Tuesday, 6 June 2000

John dos Passos: Nineteen Nineteen (1932)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 521

The second part of the USA trilogy is about the involvement of that country in the First World War, from the declaration of war with Germany in 1917 to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. It is a continuation of The 42nd Parallel, in the same semi-documentary style with two differences. The characters from whose points of view the fictional sections are told are now, though several are already known to the reader of the earlier book (the brother of one character, the best friend of another); and these sections are far longer in relation to the others.

This second change is the main reason why Nineteen Nineteen is less successful than its predecessor. The longer sections reveal dos Passos' weaknesses as a writer, particularly in the portrayal of character, and the reader loses interest. His concentration on the relationship between labour and capital becomes almost an obsession. (It is an important theme in the period of American history covered by the trilogy, which effectively saw the destruction of the far left as a political force.)

Much of the action takes place in France, and the main idea communicated is something of the effect that being soldiers in Europe - both on the front line itself, though this is skated over, and in the different culture behind it - had on the Americans who returned.

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