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The Limitations of Vision and the Power of Folklore in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.
Angela Frattarola
New York University

In Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, Martin Jay argues that from Plato to Descartes, sight has generally been the privileged sense. Although the primacy of vision was not without its complications and exceptions, thinkers such as John Locke and Descartes “maintained a faith in the linkage between lucidity and rationality, which gave the Enlightenment its name. And both distrusted the evidence of the competing major sense organ, the ear, which absorbed only unreliable ‘hearsay’” (Jay 85). Jay registers a shift, however, in this privileging of sight at the end of the nineteenth century. Photography, which nurtured the proliferation of images and the desire to gaze, also taught viewers to be skeptical of images, which could be manipulated by artists through techniques such as double exposure. Similarly, Jay posits that the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art movements, “broadly construed, can be understood as a laboratory of postperspectivalist optical experimentation, with a subcurrent of outright antiretinalism culminating in Duchamp” (170). Visual technologies and art movements thus aided in “the dethroning of the dominant scopic regime” (150), opening the way, one could infer, for the exploration of other senses.

Although, for Jay, the pinnacle of visual skepticism manifests in the late twentieth century, with post-structuralist French thinkers such as Georges Bataille, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan—to name only a few—he locates the beginning of this skepticism at the turn of the century, with modernism. According to Jay, though fin de siècle visual art and literature exhibited a flurry of innovation around “new visual experiences,” “this initially euphoric exploration of new visual practices ultimately led to a certain disillusionment” [End Page 80] (150). Building on Jay’s study, this essay will examine how one modernist writer, John Dos Passos, expresses his disillusion with vision through negative representations of lighting technology in his U.S.A. trilogy. Turning to “the competing major sense organ, the ear,” Dos Passos offers a murmur of hope in his story of America only through what Jay terms the “unreliable ‘hearsay’” (85) of speech.

From Jay’s perspective, Dos Passos is a modernist writer who was very much situated in the “laboratory of postperspectival optical experimentation” (170). In a 1967 address, Dos Passos recounts how after the World War I armistice, many writers were influenced by the “simultaneity” of cubism (“What Makes a Novelist” 272). He continues, however, by emphasizing the influence of the cinema: “The artist must record the fleeting world the way the motion picture film recorded it. Somewhere along the way I had been impressed by Eisenstein’s motion pictures, by his version of old D. W. Griffith’s technique. Montage was his key word” (272). Referencing this passage in his comprehensive study of U.S.A., Donald Pizer proposes: “The key terms in Dos Passos’ recollection of the art scene of the early 1920s—simultaneity, juxtaposition, and montage—can serve as guides to an understanding of the impact of visual forms on his work of this period” (14; see also Spindler, Suarez, Seed, and Schloss). Cinematic forms, particularly montage, did indeed have an impact on Dos Passos’s fiction, and a direct connection can be established between Dos Passos and Eisenstein, as well as other movie directors he met during his 1928 visit to the Soviet Union.

Dos Passos, however, also fits into Jay’s study of modernists who were skeptical of vision. In his insightful analysis of U.S.A., Michael North rightly points out that there is a paradox within Dos Passos’s writing, which is shaped by visual technologies but simultaneously is “politically and socially mistrustful of the very techniques he put to such innovative use” (142). Examining how the “Camera Eye” sections separate the spectator from the action, North argues that they indicate “the way the progressive possibilities of the new visual media give way to isolation, impotence, and retrogression” (147). This astute assessment of the camera and spectatorship can be enhanced if we examine the ways in which Dos Passos represents visual technologies beyond the camera. More specifically, Dos Passos subtly indicates the submersion of his dismal fictional characters in mass culture by putting them under electric lights. Lighting technology, after all, was first celebrated and gradually became the norm in American cities during the very years that the trilogy spans: 1893–1929. By 1903, Chicago, New York, and Boston had five times as many electric lights (street lights and advertising signs) as Paris, London, and Berlin, making the nighttime illumination of American cities popular tourist attractions (Nye 50). An emblem of both flashy entertainment and urban safety, “lighting was more than a mere functional necessity or a convenience; it emerged as a glamorous symbol of progress and cultural achievement” (Nye 54). Dos Passos’s work [End Page 81] in Hollywood and theater, as well as his reporting on political conventions, made him keenly aware of the role of lighting in the manipulation of the masses. Hence, this essay will pay special attention to the many scenes in the trilogy where characters are presented under arc lights, gazing at streetlights, or fending off the glare of spotlights and headlights, in order to grasp how their perspectives are constructed by popular culture and mass media.

Though North primarily focuses on the role of the camera and montage form of the trilogy, he briefly notes that “there are many more ‘Camera Eye’ sections that are predominately or even exclusively aural, some of which might more appropriately have been named for the phonograph” (145). Similarly, in his comparison between the “Camera Eye” sections and the film theory of André Bazin, Stephen Hock claims that the sections mark “a move from a mode of strictly visual observation to a recording of experience that also will include the recording of conversation, or, more generally sound” (4). He concludes that these sections rely on “a tradition of community and communication, not of spectacle” (5). The “Camera Eye” sections are indeed dominated by Dos Passos’s own experiences of being told stories—experiences he attempts to convey to his reader by repeatedly referencing sound, speech, and audition. In fact, as this essay will demonstrate, the “Camera Eye” sections’ emphasis on oral storytelling is instructional when reading the biographical sections of the trilogy, which are reminiscent of the informal oral communication of folklore and folksongs.

The aurally-driven biographical and “Camera Eye” sections consistently evoke the spoken voice through unconventional punctuation, dialect, and repetition. Addressing the effects of the tempo and prosody of speech, Barry Traux clarifies that such “rhythmic speech not only produces a psychological union between the speaker and listener (a kind of mental ‘foot tapping’), but can also change the listener’s physiological state” (40). This helps us to understand why in both the “Camera Eye” and biographical sections, Dos Passos aspires to create intimacy between his text and the reader by participating in an aural conveyance of storytelling. While being careful not to privilege audition over vision, this essay works from the premise that whereas “[v]isualism signifies distance, differentiation and domination” (Connor 204), speech and sound can potentially connect the subject and the other. Although listening is still perspectival and can be threatening, “a developed capacity for listening decentres the ego and promotes a more enlightened intersubjectivity” (Levin 37). One of the ways that Dos Passos advocates working against vision-based worldviews is through developing one’s capacity for listening to speech. Accordingly, this essay will investigate how Dos Passos tries to bring hope to an otherwise bleak view of American culture by valorizing folklore, one-on-one storytelling, and speech as an antidote to the visualism of mass media, exemplified through lighting technologies. I shall argue that these moments of being caught under the spotlight leave Dos Passos’s characters (and himself [End Page 82] as a writer) disconnected, frequently distorting events, while the passing on of oral stories has the potential to create community and cultural memory.

