Fred Skolnik is the author of 4 novels: The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011) and Death (Spuyten Duyvil, 2015) under his own name and Rafi’s World and The Links in the Chain (both in 2014) under his Fred Russell pen name. His stories and essays have appeared in around 200 journals, with a collection of his short fiction called Americans & Other Stories published in 2017 by Fomite Press and a new novel called Basic Forms due out in Nov. 2018 (Regal House). He is also the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal.
THREE AMERICAN NOVELS
During my high school years I systematically went through what had come to be called the Classic American Novel, from The Red Badge of Courage to Native Son. My guide was a book called Masterpieces of World Literature in Digest Form, edited by Frank N. Magill, with an introduction by Clifton Fadiman. It must have arrived as part of a Book-of-the-Month Club deal. Each of the 500-or-so selections came with some basic data, including principal characters, a short "critique," and a synopsis of the plot. It was here that I discovered the American novel. Before that, in junior high, I had read mostly the English classics, and afterwards I would discover European literature. However, it was these American novels that shaped my will to write. Reading them, I found myself thinking, in effect, that, yes, I too had things of this nature to say. These novels fulfilled the function of great art: time and again they caused me to stare into the middle distance and reflect on my own sense of the world as well as my own life. And of all these novels, three made an indelible impression on me. I return to them now out of a certain curiosity, to see if they will move me in the same way. But I return to them also to recapture my own youth, to see if I cannot recapture my feelings at the time I read these books, to rediscover myself in my original response to them, like Proust with his petite madeleine. The three novels are An American Tragedy, U.S.A. and Studs Lonigan.
The opening sentence of Theodore Dreiser's American Tragedy is for me the most evocative in all of American literature: "Dusk – of a summer night." Instantly, when I read these words, something that for me has always been at the heart of the American experience, and consequently of my own sensibility, comes to life. I have a sense, a memory even, of reading that sentence 50 years ago and pausing, and reflecting, and perhaps of laying the book aside. "Dusk – of a summer night. And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city ..." Here for me was the romance of the American night, the winding down of balmy days, a certain stillness in the darkening air that brought a sense of perfect peace and longing too.
An American Tragedy tells the story of Clyde Griffiths, born into an impoverished family of missionaries whose straightlaced fundamentalism he rebels against when he begins to get a taste of what life can offer, first as a bellhop in a leading Kansas City hotel where he is dazzled by the wealthy clientele and afterwards in his infatuation with a "fast" girl, a certain Hortense, who plays him along. The first part of the novel ends with an outing in which a child is tragically run over by the car Clyde and his friends have borrowed.
This structure of four large blocks of material – family, work, romance, and a tragic denouement – is repeated in the second part of the novel, at a higher level and for higher stakes. The scene shifts to Lycurgus, New York, where the wealthy branch of the Griffiths family is now introduced. Clyde, on the run after the accident and working as a bellhop in a Chicago hotel under an assumed name, runs into his uncle there and is invited east to manage a department in his collar and shirt factory. There he falls in love with one of the girls working under him, the sweet Roberta Alden, contrasted with the vulgar Hortense in Kansas City, but then he becomes infatuated with one of the socialites in the moneyed crowd he has been permitted to join as a Griffiths relation and begins to entertain hopes of marrying her. Roberta becomes pregnant and now seems to stand in the way of his attaining all the great prizes that Lycurgus society has to offer. Clyde takes Roberta out on a lake planning to kill her and she drowns.
The first part of the novel also contains elements that foreshadow the events of the second part and serve to establish Clyde's character. His unwillingness to help his pregnant and abandoned sister with the $50 with which he was going to help Hortense get her fur coat foreshadows his unwillingness to stand by Roberta after getting her pregnant. His flight after the child is run over foreshadows his flight from his own crime, and from responsibility in general, in the second part of the novel, and Roberta's seemingly accidental death echoes the accidental death of the child. Even the frozen river that plays a part in the denouement of the first part can be seen as foreshadowing the lake where Roberta drowns. These parallels almost seem to suggest that Clyde is fated to act in a particular way, according to the dictates of his character, though Dreiser points to something deeper, a biological, or "chemic," force. Biology sets the stage for the struggle for survival in which the strongest – or the most well born – must prevail. Biology makes Clyde physically resemble his wealthy cousin and biology – his low birth – keeps him in a lower social station.
The third part of the novel concerns the flight, apprehension, trial and execution of Clyde Griffiths.
All this is based on the case of Chester E. Gillette, who drowned a girl named Grace Brown in 1906 and was subsequently electrocuted, though Dreiser had similar cases in mind as well, a spate of cases that led him to believe that this was a motif unique to American society. An American Tragedy was published in 1925. Sister Carrie, Dreiser's first novel, had been published in 1900, when he was 29, and between them came Jennie Gerhardt (1911), The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914) and The "Genius" (1915). He also published stories, sketches, essays, poems and autobiographical works, a substantial oeuvre in fact. The Bulwark and The Stoic, weaker novels which he had struggled to complete for a great many years, appeared after his death, as did his voluminous correspondence and his diaries.
