- Dos Passos and the Ideology of the Feminine
As one of the few single-author critical studies of Dos Passos, Janet Galligani Casey’s book will be required reading for anyone interested in this major but in some ways oddly positioned modern American novelist. The book will also be useful to scholars of American literary modernism generally, particularly those interested in gender and modernism.
Casey argues, first, that Dos Passos’s fiction “manifests a social consciousness that consistently and provocatively accommodates gender as a fundamental category of social analysis.” This aspect of her argument offers what she calls “an inside look” at the feminine in his fiction. The second part of her argument, the so-called “outside look,” concerns the way Dos Passos’s literary reputation reflects “contemporaneous invocations of the ‘feminine’ as a means of disparagement.” These notions of inside and outside at first glance may seem to involve Casey in an insufficiently mediated model of text and context, yet the two-pronged approach allows her to bring together what are, after all, separate if related issues—the ideology of the feminine in his fiction, and the ideology of the feminine within the literary-critical establishment. Dos Passos has occupied a precarious position in both the proletarian and the modernist canons, according to Casey, because he was “implicitly and explicitly aligned with a pejorative effeminacy.”
In an opening chapter titled “Critical Legacies,” Casey traces the “contemporaneous social, literary, and political perspectives that persistently coded values in gendered terms.” Dos Passos’s attempt to represent the masses, as well as his reliance on the discourses of popular culture—newspaper headlines, song lyrics, advertising slogans, and [End Page 510] so on—would have aligned his novels with two feminized phenomena. Drawing on the work of Andreas Huyssen, Casey argues that there was a “powerful masculinist and misogynist current within the trajectory of modernism.” Mike Gold, Ernest Hemingway, and Edmund Wilson apparently considered Dos Passos “womanish” for his “refusal to take an assertively masculine role, especially with women.” Casey rightly insists that Dos Passos’s supposed effeminacy is only significant insofar as that perception may have influenced his literary reputation. “The point,” she writes, “is not whether Dos Passos actually personified his era’s definition of the emasculated male, but whether received notions about his personal traits affected his reception.” She believes that they did affect his reception—negatively.
When Casey turns to Dos Passos’s fiction, she predictably focuses on female characters. His early novel Streets of Night (1923) is important for Casey’s purposes because it is Dos Passos’s first novel with a female protagonist, and thus anticipates the more fully drawn female characters of Manhattan Transfer (1925) and U.S.A. (1930–1936). Dos Passos’s female characters are represented as objects of a male gaze: they are “constantly aware” of being seen and desired by men. At the same time, they struggle to reconcile their “cultural role as desired object” with their desires as female subjects, and as such they figure the problem of female agency in the 1920s and 1930s. Casey’s chapter on Manhattan Transfer, for instance, focuses on Ellen Thatcher’s successful negotiation of her career as an actress. Understanding the complex “cultural dynamics” of New York theater and American consumer culture generally, Ellen capitalizes on her role as a “feminine icon.” Thus, while her success “is premised entirely on the acceptance of certain prescribed social roles—as object of the gaze, as spectacle—that objectify her and deny her the status as subject,” Ellen nonetheless attains a remarkable degree of agency from making the most of her status as object: ‘“Ellen herself not only acquiesces in her role, but makes the most of it.”
Casey’s chapter on the U.S.A. trilogy offers a subtle consideration of ideology, not merely political ideology as in previous efforts to position Dos Passos in relation to proletarian fiction, but ideology in the Althusserian sense of the “various means of signification and representation from which meaning is derived and through which social ideas about...