The 42nd Parallel: The Isolating Arc Light and Intersubjectivity of Speech

We will begin this analysis with Dos Passos’s representations of the arc light, which are predominantly found in The 42nd Parallel. Because it was stronger than a filament light, the arc light was the first lamp to be used for urban lighting, initiating the modern era of illuminated streets in the late nineteenth century. Electric lights helped to create the myth of the “city that never sleeps,” while, paradoxically, they “projected public order and embodied it metaphorically” (Marvin 161). While street lighting contributed to “the growing rationalization of time,” the illumination of shop windows and exhibitions fostered “the arousal and manipulation of ocular desire through the display of tantalizing commodities and luxurious exotica” (Jay 123, 124). Within New York City, lit-up iconic structures such as the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Madison Square Garden, which went from using thirty-six hundred lights in 1890 to having over five thousand only five years later, became associated with capitalism and rapid development (Marvin 174).

Describing the awe-inspiring lighting exhibitions at turn-of-the-century American expositions, where “historical” dioramas would portray different cultures, David E. Nye attests: “[d]arkness was a metaphor for the primitive; light was the exemplification of Christianity, science, and progress” (36). Electric lighting extended the hours of consumption, lighting up department stores, dress windows, cafes and speakeasies, and became “a central metaphor for the delights of modern life in the American city” (Nasaw 274). Beyond being associated with such modernization, arc lights were used for indoor filming in the early days of the cinema, a coincidence that connects the arc light to acting and spectatorship. In addition, arc lights were used as searchlights on navy warships, “sweeping the surface and depths of the ocean for enemy ships and torpedoes” (Marvin 145). Henceforward, the arc light suggests the fast-paced modern city, the spectacle and artificiality of the cinema, as well as the invasive targeting of warfare. By closely reading scenes that include the image of the arc light, we can determine how Dos Passos infers the various historical associations of this technology, engendering a critique of vision and mass culture.

The reader is promptly introduced to the image of the arc light in the prologue of U.S.A., where a young man walks the streets, looking to connect with someone yet feeling utterly alone; he only sees some “welders in masks…a few drunk bums,” and “a sad street walker” who “fidgets under an arclight” (xiii). The fact that it is a prostitute under the spotlight reinforces the notion that the arc light makes a spectacle of the one within it, an object for all to scrutinize. As the young man searches the streets for opportunities, he is presented with the options of manual labor or drink, which culminate in [End Page 83] the image of the self-conscious streetwalker, the most obvious form of selling one’s self. In this scene, the arc light highlights the isolation of urban life, where city dwellers are distanced from one another through the gaze, as well as the limited perspective and prospects of the young man.

To temper this isolation in the prologue, Dos Passos offers the consolation of voice and narrative. North notices this as well, arguing that the prologue sets up a dualism where “sociality is inherently aural, which seems to make the visual, especially the silent visual contact of the modern crowd, inherently isolating” (146). While I agree that vision isolates characters from one another, I think that audition too can emphasize the loneliness and detachment of characters at moments. In the prologue, for example, the sounds that the young man hears are distant, echoing through the empty space: “From the river comes the deep rumbling whistle of a steamboat leaving dock. A tug hoots far away” (xiii). This is why I argue that, for Dos Passos, speech in particular has the most potential to connect people. For the lonely young man, “[o]nly the ears busy to catch the speech are not alone; the ears are caught tight, linked tight by the tendrils of phrased words, the turn of a joke, the singsong fade of a story, the gruff fall of a sentence; linking tendrils of speech twine through the city blocks” (xiv). It is not in his day to day actions that he is “less alone”

but in his mother’s words telling about longago, in his father’s telling about when I was a boy, in the kidding stories of uncles, in the lies the kids told at school, the hired man’s yarns, the tall tales the doughboys told after taps;

it was speech that clung to the ears, the link that tingled in the blood; U. S. A.


With his stress on how voice “links” one person to the other, Dos Passos calls on speech, particularly one-on-one informal storytelling, to bind Americans to a common identity. In his phenomenological study of voice, Don Ihde maintains that a “reassertion of the role of voice becomes a reassertion of the essential intersubjectivity of humankind as being-in-language.…In the voice is harbored the full richness of human signification” (168). The intimacy of voice fosters intersubjectivity, but at the same time, there is “the constant possibility of polyphony in the realm of the voiced word” (Ihde 168). As mothers, fathers, uncles, friends, workers, and soldiers tell their stories, Dos Passos affirms that the speech of America is polyphonic and intimate.

Yet beyond being simply speech, Dos Passos’s characterization of the speech of America resonates with the oral storytelling associated with folklore: stories that “exist in multiple versions” and are “re-created with each telling”; where “the past is made to speak in the present,” reflecting “both the individual and the community” (Oring 123). By accentuating narratives from “longago,” “jokes,” “kidding stories,” “lies,” “yarns,” and “tall tales,” Dos Passos recognizes the importance of folklore (from myths to jokes) and its use “as a [End Page 84] kind of autobiographical ethnography, a mirror made by the people themselves, which reflects a group’s identity” (Dundes 34). Dos Passos thus establishes, right at the beginning of the trilogy, a contrast between the isolation of the arc light and the connectivity of folklore, creating a productive model for how to read his subsequent three novels.

As with U.S.A., in The 42nd Parallel the arc light suggests not only isolation, but the false or superficial mindset of a fictional character. For instance, when Mac walks the streets after leaving his first wife, the rain “look[s] like stage rain round the arclight. Mac couldn’t think where to go” (97). When he is most alone, the image of the arc light accentuates Mac’s isolation. As he oscillates between desiring domestic comfort and wanting to be a part of a worker revolution, the reader discerns that his commitment to labor is a form of “romanticism and escapism”; for Mac’s “leftist impulses often seem to overlap with his desire to avoid the conventionality of domestic heterosexuality” (Yerkes 93). This ambivalence makes Mac’s role in the labor movement nothing more than a staged performance, an ideal he evokes when he wants to escape his mundane routine. Thus, the “stage rain round the arclight” suggests a motion picture setting, emphasizing the falseness of his ideals.

