Tuesday, November 2, 2021

What Wred's Reading: Midcentury by John Dos Passos

I reread the U.S.A. trilogy recently by John Dos Passos and enjoyed it as before.  If you've never read it, it's a sprawling and imaginative slice of modernism about the early 20th Century.  Dos Passos uses a number of techniques that are still a bit jarring to a reader, taking snippets from news reports and advertisements and jumbling them together into a theme that reflects on the previous or next scene featuring one of the fictional characters.  Then he throws in sketches of prominent Americans, usually none too flattering to them.  Dos Passos had a sardonic eye so there's quite a bit of sarcasm and humor underneath the outrage.  He was obviously quite sympathetic to radical politics and often focused on the role class played in America and the corruption that allowed such inequity between rich and poor.  In later life, Dos Passos became disillusioned with communism and turned conservative, so it is interesting to read the little-known sequel to U.S.A.  It's called Midcentury, published in 1961, and he continues to use the same novelistic techniques he used in U.S.A. a quarter-century before.  He's also just as sardonic and sarcastic, delighting in ridiculing American boosterism whether of the space age or the magazine ad.  His beloved Wobblies are long-gone, as is their dream of a better world, and this apparently bugs Dos Passos, so he zeroes in on the hypocrisies of the labor movement, particularly the corruption of union officials who enriched themselves at the expense of the regular worker, exploiting their fellow workers about as well as the employers ever did.  In the chapter I read today, Jimmy Hoffa makes an appearance long before he became famous for mysteriously disappearing.  Midcentury is just as engaging a read as U.S.A. is, but, alas, it is out of print (you can likely score a copy at a library or thrift store, though you may have to dig).  I would love to see what fun Dos Passos would have with America in the age of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, but he died in 1970, so the closest we might come to that is his official website, (run by his grandkid it looks like).

After you read some classic 20th Century American lit, read some 21st Century American lit starting with my latest novel, Edna's Employment Agency.

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