Dreiser has been much maligned for his style, which did not trouble me at all when I first read An American Tragedy, and does not trouble me now as I read it again. There are some clumsy sentences, to be sure, but not so clumsy really, and also some sentences that can only be called wonderful ("Physically, she was of a pale, emasculate and unimportant structure ..."), but on the whole the style is serviceable, and occasionally it is nice:
Clyde, being not a little overawed by her [Hortense's] spirit and mannerisms, was at a loss what else to say for the moment, but he need not have worried – her chief interest in life was herself
Her quick eyes clicked and she tossed her head defiantly.
Her [Roberta's] pretty mouth, her lovely big eyes, her radiant and yet so often shy and evasive smile.
She [Sondra] saw that he was nervous and bashful and decidedly unresourceful in her presence and it pleased her to think that she could thus befuddle and embarrass him so much.
It is also less than just to represent Dreiser as a compiler of menus and street directories with a few newspaper clippings thrown in to spice things up, as Robert Benchley did in one of his parodies. Whenever there was condescension among critics toward an American novelist, one could generally find H.L. Mencken in the neighborhood too; but Mencken, his friend and early champion, it should be said, was not a very astute reader of novels and clearly did not recognize the greatness of An American Tragedy. Such condescension and misguided reading is evident in his Introduction to the World Publishing edition of 1948. Mencken liked Dreiser best as the "adept and persuasive reporter," characterizing him as "the most matter-of-fact novelist ever known on earth," but conceded that he was a "predominantly viscous" writer and would have had him rein the "viscosity" in. Dreiser was of course very far from being a reporter in his novels and actually showed very little interest in the kind of gratuitous or impressionistic detail that abounds in novelists of the era for whom fiction was an extension of journalism and who therefore felt it their duty to describe or characterize everything in sight. As the novel opens, Dreiser gives you very little that is specific in the immediate surroundings. His focus is almost entirely on "the little group" that "seemed unconscious of anything save a set purpose to make its way between the contending lines of traffic and pedestrians which flowed by them."
This group is headed by the parents of Clyde Griffiths, dragging the children out to sing hymns in the street, and Dreiser positions himself inside it, but most often inside the mind of Clyde, whose thoughts and feelings he will relentlessly follow for the space of nearly 900 closely printed pages. "Sprawling" and "clumsy" are indeed two of the adjectives frequently misapplied to An American Tragedy. But An American Tragedy is in fact a novel of tremendous narrative force and a profound level of observation. Barely a sentence concerning Clyde is written without the specific aim of elucidating the impulses that will lead him to commit murder. For it is an enormous distance to travel for someone like Clyde Griffiths, who is neither of a violent nor criminal disposition, from loving a girl like Roberta Alden to murdering her because she stands in the way of his ambition. While such occurrences are commonplace in the popular novel, where writers treat extreme modes of behavior as a given in telling their stories, without feeling the need to explain too much – men kill because they are evil or weak or greedy or jealous – Dreiser feels obliged to elucidate the frame of mind that causes Clyde to act as he does – in the space of hundreds and hundreds of pages.
Dreiser is tireless. Not every writer would be willing to devote so much time and effort to setting the stage and establishing the plausibility of an act such as is committed by Clyde Griffiths. His diligence is commendable. There is nothing of sensationalism in his writing. He is the ultimate realist. He writes forcefully about strong sexual and romantic feeling. It is easy to write extravagantly about love, to the point that words become meaningless. This is not the case with Dreiser.
But it is not pure love that induces Clyde to pursue Roberta and break down her resistance: it is lust and vanity too – for he knows he will not marry her. Here Dreiser makes a leap of sorts, from describing a character buffeted by social forces and therefore worthy of our sympathy to describing one that now strikes us as somewhat callow. The tragedy for the moment becomes the tragedy of Roberta, who innocently trusts Clyde and acts against her better judgment, believing that he will be true to her, and so our sympathy momentarily shifts to her. But Dreiser does not sustain this mood, for it would undermine his story, which is the story of Clyde.
It is true that a writer like Georges Simenon might have told this story in 150-or-so uncrowded pages, and he would have achieved an effect, no doubt, and he would have gotten the point across – but it is doubtful if he would have done justice to its momentousness. Momentous stories require momentous edifices to bear them. An American Tragedy is momentous because it is nothing less than the story of America. In a society as vast and as complex as America, with so many conflicts and cross currents and social groups – young and old, black and white, east and west, north and south, town and country, conservative and liberal, religious and free-thinking – a novel that purports to tell the whole story can either dissipate itself in an extremely broad narrative or choose a single theme or conflict that contains the essence of the whole. Dreiser chose to tell the story of America by writing about the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots; and like no other theme, it suffices to reveal what America is, because the story of America is not only the story of what people achieve but also, and more so, of what people fail to achieve, for the great fortunes and the great names belong to the few, not the many. The American tragedy is the tragedy of wanting and failing to be rich and having everything that is perceived as part of being rich, for like a whore who has only her body to offer, America has only its wealth to give.
Very few American writers have had anything good to say about America. America is after all very hard on Americans. The central theme of nearly all American fiction that examines its social fabric has been its rottenness. This rottenness, paradoxically, resides in precisely what Americans view as the country's chief virtue: its unlimited opportunity. For while Americans extol the fact that anyone can become rich, the rich are rarely viewed sympathetically, not in popular or serious literature and not in Hollywood films, which more than any medium reflects the underlying assumptions of American life. The underlying assumption of films that portray the rich is that they are heartless, dishonest, corrupt, dissolute, rapacious. The only conclusion that can be reached is that as a rule wealth is bad – and yet, as a desideratum, wealth is viewed in the American dream as good, adding still another twist to the schizophrenic psyche of the American people.