With the second fictional character introduced, Janey, the arc light signifies an unquestioning acceptance of a picture of the world constructed by the cinema, magazines, and newspapers. Just as she begins to watch “moving pictures and…pictures of foreign countries” and “to read the paper every day,” she starts “to feel that there [is] a great throbbing arclighted world somewhere outside” (42nd 119). This naiveté continues when Janey becomes employed by J. Ward Moorehouse in New York City and unthinkingly absorbs the biases of his firm, which “put her in the midst of headlines,” such as “combating subversive tendencies among the miners who were mostly foreigners who had to be educated in the principles of Americanism” (261). Through the ironic distance of free indirect discourse, the narrator repeatedly implies that Janey is a passive recipient of mass media and propaganda. For both Janey and Mac, the arc light represents the arc or horizon of their vision, the limitations and prejudices of their point of view.

When the war abroad begins, Janey and her roommates follow it with zeal, reading papers and magazines: “They had a big map of Europe hung up on the livingroom wall and marked the positions of the Allied armies with little flags. They were heart and soul for the Allies and names like Verdun or Chemin des Dames started little shivers running down their spines” (264). Expressed in the idiom of the time, their reactions to the war seem better suited to a staged drama. In contrast to this superficial, newspaper-constructed view, Dos Passos presents the first-hand stories of Janey’s brother, Joe, who exposes the profiteering of certain countries: “You people don’t understand it, see… The whole damn war’s crooked from start to finish” (269). Listening to Joe, [End Page 85] Janey can only hear his cursing and think of his “rough life,” causing her to cry and Joe to apologize for being a “bum” (269). While she fails to consider her brother’s stories about the corruption of the war, Janey is carried away by the spectacular image of the “arclighted” world constructed through mass media (269, 119).

When we encounter an arc light in Moorehouse’s narrative, its meaning is less explicit. Before his career takes off in advertising, Moorehouse lives in a shabby apartment, working as a reporter. As he listlessly sits wondering what went wrong in his life, the narrator follows Moorehouse’s line of vision, the long and meandering sentence mirroring his far-off gaze:

He’d…sit at the table with a gingerbread-colored velveteen cloth on it, looking past the pot of dusty artificial ferns ornamented with a crepe paper cover and a dusty pink bow off a candy box, down into the broad street where trolleycars went by continually scraping round the curve and where the arclights coming on in the midafternoon murk shimmered a little in the black ice of the gutters.


As with Mac, the image of the arc light corresponds with Moorehouse’s most lonely and isolated period. Yet, Moorehouse sees a “shimmer” cast by the arc light against the “murk” of the street. If the arc light is suggestive of the falseness of cinema and the searchlight of warfare, this moment perhaps foreshadows Moorehouse’s idealization of modern advertising and America’s involvement in World War I. He wants to move away from his youthful aspirations of being a (folksy) songwriter to the world that shimmers under the arc light. Moorehouse eventually achieves this goal, as he contributes to obscuring the corruption of industry and the war through his public relations business.

The last fictional narrative of the novel follows Charley Anderson as he runs away from his home in Fargo for the thrills of Minneapolis. On his first night, Charley tries to sleep on a park bench, but the “arclights kept getting in his eyes” (295). It seems appropriate that Charley’s first job is in an amusement park, where “experts agreed that spectacular lighting was essential to pleasing a crowd at night” (Nye 126). Dazzled by the spectacles and pleasures of the place, Charley can never quite get the arc light out of his eyes. He drops out of night school, takes to binge drinking, is excited by the idea of enlisting in the army after seeing The Birth of a Nation, and eventually ends up on a boat sailing for Europe, unsure of why he is going (42nd 300–04). The last scene of the novel indicates the triumph of vision over communication, as Charley tries to express his anxieties about leaving his home with a French soldier, who, because of his job as a lookout, silences him. The last line of the novel narrates Charlie’s realization that the lookout “wasn’t supposed to talk to him” (323). Once again, the intersubjectivity that could be fostered through speech is sadly stifled by the domineering necessity of vision in the atmosphere of World War I. [End Page 86]

Shifting from the fictional narratives to the autobiographical scenes of the “Camera Eye,” the arc light continues to signify isolation and stagnation. While attending Harvard University, the narrator, in a stream-of-conscious form, recollects: “those spring nights the streetcarwheels screech grinding in a rattle of loose trucks round the curved tracks of Harvard Square dust hangs in the powdery arclight glare allnight till dawn can’t sleep” (236). This memory attests to Dos Passos’s feelings of repression and complicity at the university, where he must smile at “all the pleasant contacts” and not “be seen with Jews or socialists” (236). The stagnation implied by the dust hanging in the arc light glare and the repeated screeching of the streetcars reflects Dos Passos’s frustration at the routine and limitations in his life. He wants to be a part of the radical social movements of his time, but his class and desire for an education keep him locked within one arc of vision. This, I propose, is exactly what the “Camera Eye” sections represent. They relate to the camera not because they are overwhelmingly visual; in fact, they make more references to sound than to sight. They relate to the camera eye because they represent Dos Passos’s own limited visual arc and the experiences that have constructed his particular perspective. In drawing attention to the artist’s limited vision, Dos Passos asks his readers to be aware of the limitations implicit in their own visual arc and to look beyond their narrow scope of comprehension.

One key way to widen the scope of comprehension, as the “Camera Eye” sections repeatedly relate, is to listen carefully to oral stories being passed down. For instance, in the very first “Camera Eye,” the narrator describes escaping an angry Dutch mob with his mother when they are misapprehended as British. The narrator conveys the scene’s historical context by recalling fragments from stories that he has heard about the Boer war: “war in the veldt Kruger Bloemfontein Ladysmith and Queen Victoria an old lady in a pointed lace cap sent chocolates to the soldiers at Christmas” (3–4). This is how the narrator comforts himself and tries to understand what is beyond his comprehension: why adults are throwing stones at him and his mother. In the third “Camera Eye,” the narrator’s mother tells him stories that begin with the singsong familiar openings of “Longago Beforetheworldsfair Beforeyouwereborn” (19). By omitting the spaces between the words in these opening phrases, Dos Passos helps the reader to hear them spoken swiftly in one breath. Subsequent “Camera Eye” sections similarly include aural components, which range from a recitation of Othello, to the “rasp rasp” and songs of a gramophone, to the stories of a towboat captain written phonetically to capture his dialect, to the nationalistic short story, “The Man Without a Country” (written by Edward Everett Hale, 1863) being read aloud to the narrator, to war being declared on the radio (21, 43, 76–77, 105, 117, 209). Dos Passos formally renders these auditory experiences through his minimal use of punctuation, a technique that slows reading and forces attentive listening to the words on the page in order to figure out when pauses and emphasis are needed. Hence, the many [End Page 87] representations of listening in the “Camera Eye” sections prompt readers to listen carefully (to the trilogy and in general), show how the writer’s own perspective has been constituted through these many voices and folklore, and, lastly, suggest that one can widen the scope of vision by opening one’s self to the sound of the other.

