Keiko Misugi On Dos Passos in Japan

Misugi

I’m delighted to begin the new year with a fascinating perspective by Professor Keiko Misugi on the legacy of John Dos Passos in Japan. Prof. Misugi, like many JDP scholars, discovered him through Manhattan Transfer. One of my primary lessons of 2014, as Communications Director of the John Dos Passos Literary Estate, was realizing how badly I had underestimated the scope of influence of MT. I was probably biased by my own experience of reading and appreciating U.S.A. before all other works. I so vividly remember reading it in high school and my empathy for Mac’s plight. Anyway, enjoy Prof. Misugi’s guest post below. Best wishes for her future work!

-John Dos Passos Coggin

My Dos Passos Connection

Reading Dos Passos is rather solitary work in Japan these days, though there have been a few respectable scholars who discuss his work. There have also been a considerable number of publications devoted to him in the last several decades, including a single full-length book published in 2006, as well as thirty-some chapters and nearly 50 individual articles, mostly published around the mid-20th century. It was therefore a wonderful experience for me to attend the first biennial John Dos Passos Society conference in 2014 and to join a community of scholars focused on his works. In December of the same year, I took part in a panel titled “WWI and American Literature: Dynamics of the War, Works, and Writers” at a local chapter of the American Literary Society of Japan. I discussed 1919 and early war novels with scholars of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. Later, I had conversations with several people who told me how they regretted not reading the U.S.A trilogy—Yeah, I know.

For a time, I only vaguely recognized the name Dos Passos. Having started my undergraduate work in English in a Japanese college in the 1980s, I saw his name in American literature history books repeatedly, but he was never required reading. When I started teaching full time, I joined a group of a dozen scholars whose lofty aim was to read “American Classics.” Our mentor defined the term “classics” in a tongue-in-cheek manner as works whose titles everyone well knew, but hardly read. Along with notable works like Gertrude Stein’s Q.E.D. and Three Lives, as well as Sherwood Anderson’s Poor Whites, our reading list also included Manhattan Transfer. I remember we spent a summer day discussing this experimental, complex work and continued our arguments well into the night. I could barely follow my colleagues’ heated exchanges, half-bewildered and half-overwhelmed by the power of its language. Still, Dos Passos certainly left a deep impression on me.

I used to work on more where can i buy dostinex online contemporary authors over various topics and was more familiar with postmodernist than modernist writings. But at a certain point, I felt I was ready to start a new project, focusing on a more solid body of works. My octogenarian professor from graduate school (now emeritus) suggested that if I was interested in narrative techniques, why not read Dos Passos’s U.S.A.? For his generation, Dos Passos was a more familiar name and could even have been on required reading lists. My initial reaction was hesitation. Instead, I reread Manhattan Transfer. This time, I found myself struck by innovative ways that Dos Passos expressed excitement, turmoil, and disruption of the metropolis, and especially by the freshness of his experimental techniques—his words didn’t feel like they were nearly a century old. The massive body of the U.S.A. can be still baffling to me, but the beauty of its orchestration is fascinating at the same time. I am sure the trilogy will keep me busy with many a “eureka” moment.

It was a nice surprise when a few people told me after the WWI panel that they actually owned a copy of the 1950–1951 complete hardcover set of a Japanese translation of U.S.A.—now out of print and hard to find on the market, though still available in about forty college libraries. One of them eventually sent me the whole set, claiming that they should belong to somebody who could make better use of it.

Inspired by the generous gift, I amused myself checking the history of Japanese translations of Dos Passos’s works. To my surprise, the very first translation of The 42nd Parallel came out in 1931 from a major publisher only a year after the original. However, after that, it was this 1950–1951 3-volume set, and another 6-volume paperback edition that came out in 1977–1978. Without an efficient database or Internet search engines, it must have been a difficult and exhausting task to translate the trilogy. I can’t help marveling at the translators’ passion and devotion. In addition, though sporadically, Tour of Duty in 1951, Adventures of a Young Man in 1958, and Manhattan Transfer and In All Countries in 1960 were translated to Japanese. I have found that I am not so alone after all in reading Dos Passos in Japan. I actually belong to a scholarly lineage, which I hope to pass on to the generation to come and connect to the contemporary worldwide Dos Passos scholarship.

Keiko Misugi is a professor in American Literature in Kobe College, Japan. She is interested in gender issues and narrative techniques in Dos Passos’s works.