Miguel Oliveira on Dos Passos and WWI

Miguel Oliveira, a writer based in Portugal, is one of the top Dos Passos scholars around the world. The Official John Dos Passos Website is fortunate to host another of his guest entries. Today, he writes on Dos Passos in the context of the centennial remembrance of World War I. See below:

First World War Centenary Commemorations and John Dos Passos

The year 2014 marks one hundred years since the beginning of the First World War.

John Dos Passos fits easily into centennial commemoration discourse because he described and reflected on WWI in several of his works. Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers earned acclaim as the most realistic American anti-war novel.

As Dos Passos admitted, Three Soldiers was inspired by the work of Leo Tolstoy. In Dos Passos’s novel, the character Eisenstein explains to his friend Fuseli that the “system” had to “turn men into beasts” so that they would willingly obey orders and kill. Tolstoy had expressed this idea, too, and so Eisenstein asks Fuseli if he “ever read” War and Peace. Like the Russian pacifist writer, John Dos Passos condemns the meaninglessness of war, and he criticizes that men are trained to become bullies and brutes, alienated to human feelings of compassion, only devoted to hatred and the need of vengeance.

Three Soldiers had a difficult road to publication. In 1918, the Sedition Act forbade Americans from using “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the USA, government, flag, and armed forces.” The Sedition Act might have been the reason, too, why Three Soldiers had been rejected several times by numerous editors, who were afraid—despite the undeniable literary quality of the novel—to publish a work in which war was vehemently criticized.

As Dos Passos remarked in his diary entries and letters—posthumously published as The Fourteenth Chronicle—propaganda movies showed Belgian women being raped by the “Huns.” The movies served as fuel to inflame more hate and to inculcate in the ordinary American soldier the feeling of righteousness in shooting German soldiers in defense of all those innocent Belgian girls who in the movies were dressed in “peasant costumes.”

Yet, Dos Passos’s reflections on WWI are not restricted to Three Soldiers and The Fourteenth Chronicle. In 1920, a year before Three Soldiers was actually published, John Dos Passos had launched One Man’s Initiation, another authentic anti-war novel, in which the writer describes his own ambulance service at the French front, like the carrying of buckets filled with body limbs of soldiers that were torn apart by the explosion of a shell.

Lastly, in Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A., the author explores discrimination against German immigrants living in the U.S. during wartime. Janey Williams stops working for her German boss because she is suspicious that Mr. Dreyfus might be for the Kaiser. John Dos Passos was very well aware of the discrimination against the German minority (enemy aliens) living in the United States. He was opposed to any bigotry and even studied German while Americans were trying to avoid using English words borrowed from German—like “sauerkraut.” Dos Passos Dos Passos read Heinrich Heine’s Die Harzreise whereas the majority of Americans were banning German music and operas from being staged in the United States of America.

In my new book on John Dos Passos, From a Man without a Country to an American by Choice: John Dos Passos and Migration, I dedicated a whole chapter to John Dos Passos’s involvement in the First World War and how the author chose to write on it. The topics Dos Passos explored were manifold: the description of the mustering procedures; the training and the drilling soldiers had to endure in several military camps; their troop shipment; and the actual combat or ambulance service at the front. For more information see: Miguel Oliveira, From a Man without a Country to an American by Choice: John Dos Passos and Migration, Norderstedt: 2013. (Illustrated hardback, 492 pp., ISBN: 978-3-7322-8006-3)