1919: Amidst the Glimmer of the Streetlight, “words meant what they said”1

In the rest of the trilogy, the arc light disappears for the most part, though newer lighting technologies, such as the softer, cleaner, and safer incandescent lamp, take its place. Carolyn Marvin clarifies: “In 1886 an estimated quarter of a million incandescent lamps and ninety-five thousand arc lamps were operating in the United States. Four years later the number of incandescent lamps exceeded four million” (163–64). The “progress” of lighting America’s cities, was, at times, set in opposition to the labor movement, where strikes could interfere with the practical and entertaining benefits of streetlights and marquees. A New-York Tribune article from 1900, for instance, praises Chicago’s street lighting for being “the most extensive in the world,” despite being “in the throes of labor struggles” (“Chicago’s Street Lights”). In the same paper nineteen years later, an article compares coal-mining strikers to World War I Germany, since both have darkened the New York Broadway theater district: “Broadway’s lights, last darkened through the efforts of the late Kaiser and his associates, were dimmed again last evening by the coal strike” (“War-Time Gloom” 3). In his history of the “Great White Way,” Nye explains one reason behind the appeal of urban illumination: “lighting erased the unattractive areas and cast everything unsightly into an impenetrable darkness. If by day poor or unsightly sections called out for social reform, by night the city was a purified world of light, simplified into a spectacular pattern, interspersed with now unimportant blanks” (60). Such lighting offered an escape from the dullness of work and home by leaving those aspects of life in the dark and giving the public a momentary illusion of glamour and fun.

Dos Passos often subverts the spectacular lure of streetlights by connecting the disillusionment of his characters with the electric lights. In 1919, he portrays “a little glow from streetlights” (25) as early as Joe’s second section. Following that, each of the fictional narratives, as well as one “Camera Eye” section, mention streetlights, making them a pervasive and equalizing image of the text (217, 253, 262, 324, 327, 334, 341). It is under a streetlight that Joe sees his wife, Del, with another man (147). And when Daughter lacks empathy for the immigrant communities of New York City, it is because the “dazzle of street lights and faces [prick] her eyes” (229). For Joe, the streetlight highlights his total disillusionment with domestic life. For Daughter, the illuminated images that “prick” her eyes are distant and alien to her, as she remains unsympathetic toward anyone “not white” (229). Because these characters can only see what [End Page 88] is lit up by the streetlamps, a visual panorama that they quickly freeze and simplify, they fail to comprehend larger contexts.

Like arc lamps, streetlights frequently reveal the limitations of a character’s vision—a constriction in a character’s empathy and a penchant for not seeing the unattractive elements that one would rather keep in the dark. A sequence of streetlight imagery worth noting is found in a long fictional narrative that tracks Dick Savage’s romance with and abandonment of Daughter. This piece is especially significant in that it marks Dick’s movement toward the selfish and superficial capitalists, Eleanor Stoddard and Moorehouse, and Daughter’s downward spiral to her death in a drunken plane crash. On the first night they have sex, Dick criticizes President Wilson and the American involvement in the war and armistice. Daughter does not agree with Dick, and patronizingly calls him her “poet” as they look out the window (325). This failure to communicate should immediately indicate to the reader that their relationship is not sincere, an assessment that is affirmed through the references to streetlights: “In the light of the streetlamps on the little corner of the Spanish Stairs they could see from Ed’s window, they could see the jumbled darkness of crowds continually passing and repassing” (324). By awkwardly repeating “they could see,” Dos Passos draws the reader’s attention to the literal limitations and stagnation of their vision. They can only make out “jumbled darkness” and indiscriminant “crowds” as their view is circumscribed by the window and streetlight. This parallels their psychological limitations and inability to connect meaningfully with one another: Dick is limited by his sexual desire and career ambition, while Daughter is limited by her desire to keep him and have excitement in her life.

Shortly after this scene, Dick visits Eleanor, who does not approve of his romance with the too-common Daughter. Echoing the previous setting, Dick looks out a window as he talks with Eleanor, noticing the streetlights: “They got along very well in the window watching the streetlamps come into greenish bloom” (327). Although Dick and Eleanor have opposing views of the war, their relationship “blooms” under the artificial glow of the streetlamp, as Dick sees the practical benefits of Eleanor’s perspective. This is in direct contrast to Dick’s initial aspirations, when he fantasized about “sending out flaming poems and manifestos, calling young men to revolt against their butchers” (181). To his daydreaming ears, “[e]ven the rumblebump rumblebump of the French railroad train seemed to be chanting as if the words were muttered low in unison by a marching crowd: While three men hold together / The kingdoms are less by three” (181). Although Dick hears the rhythm of Swinburne rather than that of a traditional folk ballad, he wants to follow the sentiment of the poem and write verse that would expose the common people’s exploitation by their trusted political and religious leaders. Because Dick’s fantasies are overly romantic and naïve, he is easily distracted by the illusive shimmer of the streetlight. [End Page 89]

When Dick breaks up with Daughter in the same room they had once made love in, the image of the streetlamp appears three times. By this point, Dick has committed to the future offered by Eleanor and Moorehouse. Hence, his literal view is likewise distracted by the superficial: “[f]rail ribbons of light from a streetlamp shot along the stone treads of the corner of the Spanish Stairs he could see between the houses” (334). As Daughter assures him that she is pregnant, expecting him to propose, Dick recites any excuse to avoid taking responsibility. They look out the window “without looking at each other, looking at the rain over the dark roofs and the faint phosphorescent streaks of the streets” (334). On their walk home, “water glinted in the gutters under the streetlamps” (335). Dick’s awareness that he is not being sincere and Daughter’s sense of abandonment is enhanced by the imagery of the streetlamps, which welcomingly divert their attention from one another. Once home, Dick looks out of his window and perceives how the streets “shone like canals where the streetlamps were reflected in them” (341). The streetlights ironically lend these scenes a façade of romance, particularly when the light is reflected in the rain. The artificial lights indicate that Dick has adopted the money-minded view of Moorehouse and the public relations industry. Feeling like “his eyes were pinned open with safetypins,” Dick believes that his only option is to pursue a “respectable” career (341).

