Sunday, January 14, 2007

Happy Birthday, John

I learn from Garrison Keillor that today is John Dos Passos’ birthday—he would be 111 (link). I’d been hyping Dos Passos’ USA just yesterday, so I’m in a mood to give him another salute. Okay, maybe it’s not the greatest novel. I suspect Mrs. Buce might vote for Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! My learned literary adviser Taxmom might say Portrait of a Lady. I get the point in each case. I’ve read a lot of Faulkner with great enjoyment, but Absalom always struck me as a bit overwrought (if I had to name one Faulkner piece that comes near perfection, it might be Spotted Horses, surely the funniest piece of fiction in American history, and perhaps undervalued for that very reason--but see infra). With James, I guess I would say I admire Portrait of a Lady (for my money it is, at least, the best James novel, but see infra)—the scene where Isabel recognizes that she has made a bad decision and is stuck with it, is surely one of the great bravura set-pieces—but on the whole, I’ve never quite made up my mind about Henry James: suffice to say, I suspect that he isn’t quite as wonderful as he thinks he is, but that is true of all of us.

[With both James and Faulkner, maybe the problem is packaging: I suspect James’ natural habitat is the novella—I can’t think of anything I like better than The Jolly Corner. With Faulkner, the problem is almost the opposite: he didn’t write “novels,” but rather “one big novel” of which the individual components are just mosaic chips. That would be why the best introduction to Faulkner is still Malcolm Cowley’s Viking Portable Faulkner, which gives you a feel for the whole oeuvre, start to finish.—But I digress.]

What I will say is I can’t think of any American novel that ever delighted me more. I read it at white hot speed and it stayed in my mind for months, perhaps years—in a sense, I suppose, always. I haven’t reread it for a generation now. Partly, I suppose I fear it won’t seem as good. Partly, it is so fixed in my mind that I don’t need to.

Wiki says that USA is "deeply pessimistic." I guess I can see what they're driving at, but I confess, it never occurred to me. This may be in part Walker Percy's "alienated novel" paradox--you can write a novel about alienation, but you can't write a successful "alienated novel," because the very fact of literary connection denies alienation. So also, Dos Passos may have been in some sense "pessimistic," but I took heart from its energy and craft.

Dos Passos veered to the right later in his political life and it is perhaps fashionable to say that he is underrated because the lefties never forgave him. Maybe, but that seems to me an easy out. I read some of the later Dos Passos with enjoyment, but the bald truth is, he really didn’t have it for a second act. No matter: a hundred writers, a thousand, thousands, would be proud to do what he did. I see that the Library of America now has USA in a convenient single volume; maybe it’s time to give it another shot.

Fn.: I learn from Wiki that Sartre was a big Dos Passos fan, which is no surprise. I learn also that USA is an "influence" on Sartre's Age of Reason trilogy. Uh, huh, I guess I see. I read and enjoyed Age of Reason (a few years after I read USA). It never once occurred to me that the former was an influence on the latter. Maybe I was just being slack, but I think the real point is that, however enjoyable Age of Reason is, still USA is just a whole lot better.

1 comment:

Kate said...

I am really fond of James, his Wings of Dove and Portrait of A Lady are just amazing.
Happy Birthday Don Passos.
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