Nineteen Nineteen is the second book of a trilogy, now called the U.S.A. trilogy, by American writer John Dos Passos. The first book of the trilogy (The 42nd Parallel) was published in 1930, followed by Nineteen Nineteen in 1932, and the finale (The Big Money) in 1936. They were all published together in a single volume for the first time in 1938. They are widely considered the peak of Dos Passos’s career, and it was off the back of these books that Jean Paul Sartre said he considered Dos Passos to be “the greatest writer of our time”. I think all of this begs an obvious question…
… why have so few people heard of Nineteen Ninteen, or John Dos Passos?
Well, here we have yet another 20th century writer who lives in the inconceivably-large shadows of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Indeed, they were all good friends, the three of them (at least initially, but more on that in a second). Alas, in the intervening decades, Dos Passos has receded from view while the other two have continued to loom large.
Nineteen Nineteen was Dos Passos’s response to the Great War, in which – like Hemingway – he served as an ambulance driver. He had always had communist leanings, but after the conflict he travelled with Hemingway to Spain, and that’s where things got hairy. Dos Passos found the viciousness of some of the communist revolutionaries confronting (to say the least), and his reaction led to a falling out with Hemingway, who didn’t find their approach as bothersome. Thus began another great literary feud: Dos Passos headed home to write about the everyday lives of characters affected by WWI (with special attention to the social and economic forces that shaped their lives) while Hemingway wrote letters to Fitzgerald, saying that Dos Passos was a “second-rate writer with no ear” and “also a terrible snob”. As best I can tell, they never made up.
Though he found the situation in Spain pretty challenging ethically, Dos Passos never entirely gave up his communist cause. He found new conviction when he saw the widening gulf between the rich and the poor in his home country. By the time he got back, the glittery days of the Jazz Age were long gone, and the combined forces of the crash, the Great Depression, and the rise of fascism were tearing his world apart. Depicting the truth of this state of affairs in literature became Dos Passos’s passion, and you can see that in the way he wrote Nineteen Nineteen.
It’s hardly a straight-foward novel, in that it’s a highly experimental fusion of fiction and journalism. There are four different narrative “modes”. The first is the most recognisable to contemporary readers, narrative fiction that follows the lives of a few key characters (twelve across the trilogy as a whole, but they’re not linked in any significant way). Then, there are the “Newsreel” sections; these contain collages of newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and front-page headlines (drawn almost entirely from the real-life Chicago Tribune). There are also, in the third mode, short biographies of public figures. I only recognised the names of a couple of former Presidents, but there are plenty of others, including “The Body Of An American”, which tells the story of an unknown soldier killed in WWI. And I’ve saved the weirdest mode for last, the “Camera Eye”: autobiographical stream-of-consciousness passages, which seem to be Dos Passos’s way of inserting himself and his own personal perspective into the story.
The alternative and experimental modes can be discombobulating, but at least they’re all really distinct in style. You never wonder what it is exactly you’re reading, because Dos Passos has signposted it really clearly for you. I read later that his “Newsreel” and “Camera Eye” sections were inspired by modernist innovation and the emergence of “mass communication” through television and the telegraph. Can you imagine if he’d lived to see Twitter?
Dos Passos was clearly trying to Do Something Different(TM). Nineteen Nineteen, with all these different modes, isn’t cohesive or continuous at all. It’s a series of fragments, more like a creative writing class notebook than a complete novel (and this edition came complete with doodled illustrations, too). At a guess, I’d say I was able to properly comprehend maybe half of it. I struggled to follow what was going on in the narrative sections, because it was broken up by all the other stuff, so I’m not confident in giving you a complete plot summary here.
What I will say, content-wise, is that there’s a lot of sex and violence, and Dos Passos isn’t shy. I don’t mind graphic books, but I figured I’d mention it as a heads up if you do. What did bother me, though, was the recurring motif of men trying to convince their lovers to get abortions, and blaming the women for getting pregnant in the first place. Ugh!
Oh, and a passable knowledge of French would really come in handy reading this one, especially towards the end. Without it, you’re going to end up Google Translating a lot, like me.
Dos Passos does succeed in his primary objective, however, to hammer home his communist message. He has no sympathy at all for his “upwardly mobile” characters, but simultaneously he’s very kind and generous to his down-and-out victims of capitalist society.
In the end, I really felt nothing for this book. I could appreciate that Dos Passos was being really very clever and experimental and all of that, but perhaps just too much so for me to actually enjoy reading. I read later that Nineteen Nineteen has been adapted a number of times for radio and stage – don’t ask me how, holy Oprah, but I won’t be seeking them out. I’m a firm believer, as I’ve said before, that loving a book simply means that you’ve come to it at the right time in your reading life; maybe if I’d come to Nineteen Nineteen at some other time, I’d feel differently about it. As it stands, right now, I’m a bit sick of enduring 500+ pages of old white men telling me that war and capitalism are bad. Sorry, Dos Passos (if it’s any consolation, I wasn’t that big on your frenemies Fitzgerald and Hemingway, either).
My favourite Amazon reviews of Nineteen Nineteen:
- “First book of the Trilogy was very good. This one just drones on and on and on with few interesting characters and interminable descriptions of the labor struggle. Can’t wait to finish because I want to get on to the last installment. I know now why Dos Passos played third fiddle to Hemingway and Fitzgerald.” – JB Haller
- “I am not a fan of the camera eye. In addition, longsentenceswithallwordsattacheddonotworkwellforme. Well written prose and interesting narrative from an historical standpoint. I took a two-book pause between its predecessor 42nd Parallel and 1919. I may take a two-decade pause until I open The Big Money, well well after I’ve read Ragtime, Manhattan Transfer, and Berlin. Alexander Platz.” – Amazon Customer