1919 predominantly takes place in Europe, and Dos Passos makes a point of describing the streetlights during wartime with coverings on the top of them. While stranded in England without his papers, Joe is “feeling pretty discouraged,” “just when the streetlights were going on” (37). Although he is temporarily comforted at a bar, he is reminded of the war as he leaves and notices that there were “very few streetlights and funny little hats on the streetlights on account of the zeppelins” (37). Joe’s repeated attention to the streetlights makes them a persistent image in this scene. Though Joe wants nothing to do with the war, the looming lights denote that even in his intoxicated state, he cannot escape it. Eveline too notices that the streetlights are “hooded with tin hats” (120) when she first arrives in Paris. For both Joe and Eveline, the lights accentuate their sense of being foreigners in the “empty streets” (120).

These same two characters are also reminded of the war by searchlights, which turn up twice in their sad narratives. When Joe’s boat is torpedoed, the rescue boat’s “searchlights glared suddenly in their faces making everything look black again” (55). Yet after leaving his wife, Joe is comforted by “watching the wabbly white finger of the searchlight pick up buoys and lighthouses” (147). Joe’s acceptance and even comfort with the searchlights suggests that he will stop searching for domestic happiness and resign himself to the life of a sailor, a life that ends with his death in a barroom brawl. In Paris, Eveline is captivated by the “milky sky…fast becoming rayed with searchlights”; later in her narrative, searchlights are likened to “antennae of great insects moving through the milky darkness” (121, 193). These images are beautiful and yet tragic in their association with the war. Eveline’s narrative echoes [End Page 90] this sentiment as she partners with different men, attempts various artistic endeavors, and, never feeling fulfilled, commits suicide.

In a noticeable difference, World War I is predominantly registered aurally in the “Camera Eye” sections of 1919, which tend to move away from recounting childhood stories to the “hammering” that “pounds the thought of death into [the soldiers’] ears” (63). Aside from the repeated “Atten-SHUN” of the military (208, 216, 409), there is also “the dry hack of the guy that has TB” (217), and the “Wham Wham Wham” of “shellfragments [that] sing in [their] ears” (126). In one “Camera Eye,” the narrator renders “the shrapnel twanging its harps” while the ambulance drivers “are happy talking in low voices” (89). This phrase about low voices is repeated twice, and the narrative is spliced with italicized fragments of their talk. The fragmentation keeps the reader from absentmindedly reading their words as sentences, drawing attention to the sounds of the words rather than syntactical meaning. The above scene is echoed in Dick’s narrative when, after nearly escaping three shells that “went past them like three cracks of a whip,” he sits “listening to the low voices of his friends,” which “made him feel happy” (162, 163). The fact that Dos Passos repeats such details in his autobiographical and fictional sections suggests that the sounds of war—in particular this contrast between his friends’ voices and the shells’ screech—were memorable to him. Here, the war’s cacophony disrupts the sense of community that oral communication engenders.

In “Camera Eye (34),” air raid sirens similarly contrast with the voice of a fevered soldier. The narrator tries to keep the sick soldier in bed, though he keeps insisting “but dontjaunerstandafellersgottogetup I got a date” (151). The narrator listens for the motors of the Austrian planes, thinking of his sense of hearing as a warning system: “the little drums in my ears sure that’s why they call em drums” (152). When the shells come, it hits them all “wham in the side of the head,” and the section ends with: “way off a voice goes up and up and swoops like the airraid siren ayayooOTO” (152). Instead of being the receiver of stories, the narrator in war becomes the story teller, vividly rendering his experiences for readers. Indeed, throughout the “Camera Eye” sections in 1919, Dos Passos draws on his own experiences with the Red Cross. In this attempt, he resembles the fictional Joe, who tries to particularize the “awful and exciting” representations of war from “vaudeville and movies” by passing on a story “a guy he knew had told him about being in an airraid in London” (57). While his wife, Del, “didn’t listen” to Joe, Dos Passos clearly wants the reader to listen to his accounts, which appeal to the reader’s ear with words that run together, onomatopoeia, nonstandard typography, fragmentation, and experimental punctuation.

The Big Money: Common Folk Speech Diffuses the Spotlight Glare

In his coverage of political events, Dos Passos repeatedly notices the power and influence of both auditory and visual technologies. Yet in his report [End Page 91] on the 1932 Republican Convention, “Washington and Chicago II: Spotlights and Microphones,” spotlights garner the most attention. Employing a military metaphor, Dos Passos begins the short piece by announcing his position “behind a battery of the Rosslight superspots” (178). He likens the lights to “black monsters” and the entire spectacle is “like Barnum and Bailey’s after the Wild West show” (178). Thomas F. Strychacz notes that although Dos Passos hints that “the power wielded by [lighting and sound] technicians could be used differently for subversive and salutary ends,” ultimately, “there is a script, and the technicians, far from inventing these moments of theater, are themselves invented by the still more anonymous scriptwriters” (157). It is not just the technicians, though, who are invented through the spectacle of the political convention. Dos Passos also illumines how politicians are invented by the lighting technology: “Suddenly you discover that the battery next along the gallery has invented a little comic figure on a platform that’s beating on a board with a mallet.…Out of the blue haze the spots dextrously produce a little beaked figure in black” (“Washington” 178). The spotlights are active—“spring[ing] to action” and “reveal[ing]”—while the politicians are passive “puppet[s]” (178). Ultimately, technological mediation eclipses political ideology.

When Dos Passos lists the “magnificent resources for provoking and controlling mass action,” klieg lights, spotlights, and talking pictures are always at the top of his list, along with the radio and newsprint (“Washington” 179). He concludes: “A man in his shirt-sleeves handling a battery of spots can give the effect of a great wave of mass emotion in a convention hall. The possibilities of control of the mass [sic] are terrifying” (179). While the electric lights of the trilogy are not part of larger spectacles such as conventions or political rallies, they are suggestive of the “mass emotion” and “control” that Dos Passos associates with the spotlight. More specifically, Dos Passos’s preoccupation with the spotlight in his 1932 articles coincides with the period between the publication of 1919 and the composition of The Big Money. This is perhaps why arc lamps and streetlights, while still present, are less prominent than the spotlights, klieg lights, and headlights that tend to blind characters— both literally and metaphorically—throughout the last novel of the trilogy.

