John Dos Passos, 1936
This is part three of John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy; in previous articles I wrote about parts one and two, and this is more of the same. This time around we're in the 1920s, and there are fortunes to be made. If you're pretty, you can go to Hollywood and try to become a movie star, because movie stars are now a thing. If you're mechanically inclined, you can go to Detroit and start up a company building cars or airplanes, because those are now things too. And once you have a small fortune, you can try to make it a big one by going to Wall Street and speculating on stocks, or down to Florida and speculating on land. Or you could just try to work for a living like a regular person and get crushed.
L.P. Hartley famously wrote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there", and while U.S.A. spends a surprising amount of time outside the country from which it takes its title — visiting Canada and Mexico in The 42nd Parallel, spending much of 1919 in Europe, and heading down to Cuba in The Big Money — those locales don't seem that much more foreign than the U.S.A. of a century ago. I want to keep this article reasonably short, so as an illustration, I'll focus on how these books portray the mating game. As a basis for comparison, consider all those 19th-century novels in which two characters meet at a ball or a dinner or something and have a brief conversation, followed a few days later by a marriage proposal. How different are things in Dos Passos's America? Obviously in a series with twelve protagonists — six men and six women — and scores of supporting characters from all walks of life, there's going to be some variation, but the same patterns recur with such regularity that Dos Passos seems to have considered them virtually universal among his generation. For instance, there doesn't seem to be much dating in high school. Why not? Because while marriage proposals are not expected to be forthcoming after a single conversation, they are expected after a few dates. So, dating makes sense at the end of senior year — you just marry your prom date the summer after graduation — but not when you're fifteen and can't marry your sweetheart anytime soon. Consequently, many women, including five of the six female protagonists, make it into their early 20s with no real relationship experience. And in their stories, and those of the men, we see the same routine over and over. A woman in her early 20s meets a man, usually at work — because it's the 20th century now, and women can be cashiers and stenographers and journalists and interior decorators — and they go on a few dates: out to dinner, maybe to the movies. Before long he makes his move, which means forcing himself on her, often while begging ("do let me, you must let me, I can't stand it anymore"), at which point the woman must choose whether to give in or fight back. If she fights back — and she has to be persistent about it, with the punching and kicking and scratching and biting — then the man will eventually give up: the one exception is an unusual case that doesn't involve dating at all, but rather a thirteen-year-old girl getting raped by her stepfather. For everyone else, it actually is a matter of the man finally deciding that, okay, I guess this isn't just resistance for the sake of appearances, at which point he will finally stop. The woman can then either insist that she wants to get married first — and usually the man will reluctantly agree — or say that she simply doesn't want to go that far, in which case the man will angrily take his leave forever. However, there are a number of cases in which the woman decides to yield to the man's advances. Sometimes this is because she thinks it will pave the way to a marriage proposal, and sometimes it's because she's twenty years old and finds that "she wanted terribly to know what making love was like". However, contraception in the early 20th century is not all it could be, and frequently when a woman becomes sexually active she very soon discovers that she's pregnant. If she's not married, this probably means she'll get the pregnancy terminated (which would have surprised me had I not read The Easter Parade and discovered that at least one writer considered it standard procedure for a single woman in the 1950s to rack up abortions; that being the case, then sure, why not the '20s?). This is probably for the best, because obstetrics in the early 20th century isn't all it could be either, and once the women in U.S.A. have had a couple of kids, the complications of childbirth have tended to turn them into invalids (which their husbands take as license to cheat on them). For their part, the men don't escape complications of their own. Foremost among Dos Passos's universals is that men fuck prostitutes. By his account, suggesting that a given man in 1916 might have had sex with a hooker is about as controversial as suggesting that a given man in 2016 might have taken a look at some Internet porn at some point. And so naturally most of them end up picking up a "dose" of something or other. The more conscientious of them seek out treatment. If you've ever seen Boardwalk Empire, you can probably guess that a lot of others don't. Anyway, maybe I'm sheltered and these sorts of things are just as much part and parcel of people's lives nowadays as they were a century ago. But it sure felt foreign to me, and since I'm very interested in quotidian life in unfamiliar places, I'll give U.S.A. a thumbs-up even though I don't feel the need to seek out any more Dos Passos after this.
Which is why I was thrilled to discover just a short while ago that someone else recently completed a project that sounds very similar: a trilogy that starts where U.S.A. leaves off, in the 1920s, and follows a large cast through the subsequent century of American history, right past the present and a few years into the future. Who, you ask? Why, the person at the top of my list of authors I want to read more of: JANE SMILEY! Now the only problem is that I read U.S.A. in tandem with my presidents series, and it'll be a long time until I reach the upcoming administration. Given who's at the head of it, I may not even survive that long.