos Passos' art. As Pizer argues, "each of the modes of U.S.A. is a distinctive literary form":
the Camera Eye is a prose-poem bildungsroman; the biographies are ironic impressionistic pen portraits; the Newsreels, surreal collages; and the narratives, free-indirect-discourse renderings of archetypal lives.
So thoroughly fused and mutually referential are Dos Passos' four modes that the reader needs to grasp the significance of any particular fictional event simultaneously in the immediate milieu of the mode in which it occurs, in the context of all other modes of its kind, in relation to all adjacent segments of other modes, and, finally, within "an ever-increasing ripple of implication of the event within the trilogy as a whole."
The largest concern providing a unifying coherence for Dos Passos' innovative texts is his satiric vision of the chasm separating contemporary languages of passion, patriotism, and public relations from any of the traditionally sanctioned (highly valued, though abstract in Dos Passos' renderings) associations of those and other words. Pizer suggests that, in Dos Passos' trilogy, this corruption of language has been "stimulated by the relationship between a predatory capitalism and the war." Thus, the gulf between the "verbal construct and actuality" and Dos Passos' yearning for a return to an Edenic correspondence between word and thing functions as the pivotal thematic throughout U.S.A.
For all its explicatory rigor, however, Pizer's reading is marked by an uncritical acceptance of Dos Passos' belief that such a correspondence between signifier and signified ever existed and by a surprising absence of sociological and political detail, an absence highlighted by Pizer's references to Dos Passos' political shift from left to right during the composition of U.S.A. as well as by the historiographical energies of Dos Passos' text. Pizer never questions the adequacy of either Dos Passos' linguistic or ideological assumptions, whereas a more skeptical reading of Dos Passos' presuppositions would have produced a more timely and demanding [End Page 275] apprehension of Dos Passos' significance. Despite the density of social, historical, economic, journalistic, and political data integrated into U.S.A., that range of representation goes largely unexamined in Pizer's study.
What is missing from Pizer's reading is a sense of Dos Passos' intertextuality, largely conceived. The intersections between Dos Passos' narrative and the contemporary discourses of economic theory, of sociology, of labor movements, of the emerging American advertising industry, of the war effort, and numerous other areas of Dos Passos' inquiry remain unexamined. This is especially troubling in light of Pizer's astute sense of the intersections of the various discourses within Dos Passos' text—how much more he might have achieved had he situated those intratextual voices within the cultural and social dialogues of Dos Passos' times can only be imagined...