Of course theater lighting is featured most prominently in the fictional narrative of Margo Dowling, the poor girl from Rockaway Park who moves to Hollywood to become an actress. Margo’s story is bookended, however, with the biographies of Isadora Duncan and Rudolph Valentino. In Duncan’s story, we are twice told that she “took to drinking too much and stepping to the footlights and bawling out the boxholders” (Big 139, 140). While Margo’s story does not end as tragically, she similarly depends on the spotlight for her work while fighting its objectification. For Valentino, it is repeated that “he wanted to make good in the brightlights” (169, 170). But as fame takes over his life, the line above gets rephrased: “[h]e wanted to make good under the glare of milliondollar searchlights” (170). Valentino, consumed by the greedy [End Page 92] public’s need to see him, “spent his life in the colorless glare of klieg lights” (170). Dos Passos effectively displays the desire for and destructiveness of the spotlight in these biographies so that he can import this lighting technology and its implications to the fictional narratives of Charley and Margo. The spotlight references thus carry the added weight of cultural icons that suffered under the glare of the public spotlight.

Dos Passos twice deploys the spotlight in Charley’s narrative when he yearns for the glamor of fame and ease of affluence, yet stagnates in a “stuffy” theater (61, 67). For instance, when Charley spends the night dancing and drinking in a “stuffy little cabaret” that is “hot from the spotlights and the cigarettesmoke,” the smoke and lights impair his vision while alcohol likewise impairs his thought (61). He fails to assert his own identity, and does not correct his fellow drinkers when they mistake him for a famous writer. Like an actor in front of a spotlight, Charley plays the part and even exploits the mistake in order to go home with a young woman. The next time Charley goes out at night, Dos Passos again uses the spotlight to signal his delusion and his seduction by popular culture, business, and upward class mobility. Smitten by the appearance and wealth of the affluent socialite, Doris, Charley takes her to a show where “[a]bove their heads was the long powdery funnel of the spotlight spreading to a tinselly glitter where a redlipped girl in organdy was dancing” (67). By presenting the reader with the larger picture of the spotlight “funnel” over their heads, Dos Passos infers that these characters are manipulated by the lights and spectacle. Like the prisoners of Plato’s cave, they sit fascinated by what is spotlighted in front of them.

In Margo’s storyline, her guardian, Agnes, insinuates the fakeness of the spectacle immediately when she expresses her amazement at how “young and pretty” an older actress looks “behind the footlights” (158). Yet Margo embraces the stage as her opportunity for a career, rushing into its “warm glittery glare” (159). Once Charley becomes wealthy, his narrative intersects with Margo’s and they begin to date. He takes Margo to a photography studio, where the soon-to-be-famous film director, Sam Margolies, snaps photos of her with the “floodlights on her,” eventually asking her to pose wearing only a shawl (298). As she does this, Charley “watch[es] intently. The reflection from the floodlight made his eyes glint” (299). Dos Passos’s use of the verb “glint” here is interesting. If Charley’s eyes are irritated because of the brightness of the lights, then it would make more sense to write that the lights made his eyes squint. The verb glint suggests a voluntary glance: “To move quickly, esp. obliquely; to glance aside” (“Glint”). This implies that it is not the reflection of the lights that makes Charley look away, but rather a sense of impropriety at seeing Margo naked. Charley hints at this after the photo shoot when he tells Margo that Margolies reminds him of a “pimp” (299). Dos Passos thus conflates Charley’s discomfort with Margo’s objectification under the lights with the literal glare of the lights. [End Page 93]

Experiencing traumatic events such as being raped by her stepfather and giving birth to a baby who dies from a disease passed on from her first husband, Margo happily resigns herself to the spotlight. In Hollywood, she poses under “the glare of a babyspot,” and eventually becomes a famous actress (359). Though her career is brief, since her voice is not fit for the talkies, she takes refuge in having her private life manufactured for the spotlight. Although Margo’s vision is impaired by the “the beating glare of lights and eyes,” an artificial life is safer than the traumatic possibilities of actual life (377). Within a day, Margo goes from “the glare of the desert,” where she marries Margolies, to “the glare of the klieg light,” where she is filmed for her next movie (380, 381). In using the same diction, Dos Passos draws attention to how Margo’s life and acting career are one and the same. By the end of the trilogy, the spotlight appears one last time in Dick’s narrative, when he is forced to take the same despicable charlatan from the opening of the trilogy, E. R. Bingham, to a burlesque show. As the old man’s white hair is lit up by “the glare of the moving spot” (444), the reader immediately associates it with artificiality, objectification, and an isolating greed for wealth and fame.

The headlights of trains and automobiles similarly blind and entice characters to the point of oblivion. Nicholas Daly explains how the “Victorian appetite for visual pleasure” was excited and satiated by the “stock situation” (on stage and, eventually, film) where someone is saved at the last minute from an oncoming train (32, 10). In the trilogy, however, Dos Passos significantly alters this stock situation by having Charley intentionally drive his automobile in front of a train in his attempt to race it. Dos Passos charts the action of this scene by describing the lights of the train as they pass it: they first “[catch] up on two red lights” on the back of the train, then pass “the lighted observation car,” come up to the engine, “very huge and tall and black with a little curling shine from Charley’s headlights in the dark,” and race toward the “lights of the crossing” and “the long beam of the engine’s headlights” (330). As Charley accelerates and crosses in front of the train, “shattering their headlights,” their eyes are “full of the glare of the locomotive headlight” (330). The crash itself is not narrated, though short sentences create a sense of suspense and panic. Instead of appealing to our “visual pleasure,” the accident itself is left a blank for both the reader and the characters; the lights only expose what is in front of them, leaving the rest of the incident in darkness. Instead of Victorian visual satisfaction, where the hero saves the damsel from the oncoming machine, Charley drunkenly endangers the life of his young female passenger and ends up dying in a hospital.

When the “Camera Eye” narrator returns from Europe in The Big Money, the sections become more poetic, once again registering aurally for the reader. They present a mixture of nostalgia for his childhood and disgust at the American cultural climate. In the first “Camera Eye” of the novel, the narrator recalls family folklore: the “creak of rockers on the porch of the scrollsaw [End Page 94] cottage and uncles’ voices pokerface stories told sideways out of the big mouth (from Missouri who took no rubber nickels)” (24). The rest of the “Camera Eye” sections make great efforts to be as aural as possible, even making up onomatopoeic words such as the “squudge” of a shoe (390). These sections often defamiliarize sound by using visual metaphors to describe noise. For example, walking along the harbor, the narrator hears “sirens bloom…horns of all colors everyshaped whistles reach up from the river and the churn of screws the throb of engines bells” (174). The narrator walks the streets, taking in the sights and sounds, and concludes with: “ears dazed by the crash of alien gongs the chuckle of rattles the piping of incomprehensible flutes the swing and squawk of ununderstandable talk” (175). Sounds, here, confound the narrator, as he cannot stop his ears from taking them in.