The theme of rich and poor, or labor vs. capital in its classic Marxian formulation and as it would appear in U.S.A., for example, could only serve this purpose of standing for the whole in a particular period of American history and literature, namely the period of the classic American novel, from the end of the 19th century to the end of the 1930s, and this explains why novels like An American Tragedy, U.S.A. and Studs Lonigan have been recognized as masterpieces. Before that time such novels could not yet be written because the novelistic temperament needed to write realistically had not yet been formed, and the process of industrialization that would produce such acute dissonances in American society was just beginning to take shape. After World War II such novels could no longer be written because American life was becoming so diffuse, so disconnected and directionless, that no single theme could capture its essence or driving force. America no longer had an essence in fact; it had an image, or many images, engineered by the makers of images. To be sure, poverty existed in abundance, but it could no longer be ranged against wealth as a defining theme of American life. If anything, poverty might be ranged against indifference; its drama was private, its victims were excised more and more from the American consciousness despite periodic expressions of regret, and in no way could the conflict be said to stand for American life as a whole, nor could any other traditional pair of conflicting social realities. No theme, no conflict, no cross section of American society could any longer tell the story of America.
Like Theodore Dreiser before him in An American Tragedy and James T. Farrell after him in Studs Lonigan, John Dos Passos set out in his great masterpiece to get at the essence of America by picking up a single thread that could stand for the whole, or perhaps in Dos Passos' case, two threads – one embodied in the substance of the narrative and one embodied in the manner of narration. U.S.A. is a trilogy comprising The 42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen Nineteen (1932) and The Big Money (1936). In addition to its narrative sections – a kaleidoscopic melange focusing on twelve intersecting lives – Dos Passos intersperses documentary material that is aimed at capturing the spirit of the times: 68 "Newsreels" consisting of newspaper headlines and stories as well as snatches of popular songs; 51 stream-of-consciousness "Camera Eye" sections in which he records personal impressions; and 27 biographical sketches of representative men (and one woman, Isadora Duncan), also somewhat impressionistic and most often deeply ironic.
Of the twelve lives we are to follow, six belong to men and six to women, which is admirable, though the latter do not fare any better than the former. The first of these lives belongs to "Mac" (Fainy O'Hara McCreary), born in Middletown, Conn., of Scotch-Irish descent and moving to Chicago after his mother dies. Mac learns the printing trade, gets into the bookselling business and winds up on the West Coast, where he falls under the sway of labor activists (the radical wobbly IWW crowd), marries, abandons his wife and goes off to Mexico to see the revolution. Next up is "Janey" (Williams). Now we are beginning to get the feel of the novel and find that it feels like America, capturing perfectly the drift of American life, with Janey growing up in Georgetown with "mommer" and "popper" in the new century and a boy she has a crush on killed in a motorcycle accident and her brother joining the navy and Janey working as a typist and her father dying and her savings going on hospital bills and working as a secretary for patent lawyers in Georgetown and a real estate operator in Washington and on to New York. And then Eleanor Stoddard, a refined type growing up in Chicago and hating her father's stockyard stench and whiskers and tobacco and working as a salesgirl in a lace shop and studying at the Art Institute and becoming best of friends with Eveline Hutchins, a somewhat loose-living clergyman's daughter who will become a major character in the second volume, and getting a job in the interior decorating department of Marshall Field's at $25 a week and then going into the decorating business with Eveline and afterwards going to New York with her to work as a set designer on Broadway. In New York both Janey and Eleanor link up with J. Ward Moorehouse, born poor like themselves, in Wilmington, Delaware, and then clerking in real estate and making some contacts and doing some newspaper work and some advertising work and making an advantageous second marriage that gives him a stake to start up a public relations firm in New York. Janey becomes his secretary. Eleanor redecorates his home and becomes a close friend. Moorehouse and Janey cross paths with Mac in Mexico, where they have gone to promote American business interests. Janey's brother, Joe Williams, runs into Charley Anderson in New York. Anderson is the fifth major character to be introduced in the first volume. Hailing from Fargo, North Dakota, Anderson goes to work in his brother's garage in Minneapolis, then as a machinist, and on to Milwaukee and then Chicago and down to New Orleans and from New Orleans to New York to have a good time and maybe study engineering but then setting out for France to join the volunteer ambulance corps. So the first volume ends, somewhat inconclusively, as America prepares to go to war.
All the main characters in The 42nd Parallel come of age in the new century. The oldest of them, J. Ward Moorehouse, is born in 1882. The title itself signifies the major storm path blowing across America toward New York, which figuratively sweeps up the characters. Thus the central theme of the first volume is movement. All the characters are mobile. They are moving with the new America, with the winds of change. The style of narrative reinforces this sense of movement. Though there are some extended sequences there are few pauses to develop conventional dramatic scenes. The narrative races along. This accelerated tempo is the tempo of American life itself where everything was opening up and great opportunities were there to be seized. The second theme is the rapaciousness of the opportunists and the exploitation of the working class, that is, the classic Marxian theme of labor vs. capital. Four of the twelve major characters of U.S.A. are directly involved in the radical labor movement ("It's the fault of the system that don't give a man the fruit of his labor"); the others, with the exception of the wayward Joe Williams, are moving along the fast track of American life. The theme is also sounded in the biographical sketches, where other than the labor heroes (Eugene Debs, Bill Haywood, Joe Hill, Wesley Everest) and a few visionaries, most of the subjects (politicians, businessmen, technocrats, etc.) are treated scathingly.
