Continuing my impossible dream of reading every piece of fiction the world has ever considered important, I have given up once again on John Dos Passos, this time after about fifty of the fourteen hundred or so pages that make up the U.S.A. trilogy. The tragedy, for me, of Dos Passos is that some of his experiments (in stream-of-consciousness, in using bits that seemed as though taken from newspaper headlines or newsreels) were so interesting but that he used them in the service of writing about ideas instead of people.
His characters are disasters. They are either caricatures, or symbols, or, even worse, mouthpieces for ideas. In my admittedly brief forays into Dos Passos’ world I have yet to meet a single character with a drop of blood in his veins. I suspect this has a great deal to do with Dos Passos’ upbringing and education. Son of a wealthy lawyer, shepherded around Europe with a private tutor, graduated from Harvard, it’s hard to know when he would have gotten to know the Wobblies of whom he was such an ardent supporter. He reminds me a little of a few privileged types I went to college with who used to talk about The Workers with a certain starry look in their eyes.
Steinbeck, on the other hand, knew his people very well. A middle class kid from an agricultural town, he worked on ranches during the summers and, after he dropped out of Stanford, got a real up close and personal look at what poverty, and poor people, were really like. His Grapes of Wrath, though not by any means my favorite novel, is still perfectly readable. Steinbeck’s biggest fault as a writer is his tendency to preach, and there is plenty of preaching in Grapes of Wrath. But it’s worth putting up with (or skimming through) because the rest of the time the writing is definitely about characters with blood in their veins.
Steinbeck at his best builds up a world by showing you the details. This from Of Mice and Men, for example:
There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water. In front of the low horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by many fires; the limb is worn smooth by men who have sat on it.
In the next paragraph, the footsteps of two characters are going to be heard coming down that path. Then we see them, walking, each with his particular walk. By the next paragraph, having emerged into the campsite by the giant sycamore and gotten first impressions of the site, each in his own way, we have begun to see who our characters are, and the really interesting thing is how few words Steinbeck does it with. Compare Dos Passos’:
When the wind set from the silver factories across the river the air of the gray fourfamily house where Fainy was born was choking with the smell of whaleoil soap. Other days it smelt of cabbage and babies and Mrs. McCreay’s washboilers. Fainy could never play at home because Pop, a lame cavechested man with a whispy blondegray mustache, was nightwatchman at the Chadwick Mills and slept all day.
Cabbage and babies? That’s a cliché. And then he starts telling us details about the characters; he’s going to keep doing it, too, but by the time they finally start to talk they sound strangely like hand puppets.