But most importantly, the narrator explicitly promotes an oral tradition in The Big Money. “Camera Eye” sections become increasingly obsessed with the corruption of speech and the desire to make language meaningful again. The narrator wants to “rebuild the ruined words worn slimy in the mouths of lawyers…without the old words the immigrants haters of oppression brought to Plymouth how can you know who are your betrayers America” (391). Addressing America directly, Dos Passos meta-textually comments on what his own novel is attempting to do—contributing to a folk tradition that will remind readers of their past. Dos Passos asks the reader to listen to him, just as people once “listened to [Bart’s] talk” (Bartolomeo Vanzetti), so that the “old words” might be rekindled (390). The reference to “old words,” which reappears in the following “Camera Eye” section, harkens back to a folk tradition, the folklore and folklife that was “transplanted from beyond America’s shores by immigrants” (Bronner, “In Search” 7). When Sacco and Vanzetti are executed,

the old words of the immigrants are…renewed in blood and agony…the old American speech of the haters of oppression is new tonight in the mouth of an old woman from Pittsburgh of a husky boilermaker from Frisco who hopped freights clear from the Coast to come here in the mouth of a Back Bay social worker in the mouth of an Italian printer.


By calling on the “old words” of immigrants and the “mouth” of the common folk, Dos Passos explicitly directs his readers to listen to his narrative as recorded folklore, passed along just as others have passed the “old words” on through speech. In the role of folklorist, Dos Passos transcribes the “traditional, unofficial, noninstitutional part of culture” inherited by word of mouth (Brunvand 8). This is not merely speech being valorized by Dos Passos, but specifically folklore and its power to tap into the shared cultural history of a people.

Dos Passos contrasts the speech of folklore with speech that is hollow and superficial throughout the “Camera Eye” sections. We can better understand this type of speech by considering the term that Richard M. Dorson coined, [End Page 95] fakelore, which is any “synthetic product claiming to be authentic oral tradition but actually tailored for mass edification” (Folklore and Fakelore 5). Alan Dundes explains that fakelore fulfills a need to “assert one’s national identity, especially in a time of crisis, and to instill pride in that identity” (50). Dundes clarifies, however, that the distinction between fakelore and folklore can be slippery: “If folklore is rooted in nationalism…fakelore may be said to be rooted in feelings of national or cultural inferiority” (51). In the “Camera Eye” sections, the narrator has a keen ear for such fakelore, which heralds desperation and empty rhetoric. Participating in the folk group that constitutes the New York labor movements, the narrator listens to “the first stuttering attempt to talk straight tough going the snatch for a slogan they are listening and then the easy climb slogan by slogan to applause (if somebody in your head didn’t say liar to you…tell them what they want to hear wave a flag whispers the internal agitator crazy to succeed)” (Big 133). Although the narrator’s ambivalence about the rhetoric and goals of the labor movement makes the speech sound like a type of fakelore, one might argue that if the slogans originate from the workers, it is rooted in the folk. The problem derives from the fact that the narrator feels that he, along with other writers in the movement, is looking for individual success and playing on the people’s fears and emotions, rather than allowing the workers to speak for themselves. This is why, for Dos Passos, the biographical sketches are the central form for the folklore of the trilogy. For in these narratives, the lives of the folk heroes and villains of American history are recounted from previously told stories, passed down to the writer from the past.

Creating Community through the Auditory and Folklore

Dos Passos started the U.S.A. trilogy in the late 1920s and worked on it intermittently throughout the 1930s. This period coincided with the popularization of folk studies in America. For instance, in 1926, the Saturday Review of Literature promoted “American Folk-Lore” on its front page, and a year later, Carl Sandburg published The American Songbag, with sections devoted to sailors, lumberjacks, railroaders, hobos, cowboys and outlaws. The 1930s in particular was marked by a “renewed public attention” to folklore studies, demonstrated in New Deal projects such as the Index of American Design, which identified and promoted the folk roots of art and industrial design, and the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project, which recorded oral histories of former slaves, local histories, and ethnographies (Bronner, Preface xv). Exhibits such as the Museum of Modern Art’s “American Folk Art: The Common Man in America, 1750–1900” in 1932, as well as book collections such as I Hear America Singing: An Anthology of Folk Poetry, compiled by John Lomax, Sandburg, and other writers in 1937, established that folk was not just a term that applied to the ancient myths and fairytales of Europe (Bronner, “In Search” 22–23). [End Page 96]

There are some minor crossovers between Dos Passos, folk studies, and the Federal Writers’ Project. In 1931, Dos Passos investigated the coal miner strike at Harlan, Kentucky with Bruce Crawford, who was a journalist at the time, but became the director of the West Virginia Writers Project in 1938. In 1937, Dos Passos’s The Big Money was voted best book of the year at the American Writers’ Congress, where Benjamin Botkin, a folklore professor from the University of Oklahoma, gave a seminal talk on folk studies. A pioneer in American folk studies, Botkin writes: “American folklore is, on the whole, closer to history than to mythology”; “the genius of this lore has been for realistic anecdote, extravagant yarn, and comic hero legend rather than for sacred hero tale, other worldly myth, and fairy tale” (136, 143). Though Dos Passos’s trilogy is not oral, and therefore is not technically part of a folk tradition, it all the same represents and draws upon American folklore— realistic anecdotes of historical figures—to establish a sense of community among readers and the writer. In particular, Dos Passos borrows from the folk genre in his biographical sections, which, like folklore, are not created by one author, and like a folk ballad, repeat refrains about individuals that represent the plight of a particular folk.

Just as the “Camera Eye” sections engage the reading voice through poetic devices, the biographical interludes of the trilogy likewise have unconventional punctuation and resemble long poems with their odd indentation and spacing. These biographies often repeat certain phrases like refrains, and tell the stories of famous leaders such as Eugene Debs and Bill Haywood with the simplicity and directness of a folk song. Though he does not relate the biographical sections to folk songs, George Knox remarks that the repeated lines within the sections “assume a cumulative force, as in the incremental repetition of lines in the ballad” (111). Indeed, the biographical sections have the feel of a ballad form, which is generally defined within folk studies as “a folksong that tells a story” (Brunvand 303).