The second volume of the trilogy, Nineteen Nineteen, is set mostly in Europe during the war. The experiences Dos Passos depicts are mostly the experiences of noncombatants, which in wartime are often bacchanalian. Eveline Hutchins and Eleanor Stoddard go over to France with the Red Cross and live together in Paris "in a fine apartment" on the quai de la Tournelle, drinking and fornicating and falling in love with anyone in uniform. Major Moorehouse, with his trusted secretary Miss Williams, arrives to take charge of Red Cross publicity and Eveline, who has her eye on him, is surprised to find him in bed with Eleanor. Two new characters show up in Europe: Richard Ellsworth Savage, growing up in Trenton, a would-be poet who joins the volunteer ambulance service, and "Daughter" (Anne Elizabeth Trent), born in Dallas to a well-to-do family, who comes to New York to study at Columbia and gets involved with labor agitators and is thrown in jail for a while with some strikers. Then back to Texas to learn that her brother, a pilot, has been killed in his first solo training flight over in San Antonio and that her beau has married, and then to Rome with the Near East Relief. With America entering the war, Savage gets a commission and winds up in the Post Despatch Service and on to Paris where his outfit is put at the disposal of the American delegation at the Peace Conference. Here he meets Moorehouse, "who was said to be very close to Colonel House," as well as Eleanor, who makes him a kind of protégé, and later the said Anne Elizabeth in Italy, where they have an affair, and then Anne Elizabeth pregnant and Dick coming back to Rome from Paris and making it clear that he really doesn't want the baby, or to marry her, an inclination reinforced by Eleanor, and understanding from Moorehouse that he has a job waiting in his Paris office as soon as he is out of the service. Anne Elizabeth shows up in Paris to tell him she is going to have the baby with him or without him and sees in a moment that it's over between them, that he doesn't love her, and makes plans to go back home and thoroughly depressed during a night on the town hooks up with some French aviators, all of them drunk, and insists on going up for a spin with one of them, and out to the airfield and into the wind and a ripping sound and "the shine of a wing gliding by itself a little way from the plane" and the plane plunging down.
The second volume also follows the fortunes of Janey's brother, Joe Williams, who goes AWOL after hitting a petty officer and joins the merchant marines. He winds up in England, gets arrested and shipped back to America, meets up with a girl named Della in Norfolk, works on the coal barges, then some time in Brooklyn and across the Atlantic to Alexandria on an oil tanker and back to New York and then to St. Nazaire with munitions and so on and so forth, getting his third mate's license and marrying Della and the marriage breaking up after she plays around and then Armistice Day in St. Nazaire, where we leave him in the midst of a barroom brawl when "a big guy in a blouse" breaks a bottle over his head.
Eveline meanwhile gets her own place and finally sleeps with J. Ward Moorehouse and among the men she sees is the innocent Paul Johnson, who falls in love with her and gets her pregnant and she decides to have the baby and marry him because "we have to go through everything in life." The second volume also introduces another labor character, Ben Compton, a Brooklyn Jew, encountered briefly at the end of the first volume in a New York restaurant where he runs into Charley Anderson and Joe Williams and holds forth for a while. He runs into "Daughter" at a New Jersey strike and after a short career as a radical is arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison. Nineteen Nineteen concludes with some of Dos Passos' most powerful writing in his ode to the unknown soldier, "John Doe":
... born ... and raised in Brooklyn, in Memphis, near the lakefront in Cleveland, Ohio, in the stench of the stockyards in Chi, on Beacon Hill, in an old brick house in Alexandria Virginia, on Telegraph Hill, in a halftimbered Tudor cottage in Portland ...
scion of one of the best families in the social register, won first prize in the baby parade at Coronado Beach, was marbles champion of the Little Rock grammarschools, crack basketballplayer at the Booneville High, quarterback at the State Reformatory ...
– busboy harveststiff hogcaller boyscout champeen cornhusker of Western Kansas bellhop at the United States Hotel at Saratoga Springs, officeboy callboy fruiter telephone lineman longshoreman lumberjack plumber's helper ...
