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U.S.A. Defended

In response to:

Dos Passos Divided from the November 29, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

Thomas R. Edwards starts off his review (NYR, November 29) with the judgment that he doubts that Dos Passos’s books are much read outside a few classrooms, and that “at best you read U.S.A., as I did in the Fifties, because of its interesting and sometimes moving account of a political history you were born too late to take part in, not as a work of great literary distinction.” This literary-critical judgment serves as a backdrop for his review of the books at hand.

Now I don’t consider Dos Passos’s (or anyone’s) niche in the network of literary prestige among university professors of literary criticism to be a matter of any great importance, but, having read U.S.A. somewhat more recently than the 1950s, I think it would be too bad if Edwards’s opinions were to keep some people who otherwise might have from reading Dos Passos’s moving, absorbing, and carefully-wrought books. Perhaps, to offset Edwards, some passages from Edmund Wilson’s review of The 42nd Parallel, the first novel in U.S.A., should be recalled. Wilson thought Dos Passos to be “…the first of our writers—with the possible exception of Mark Twain—who has successfully used colloquial American for a novel of the highest artistic seriousness.” He goes on to give some other virtues of the novel:

The author introduces separately each one of his five principal characters—we have of each a continuous history from childhood. For this, he has invented a narrative method which enables him to cover a great deal of ground with astonishing rapidity and ease, yet to give us the illusion of finding out all about his people’s lives: their friends and the members of their families, their amusements and their periods of stagnation, the places where they work and how much they get, the meals they eat, the beds they sleep in. And without any explicit commentary, each of these sequences of data and behavior is made to create a character…. And when these commonplace individuals, who have first been presented to the reader independently of one another, are finally brought together, they take on a further significance—we realize that what we have been witnessing is the making of our contemporary society. (The Shores of Light, N.Y., p. 448).

John Stevenson

Lafayette, Indiana

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