When Mac witnesses such folk songs in Mexico, he is told that the two blind singers are educating the people who cannot read newspapers (100). While the political confusion Mac sees in Mexico confirms that Dos Passos is not idealizing the power of the folk song, he does give it precedence over the newspaper, which in the “Newsreel” sections becomes a jumble of nonsense. One of the last significant events of the trilogy is the protest against Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, narrated in both Mary French’s narrative and the “Camera Eye” section. As with most important scenes in the trilogy, the fictional portrayal of Mary French’s protest in Boston references both electric lighting and the voices of the people. The unsightly protesters are kept partially in darkness on a “badlylighted street” (Big 411). When the police arrive to arrest them, the chaotic scene is too overwhelming (and dark) to be visually recorded, leaving only the sounds that the protesters hear: “the clatter of the horses’ hoofs,” “the whack thud whack thud of the clubs,” and “the jangle [End Page 97] jangle of patrolwagons” (411). Once they are in the patrol wagon, they begin to sing the Internationale together: “Mary forgot everything as her voice joined his voice, all their voices, the voices of the crowds being driven back across the bridge in singing: Arise, ye prisoners of starvation…” (411). While the Internationale has a single author, and many would not identify it as a folksong, the fact that there are different versions of the song in many languages lends it credence as a folksong. John Greenway argues that protesting folksongs must not be about an individual artist’s creativity, but must speak for the silenced, be “communally owned,” and “concerned with the interests of the folk” (181). In this particular scene, the anthem is informally sung and works to bond the protesters in their common cause.

Dos Passos repeatedly shows his characters being educated through the oral transmission of speeches and folk songs, and in his biographical folksongish interludes, he tries to do the same for the reader. While not all speech leads to a moral high ground, Dos Passos implies in both the form and content of his novels that American history and conscience is created through storytelling and speech. Though these biographical fragments expose the prejudices against which these leaders fought, presenting them as heroes at points, they also reveal the potential for harm in speech. For example, William Jennings Bryan, “The Boy Orator of the Platte,” may have had a “silver tongue” that “filled the ears of the plain people,” but his way of inflaming the masses is labeled a “trick,” which he tries to repeat as an attorney in the Scopes Monkey Trial (42nd 134, 135). Just as fakelore is “rooted in feelings of national or cultural inferiority” (Dundes 51), Bryan’s speeches draw on the xenophobic and economic anxieties of the people.

Dos Passos even includes one of the “most contested” and famous American folk heroes, Paul Bunyan, in his biographical sections (Bronner, “In Search” 25). A 1944 Fortune article, “Paul Bunyan, Giant,” claimed that he was created by lumberjacks who “sat around the stove, after working all day in the woods—woods that were just as dangerous, with their toppling trunks and falling widow-makers, as the Black Forests whence came European fairy tales” (qtd. in Bronner, “In Search” 26). In this context, Bunyan epitomizes the qualities of American folklore, which, because of the relatively young history of America, did not have ancient, peasant, or supernatural roots. Yet Dorson deems Paul Bunyan to be “fakelore” because his stories were actually manufactured by the Red River Lumber Company, giving them “a ‘sickly-sweet’ fabrication over the gritty social substance of folklore” (Dorson qtd. in Bronner, “In Search” 26).

Though some folklorists consider folklore to be ahistorical, Dorson divides American history into three time periods, or “life styles,” and argues that each period has a complementary folklore. The early twentieth century is the period of “the Economic Man,” who is oppressed by “the Corporation that throttles the small businessman, gouges the consumer, and buys the legislature” (“Life [End Page 98] Styles” 219). The “myth of this era is the rags-to-riches ladder scalable by every assiduous, thrifty, hard-working, patriotic American boy” (Dorson, “Life Styles” 219). Yet Dorson goes on to argue that “[a]mbivalence toward the corporation characterizes this third life style. Populists, progressives, and Socialists challenge the social Darwinists, but to regulate not destroy the giant trusts” (220). Fittingly, the folklore of this period is similarly “ambivalent”; “It is pseudofolklore, offering the 1920’s and 1930’s a series of contrived jolly giants, at first taken seriously” (Dorson, “Life Styles” 220). The trademark of the lumberjack company, Paul Bunyan, is the perfect example of such contrived folklore.

Dos Passos’s biography that is titled “Paul Bunyan,” however, is actually about the real lumberjack, World War I veteran, and Industrial Worker of the World member, Wesley Everest. According to Dos Passos, Everest was castrated and lynched by an angry mob after he opened fire on a group of men who attacked an I.W.W. Union Hall on Armistice Day in 1919. Dos Passos insinuates a parallel between the lumberjack, who was not afraid to be a member of the I.W.W. (despite the popular belief that “wobblies were reds”), and Paul Bunyan by repeating three times in the beginning of the narrative, “Not a thing in this world Paul Bunyan’s ascared of” (1919 399–400). By using phonetic spelling, Dos Passos makes the reader register the dialect and speech of the common lumberjack, passing on this aural tale to his readers. Dos Passos counteracts the commercialized fabrication of Paul Bunyan by taking a figure that was used by the lumberjack companies and turning it against them. If, as Dorson suggests, this time period is one of pseudofolklore, “packaged and peddled like bright plastics” (“Life Styles” 220), then Dos Passos’s biographical sections work to establish a new folklore that is filled with the heroes and villains of American history—labor activists, inventors, war protestors, artists, politicians, and business people. With their repeated refrains and simple retelling of stories passed down, rather than originally created by Dos Passos, these biographies are the recordings of the folklore of America, an unofficial history passed down by word of mouth.

Throughout the trilogy, the limitations of vision are eased and in some cases overcome by the folklore that is passed on both to the writer and reader in the aurally enhanced “Camera Eye” and biographical sections. While the aspiring writer of the “Camera Eye” sections absorbs stories passed on by family members and strangers, eventually recounting his own first-hand experiences of war and protest, the reader’s ear is engaged by the American folklore of the biographical sections. This appeal to listen to the “hearsay” of the writer serves to diffuse the glare, loneliness, and distraction of the lights, under which Dos Passos’s fictional characters so often suffer. [End Page 99]


1.  This line is repeated in the first biography of 1919 for Jack Reed (12, 13).

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