In the third volume, The Big Money, Dos Passos picks up the story of Charley Anderson, back from the war as an air force pilot with plans for manufacturing a starter motor for the aviation industry. There follows an affair with Eveline, incorporation, financial speculation, and fortunes made and lost. He ultimately meets up with Margo Dowling, who has grown up in a convent, and they become lovers. In my copy of U.S.A., an entire printer's sheet (32 pages) is missing in this volume, from the end of the first Margo Dowling chapter to the beginning of a Charley Anderson chapter, but curiously enough this does not disturb the flow of the story in the least. When I abruptly part company with Margo she is still in the convent and when I pick up her story again she is married and on her way to Havana with her effeminate Cuban husband. When I pick up Charley's story he is still trying to sell his ideas to the aviation industry and pursuing a socialite named Doris. These lacunae are barely perceived, for all these stories, rather than being carefully shaped literary creations, where every detail is essential, just flow along like life itself. They are told the way someone might tell the story of a wayward acquaintance, full of rich and colorful anecdotes – adventures in the war, romantic involvements, travels back and forth across the continent – where it hardly matters if this or that segment or story is left out: you get the general idea. In fact, Dos Passos needs just two pages to take Charley Anderson through marriage to a rich man's daughter and the birth of two children, pretty much in the way that plots race along in the movies, whose techniques certainly influenced him. Some of these stories end quite inconclusively. We never hear from Mac after leaving him in Mexico in the first volume about to buy a bookshop. Janey fades into the woodwork as Moorehouse's "inevitable" secretary with her "sour lined oldmaidish face." Her brother, Joe Williams, is last seen with the bottle smashed over his head and it is impossible to know if he is dead or alive. Dos Passos seems to have little sympathy for his male characters. They are representative men. We never really enter their skins. When Charley Anderson dies after a car crash trying to outrace a train – a rocket self-destructing – we hardly feel a thing. Moorehouse, the public relations king in the new America, is felled by exhaustion. We leave him suffering from a mild heart attack, with his assistant, Richard Savage, transformed from an esthete into a huckster, designated to carry on.
The women are treated more warmly. We are moved by Daughter's death but do not get enough of her to lift her story to the tragic plane that heightens our sense of the human condition. Eleanor Stoddard and Eveline Hutchins, too, have the makings of tragic figures. We would have liked to follow their lives more closely, but Dos Passos refuses to supply the dimension that would elevate their stories to tragic heights. Frustrated in an unhappy marriage and finally separated from her husband, and unable to make her mark in the theater, Eveline commits suicide. Eleanor is last seen about to enter into an unlikely marriage with a Russian prince, surrounded by Russians "in all stages of age and decay." As for Margo Dowling, she goes out to Hollywood to become a movie star and marry a director after her Cuban husband is conveniently murdered. In the labor contingent we meet Mary French, who nurses Ben Compton back to health in New York after the "classwar prisoners" get an early release from the Atlanta penitentiary. In love with a Comrade Stevens, she is shattered when he marries another comrade but returns stoically to her movement work. So the trilogy ends, capped by a short epilogue taking a young man "a hundred miles down the road" with a tattered suitcase and hunger in his belly in pursuit of America.
Dos Passos narrates his story in the voice of his characters. This is "the speech of the people" as he calls it in his Whitmanesque prologue, producing a free-flowing prose that is not afraid to say "One of the brakemen tried to get fresh with Lizzie one night and got such a sock in the jaw that he fell clear off the front porch" or "He was sick of the bum grub." At times the writing is so heedless that you can imagine Jack Kerouac churning it out on an endless roll of teletype paper:
It was around eight in the evening when he got in. With his suitcase in his hand he walked up Market Street from the dock. The streets were full of lights. Young men and pretty girls in brightcolored dresses were walking fast through a big yanking wind that fluttered dresses and scarfs, slapped color into cheeks, blew grit and papers in the air. There were Chinamen, Wops, Portuguese, Japs in the streets. People were hustling to shows and restaurants. Music came out of the doors of bars, frying, buttery, foodsmells from restaurants, smells of winecasks and beer. Mac wanted to go to a party but he only had four dollars so he went and got a room at the Y and ate some soggy pie and coffee at the deserted cafeteria downstairs.
Blue dusk was swooping down on the streets when they went out. Lights were coming out yellow. Mechanical pianos jinglejangled in bars. In a gateway a little outoftune orchestra was playing. The market was all lit up by flares, all kinds of shiny brightcolored stuff was for sale at booths. At a corner an old Indian and an old broadfaced woman, both of them blind and heavily pockmarked, were singing a shrill endless song in the middle of a dense group of short thickset country people, the women with black shawls over their heads, the men in white cotton suits like pajamas.
Dos Passos was a superb artist writing as an American, that is, in a way that no Frenchman or Englishman could write. By the 1920s American literature had broken away completely from the genteel tradition of 19th century letters. The classic American novel came out of the realistic French tradition, from Balzac to Zola, even when it struck out in different directions. Hemingway, after all, thought of himself as stepping into the ring with De Maupassant and Flaubert, and the French intellectuals in turn would lionize Dos Passos, Faulkner and Richard Wright, not to mention the hard-boiled detective novel, applauding everything in their overenthusiastic way, even, as Miles Davis once put it, the mistakes.
Dreiser and Dos Passos were writing about the same America, and yet one seemed static, monolithic (the America of An American Tragedy), while the other was dynamic. Dreiser wrote about a settled society with clear divisions. For Dos Passos, on the other hand, there were no boundaries. New pockets of life were being created where anyone could move, new men and women were gaining power. Which was the real America? The answer of course was that they were both real. They existed simultaneously. Static America did not preclude dynamic America, just as law-abiding America does not preclude criminal America and liberal America does not preclude bigoted America. In the end the measure of a society can only be quantitative: so many of these, so many of those, so many on the move, so many sitting still – and when a critical level is reached, of the mobile, of the stationary, of criminals, bigots, paupers, or plain decent folk, so that society will be defined. In America it seems that a certain balance had been struck between the dynamic and the static, so that either could stand for the whole and therefore both Dreiser's and Dos Passos' pictures of America yield an essence.
