John Dos Passos, 1932
This is part two of John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, part one of which I wrote about here. It's more of the same — thick wodges of people aimlessly rambling around North America and Europe, sort of a multi-continental version of On the Road a few decades earlier — except Dos Passos pays much more explicit attention than Kerouac to how that aimless rambling is shaped by the political environment of the time and place in which it happens. 1919 was one of the most chaotic years in U.S. history — Seattle was shut down by a general strike in February, dozens of mail bombs were sent to politicians in April, eight cities were bombed simultaneously by anarchists in June, a huge race riot erupted in Chicago in July, steelworkers went on strike in September, the president was felled by a stroke in October — all of this amid an economic recession, and all of it in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. entry into World War I and the associated suspension of civil liberties. Despite the title, 1919 concerns itself both with 1919 itself and the war years that preceded it, so the "Newsreel" chapters cover everything from "TURKS FLEE BEFORE TOMMIES AT GALLIPOLI" (1915, and in reality a famous Ottoman victory and disaster for Britain) to "President Lowell of Harvard University has urged the students to serve as strikebreakers" (1919, and two hundred answered the call, including most of the football team). But, again, the big takeaway is that history isn't just something you see unfolding on the news. The sailor with the merchant marine couldn't care less about the news — he's more concerned with securing his third mate's license and getting his venereal disease treated — but history is the reason he keeps ending up in the drink after the ships he's on get torpedoed and sunk. The Harvard boy couldn't care less about the news — he's more concerned with writing poetry and fucking his mentor's wife — but history is the reason he lands a series of plum jobs, as he discovers that being the grandson of a long-dead general opens a lot of doors during wartime. The Texas belle couldn't care less about the news — she's more concerned with juggling her suitors and dealing with her unexpected pregnancy — but history is the reason that she finds herself punching a cop in the face during a police riot against a group of strikers. And of course none of the characters would have spent months or years tromping around on the far side of the Atlantic had it not been for Gavrilo Princip and Woodrow Wilson and all those names that now fill the textbooks.
A while back I was walking down Telegraph and decided to stop into the cookie shop. The cashier was chatty. She asked whether I went to Cal; I said that I had graduated but that I'd returned to the Bay Area just because I liked it here. She asked where I was from. I said Orange County. She said, "Oh, that's nice too!" I said that maybe it had changed after I left, but that when I lived there it was California's most notorious Republican stronghold and that meant to run fast and run far. She said, "Oh, I don't know anything about that stuff. Yeah, I'm one of those. I don't care about politics at all." Maybe not — but 1919 illustrates how even if you don't, politics cares about you.