Aaron Shaheen on Dos Passos and WWI

Aaron Shaheen from University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. He is co-founder of the JDPS.

Aaron Shaheen, UC Foundation Associate Professor of English at University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, is co-founder of the John Dos Passos Society. His energy and knowledge have been instrument in the success of the Society. We are fortunate that he is currently serving as secretary of the Society.

Below, Shaheen discusses the World War I novels of John Dos Passos, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day:

Apropos of the Great’s War’s Centennial: One Man’s Initiation and Three Soldiers
by Aaron Shaheen, UC Foundation Associate Professor of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War. On June 28, 1914, a Bosnian Serb assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The crisis set the stage for a month-long showdown in which the major European nations tried to match each other with ultimatums and military posturing. By the first day of August, such posturing had given way to full-scale mobilizations and declarations of war. With Great Britain’s entry into the war three days later, the battle lines were set, and from that point forward, the conflict would continue to draw more and more countries into the mechanized bloodbath.

The United States would enter the war nearly three years later. By that point, the casualty count for both sides had already numbered into the millions. But well before1917, Americans were already looking to join the Allied cause in one capacity or another. Among this group emerged some of the country’s most famous authors, including Ernest Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, and John Dos Passos. Dos Passos came to war-torn France in 1916, the year that more than any other embodies the horrors of World War I. In July, the British initiated the disastrous Somme offensive, which on the first day alone cost the British Army around 50,000 men. East of the Somme theater was the Verdun front, where Dos Passos was stationed as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. If the Battle of the Somme was meant to push the Germans back beyond the French border, Verdun was more cynical; the aim there was simply attrition—to kill more of the enemy’s men than it could kill of your own. What Dos Passos saw there was death on an industrial scale.

Drawing from these experiences in and around Verdun, Dos Passos wrote his first two novels, One Man’s Initiation: 1917 and Three Solders, published in 1920 and 1921, respectively. The former, which was printed at the author’s expense and sold rather poorly, is perhaps the more stylistically sophisticated of the two, employing the impressionistic devices made famous by Ford Madox Ford and telling the story of Martin Howe’s experiences driving an ambulance on the Western Front. The latter, which was warmly received and sold well, is more conventionally rendered, charting the fates of three soldiers who come from different parts of the nation and who represent different socio-economic backgrounds.

Dos Passos’ literary career spanned the better part of the twentieth century, and his range of topics was vast and varied. Yet the First World War was never far from his authorial consciousness, and the dilemmas the protagonists from his first two novels face are indeed dilemmas that characters from later novels also face, albeit in different temporal or spatial contexts. It is therefore altogether where can i buy cabergoline timely and appropriate that we revisit these first two novels—both are still in print and frequently taught in American and European classrooms—to glean what Dos Passos was able to tell us almost a hundred years ago about living in an increasingly mechanized society. Both Martin Howe of One Man’s Initiation and John Andrews of Three Soldiers are in many respects representative of the modern human. As members of the middle or upper-middle class, both have benefited from a society that, by the beginning of the twentieth century, had begun educating larger swaths of the American population. And yet their learning has left them somehow hollow. The modern world has offered humans the promise of greater material and intellectual fulfillment, but such indulgence has left Howe and Andrews feeling a bit sickened, just as one might feel after getting the opportunity to eat chocolate cake for every meal for an entire week. Each man enters the military in 1917 not so much out of a love for war, nor because he has fallen for the cheap clichés found in propaganda posters, but rather because he seeks a larger sense of purpose that can be found in an institution, the military, that keeps personal indulgence and capriciousness in check. Yet very shortly into their experiences, each man finds the regimentation of military life to be an escape not into a premodern sense of wholeness and purpose, but instead into homogenizing mechanization. At the start of One Man’s Initiation, Martin sees war-ravaged France as a chance to see history unfold up close. By the end, however, he feels as stuck in emotional and intellectual darkness as the men who cannot escape Plato’s allegorical cave of ignorance. In Three Soldiers, Andrews initially fantasizes about a musical score he would like to write based on St. Anthony’s heroic resistance to the Queen of Sheba’s earthly temptations. But as the self-abnegation of military life begins to resemble little more than Taylorized automation, he dreams instead of composing a work based on the abolitionist John Brown. Yet by the novel’s end, he, like Howe, finds little hope for individuation in the post-war world.

Admittedly, these two novels may not be as famous or widely read as other World War I-related works, such as Cather’s One of Ours (1922), Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), or even Faulkner’s Soldier’s Pay (1926). But I cannot say that these later novels offer anything more prescient or conceptually sophisticated than Dos Passos’s early creations. Claude Wheeler, Jake Barnes, and Fredric Henry are all variations, in one way or another, of Martin Howe and John Andrews. Coming so soon after the disastrous Treaty of Versailles, One Man’s Initiation and Three Soldiers saw with devastating clairvoyance the psychological fragmentation and societal homogenization that awaited humans as later decades of the twentieth century unfolded.

Aaron Shaheen is UC Foundation Associate Professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His first book, Androgynous Democracy: Modern American Literature and the Dual-Sexed Body Politic, was published in 2010, and his current book manuscript explores the presence of prosthesis in American literature and culture of the Great War era. He is the co-founder of the John Dos Passos Society and serves at present as its treasurer.