This essence is arrived at by different means. Dreiser tell the story of America through an individual who embodies the American dream and therefore the American tragedy. Dos Passos tells the story of America through the medium of class. Both their masterpieces are telling the same Marxian story. For Dreiser this is the story of the poor vs. the rich. For Dos Passos it is the story of labor vs. capital. What Dos Passos lacks in intensity he makes up for in breadth, so that it may be said that if Dreiser is our Dostoievsky, then Dos Passos is our Tolstoy, but in a distinctly American way. For in Dos Passos one does not find the fabric and texture of society but rather its conflicts and divisions under the rubric of a single overriding social concept. Paradoxically, these conflicts and divisions in an America that was always moving forward made up its common ground, its grand theme. After World War II, and certainly from the Sixties on, such a common ground, embracing all Americans, could only be circumstantial, so that a novel about representative Americans caught up, for example, in the events of 9/11 would not yield anything that might be thought of as the Great American Novel, because nothing else would link these characters and therefore their stories would not add up to an essence of America in the way that U.S.A. or An American Tragedy did.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Dos Passos himself, for by the time he came to write Midcentury, published in early 1961, he had completely lost touch with America, seeking it in the old model that no longer existed. Midcentury is an attempt to do for postwar America what U.S.A. did for the first three decades of the 20th century, and uses the same techniques: intersecting stories, biographical sketches, and newspaper clippings. But what Midcentury in fact turns out to be is a labor novel. Now there is of course nothing wrong with writing a novel about the labor movement – specifically its corruption – but in writing about the labor movement Dos Passos thought he was writing about the totality of the American experience, just as he had in U.S.A. The difference is that while in the first three decades of 20th century American life the theme of labor vs. capital – or "classwar," as Dos Passos liked to call it – touched enough of American life to stand for the whole, at midcentury the labor movement was marginal to American life, perceived as an adjunct of racketeering, which itself was outside the American mainstream, the stuff of Hollywood films and Senate hearings.
Dos Passos cannot be faulted for not understanding the America of the 1950s in the year 1960. None of us did, or could. Like all eras it seemed to represent a pinnacle, drawing together many of the threads of the American past, even if it wasn't gay or didn't roar. It was not until we were well into the Sixties, in the aftermath of the Kennedy presidency, that we could understand what the deadening Eisenhower years had truly been. Kennedy was the catalyst, but it was the hated Lyndon Johnson, the archetypal father figure, who galvanized the young and in effect created a New Left to pick up where the Old Left had left off. The Fifties had in fact capped an era brought on by the Great Depression and interrupted by a great war. It was an era that itself interrupted the trajectory of recent American history that Dos Passos had understood so well. This is the urban-industrial/technological trajectory that was already in place (in the North) by the time of the Civil War. Between 1800 and 1860 the population of the United States had risen from 5.3 million to 31.4 million, eight cities had populations of over 100,000 in 1860, with New York at 800,000, as opposed to five cities with above 10,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the century, the largest being Philadelphia with 70,000, exports had increased sixfold, the number of American factories reached 140,000, mostly in the North, and 50,000 miles of railroad track had been laid, the most in the world, as opposed to just 40 in 1830. This upward spiral would accelerate after the Civil War and create the American middle class in the sociological sense, though it did not recognize itself as such as long as the illusion that anyone could get rich persisted. It was only when it became clear that not everyone had what it took, that some people would have to settle for less than the American dream and had no one to blame but themselves, that a real middle class came into being in America, a class that would hide its failure behind many and diverse facades. It is true that in the early Fifties there was still a residue of the old labor movement, but the Jews were moving out of their traditional trades, mobsters were moving into the unions, and Russia was getting a bad name. Postwar America was middle class America, reaping the benefits of postwar prosperity, consolidating its gains, conservative, conformist, hollow. The middle class world was a make-believe world in an era of big dreams and small achievement where you could deceive your neighbor by driving a big car or reading book reviews instead of books. Its hunger to be more than it was fueled the advertising industry and alienated its young. This was perhaps the last opportunity given to postwar American novelists to write the next Great American Novel. Dos Passos missed that opportunity. So did the others. Then, in the explosion of the Sixties, it was too late. America had become too diverse and fragmented. The Great American Novel could no longer be written. For Dos Passos the consolation was that he had already written it.
In the pantheon of the Classic American Novel, An American Tragedy and U.S.A. had been novels about the essential division of America between those who have and those who have not. Dos Passos produced an energetic narrative that raced along without lingering to give its characters a human face while Dreiser dissected his protagonist's inner world so clinically that it is impossible to see him as a living, breathing individual. Not so James T. Farrell. His alone of the three great social novels of the era brings to life a full-blooded human being capable of moving us.
Like U.S.A., Studs Lonigan is a trilogy whose individual volumes were first published separately: Young Lonigan in 1932, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan in 1934, and Judgment Day in 1935, and then the trilogy in one volume in 1936. And like Dreiser, Farrell has been taken to task for his style, but in Farrell's case the criticism is fully justified, and though the style did not bother me at all when I first read the novel as a teenager, I can see now right from the start what I'm in for when Studs Lonigan, on the verge of 15 on the day Wilson is nominated for his second term in 1916, "stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug." Farrell will write the entire first volume of the trilogy in the idiom of the South Side Chicago street as mediated by a lower middle class Irish-American teenager. Unfortunately he had a tin ear and went overboard trying to make the voice sound authentic though it was in fact his own teenage voice he was trying to mimic. Dos Passos, who also wrote in the voice of his characters, did it far more naturally.
In this first volume we meet Studs in the bathroom with the cigarette "pasted in his mug" on the morning of his graduation from the parish grammar school and after 70 or so of the novel's 200 pages we find him masturbating in the same bathroom after being aroused by his 13-year-old sister, who "bumped her small breast" against him under her thin nightgown that "he could almost see right through" and who is aroused herself after playing post office with Studs and his crowd in the Lonigan parlor. The time between, after the tedious graduation ceremony and the "brief talk" of the "noble priest" that goes on and on "fat with superlatives," is filled with Studs' ruminations and little else. If anything comes through in these first pages it is Studs', and Farrell's, deep-seated animus toward the Church and the hypocrisy of Catholic families. This is mirrored in Studs' rebellion against the Jesuit future his pious mother has mapped out for him. The rest of the first volume shows Studs essentially hanging out in the summer following his graduation, first with a tomboyish neighborhood girl and then with his friends, including a fistfight with one of them, and then a ride with Johnny O'Brian's dad and some reminiscences about boxers and ballplayers and a few choice words about kikes and niggers, and an enchanted afternoon in the park with Lucy Scanlan, whom he loves. In the final short chapter Farrell jumps to November and Studs is still hanging out.
Farrell is at his worst describing action and in the sloppily constructed scenes involving Studs' teenage friends:
"What you been doing?"
"Workin' in an office downtown," said Weary.
"Off today?" asked Paulie.
"I took the day off, and my old lady got sore and yelled at me. I had a big scrap with the family. The gaffer was home and he tried to pitch in, too, and my sister Fran, she got wise. Then I noticed that my hip pocket was bulgin' a little. And when I leaned down to pick somethin' up, they saw my twenty-two. They shot their gabs off till I got sick of listenin' to them, and I got sore and cursed them out. I told them just what they could do without mincing my words, and they all gaped at me like I was at a circus. The ole lady jerked on the tears, and started blessing herself, and Fran got snotty, like she never heard the words before, and she bawled, and the old man said he'd bust my snoot, but he knew better than try. So I tells them they could all take a fast and furious, flyin', leapin' jump at Sandy Claus, and I walks out, and I'll be damned if I go home. Maybe I might try stickin' somebody up," he said.
This is about as close to human speech as Leo Gorcey got playing Muggs Maloney in the East Side Kids. We watched these films and thought that this might be the way tough kids talked back then, until we became tough kids ourselves, and then it became clear that no one ever talked that way outside of books and the movies.
As for action, here is the fistfight:
Studs fought a boring-in fight. He waved his left arm up and down horizontally, for purposes of defense, so he couldn't do much punching with it, but he kept his right swinging. Weary met Studs and lammed away with both fists. It was anybody's fight.
Studs cracked Weary with a dirty right. They clinched. Weary socked in the clinch.
(This is a scene, incidentally, that was praised by Hemingway, which tells you what a stiff he must have been in the ring.)
And yet in all this, when he isn't describing the movement of bodies or laying on the slangy dialogue, Farrell can occasionally write quite nicely, as in his description of Studs' tomboy friend, or the long, surprisingly lyrical section in the park with Lucy Scanlan where Studs feels something "beautiful and vague," or Sunday dinner at the Lonigan home where the speech is indirect:
Mrs. Lonigan opened her mouth to speak, but Mrs. Reilley beat her to the floor and said that when a body gets old, all that a body has is a body's children to be a help and a comfort, and that a body could expect and demand some respect from a body's children....
Farrell was not writing about ordinary poverty – the Lonigans are a respectable lower middle class family, the father a self-employed house painter and landlord – he was writing, in his own words, about "spiritual poverty," the bigotry and superstition of the Irish Catholic milieu, and ultimately the sterility of the American dream. Studs Lonigan wants to be somebody. As Farrell writes in his Introduction to the Modern Library edition of the trilogy: "His dream of himself is a romantic projection of his future, conceived in the terms and the values of his world." What he is in reality is a somewhat undersized kid who acts tough but is full of self-doubt. The dreams will not be fulfilled and as the novel progresses that short time spent in the park with Lucy Scanlan and the kiss she invited him to give her will become the focus of his dream life, the moment he will come back to again and again as the sweetest he had ever known.
The second volume, twice as long as the first, as is the third, picks up the story in 1917, in the following spring, and ends in 1929. Not a great deal happens. In the 1917–1919 section Studs daydreams about being a war hero and is laughed at by a recruiting officer when he tries to enlist, runs away from home after a fight with his father but sheepishly returns the same night, and hangs out some more in the poolroom and the park. Then it is 1922 and "his life was pretty much the same as it had been last week or last year," and "he wanted more and felt that somewhere there was something else for him in life ..." There is a football game in the park and Studs regretting he'd dropped out of high school and hadn't become a football hero, and back to the poolroom and more daydreams as he watches an action movie at the Michigan Theater, and housepainting for his father, and drinking himself blind on Christmas eve and going to mass on Christmas day and stealing glances at the "voluptuous blonde" sitting next to him who would also become an object of his fantasies, and then back to the poolroom where "he didn't think that he had ever felt so low in his whole life," and now Farrell jumps to 1924 and Studs swimming at the Y and picking up a girl at a dance school and getting a dose and finally seeing Lucy Scanlan again after all these years and taking her to a dance but not really getting anyplace with her as she teases him with another kiss. In the meanwhile old friends marry, die, move away, and it is 1926 and then it is 1929 "and the dirty gray dawn of the New Year came slowly ... and a drunken figure huddled by the curb ... It was Studs Lonigan, who had once, as a boy, stood before Charley Bathcellar's poolroom thinking that some day, he would grow up to be strong, and tough, and the real stuff."
Throughout the second volume Farrell continues to write heedlessly, that is heedless of grammar, sense, precision, or nicety of language:
The old man whewed as if expressing the difficulties of thinking down into disconsolate depths.
He backed into a corner, prepared to pay dearly for his life ...
He was lassitudinous in a mood of let-down ...
And yet ...
And yet despite the crudeness of the writing Farrell ultimately achieves a moving portrait of a young Irish roughneck with occasional tender feelings who hasn't a chance in hell of making it in this world. Farrell simply wears you down. After the interminable dialogue that has no purpose other than to demonstrate the aimlessness of life on Indiana Avenue, you begin to accept Farrell on his own terms. You accept his world as a real world because behind it there is a real world, a world that you too have known, so that at a certain point the story of Studs Lonigan takes hold of you and you get a sense of being inside his skin and seeing the world as he sees it and you recognize his dreams and his feelings as perhaps your own.
And now, in the third volume, we are in the Depression and Studs is 30 and there aren't too many painting jobs and Studs' father is going to lose his building and Studs has invested unwisely in the Stock Market and sees his savings of $2000 dissolving day by day, and he has a girl now who is a bit of a chatterbox and nags him about his cigarette smoking and goes on and on about her diet and he can't help comparing her to Lucy and his own sisters and concludes that Catherine lacks their class but she is sweet and plump and pretty so he has mixed feelings but gets up the courage to propose, rigid with embarrassment and unable to speak the loving words she would like to hear though he does in fact feel such love. And now, as this final volume progresses, his dream of himself ceases to be "a romantic projection of things to come" and more and more "a nostalgic image turned toward the past," as Farrell writes in his Introduction. And almost paradoxically, the farther Farrell distances Studs from his youth and the life of the street, the stronger his writing becomes. There are still some long, pointless scenes – Studs being initiated into the "Order of Christopher" (= Knights of Columbus), Studs at his brother-in-law's bookie joint observing the bettors and then picking up a housewife who wants to turn a few tricks to make up her losses – and not a little clumsy writing, but once Farrell moves away from the street talk where everyone sounds the same he reveals a real gift for creating vivid characters by simply letting them talk in their natural way, from the said Catherine with her somewhat bossy tone and ironic little digs to Studs' pretentious youngest sister and his stolid parents. And in the end Farrell achieves a powerful lyricism: "The song filled him with a soft kind of sadness, and he listened, forgetting things, feeling as if the music was a sad thing running through him." And then Catherine pregnant and "here he was ... getting just about nothing but the sour grapes of living." ... "And now all that he wanted was to be home and in bed asleep, so that none of these things would be on his mind, making him feel so tight and feel that any minute something might happen." Studs catches pneumonia looking for work in the rain and dies at the age of 30, leaving Catherine pregnant and unmarried and Studs' mother blaming her for leading her son astray and "the two daughters led the hysterical mother out of the room, and the nurse covered the face of Studs Lonigan with a white sheet."
The tragedy of Studs Lonigan is the tragedy of wanting and not having and it is the tragedy of more Americans than you could ever count. Farrell had set out to write the story of a "normal young American of his time and his class. His values became the values of the world." When I first read the novel I felt that Farrell had somehow taken the easy way out by killing Studs off at such an early age, for the deeper tragedy would have been to live as Studs was destined to live, to have crossed the line into middle age with all his shattered dreams, resigned perhaps, with a dumpy, graying woman on his arm and children as distant from him as he had been from his own parents. And yet if the tragedy isn't deepened by his death it is sharpened and as I read the book today it strikes me as appropriate. It rounds off the novel as a work of art with a beginning and an end and places it among other great tragedies whose end is death.
After the trilogy was published as a single volume in 1936 it began to sell fairly well. In all, Farrell would turn out around fifty books, many quite lame and much of the fiction focusing on the Irish-American lower middle class milieu. He also had his Communist years, writing for the Daily Worker and New Masses. He died in 1979, a writer of the Thirties doggedly writing until the end of his days in a world that had left him behind but whose great masterpiece would never be forgotten.
For me, these three novels stand at the pinnacle of 20th century American literature. Many of course choose The Great Gatsby, a novel very similar to the others in its own way, and certainly incomparably elegant, but I would not settle for it as definitive in getting at the essence of American life in the first decades of the 20th century. It is perhaps Mozartian where one seeks the weight of Beethoven. Such weight is achieved by these three novels. To the extent that books change lives, I can say that they changed mine, for they created in me the will to write. I confess, however, that when I read them today I find myself reading them cerebrally, though I am still moved by Studs Lonigan. Certainly I no longer find myself in them, nor are old dreams reawakened by them. I have moved on. Novels are for the young, when all is said and done. They alone live most fully in hope and respond most deeply to the tragic dimension of life. But such novels as these will not be written again in America. They belong to a lost time. They close a chapter in American history.