It was a freebee. Audible.com offered it for nothing at all to its customers this summer, and I took it because I knew at least something about "the Lost Generation"--knew Hemingway and e.e.cummings and Fitzgerald and Eliot and Gertrude Stein, the Paris circle of ex-patriots whose psychic and spiritual disillusionment after World War I was profound and legendary. I knew the man's name, "Dos Passos," but little else. Had never read a word.
What I didn't know was that One Man's Initiation, 1917 was John Dos Passos's first novel, that it's highly autobiographical (he volunteered in a medical unit in France during WWI), that he was the illegitimate son of a prominent Chicago lawyer, that he and his mother (in a kind of exile) traveled all over Europe during his boyhood, making him feel something of an outsider for most of his life.
I could have guessed he was a communist during the 30s; many of America's intellectuals were, after all, and the "left bank" wasn't just a Paris tourist stop. What I didn't know was that, by the end of his life, John Dos Passos had wandered all the way over to the other side of the political spectrum, supporting Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. He was a Tea Party stalwart long before anyone boiled water. I don't have any doubt that, were he here (he died in 1970), he'd be urging Rand Paul to raise the libertarian banner his father has left him.
The novel itself is painful. Its descriptions of the war make it seem like a prose version of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Imagine reading a novel, even a novella like One Man's Initiation, 1917, that's little more than 100 pages of this Owen poem:
Anthem for a Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
--Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
The unremitting darkness it lugged into every scene and every conversation made it a very tough read. I couldn't help but think of my great uncle, just another doughboy killed in France at the very end of the war, which was also the beginning of American involvement. He died quickly, probably suffered very little, spent no time whatsoever in the company of those who bled, body and soul, maybe never tasted the darkness Dos Passos so obviously did.
One Man's Initiation, 1917, documents all kinds of wounds. I'm sure my great Uncle would rather have lived than not, but I wonder if he too would have turned in shame and horror from what he saw in that war to end all wars, should he not have been killed. I wonder how he'd have returned from France, whether he would have had the open scars I remember seeing on a man just down the street whose body tremors made it difficult for me, when I was a boy, to even look at him. "Shell shock," my father whispered. That man was a WWI vet.
I'm not surprised, really, that Audible.com gave Dos Passos away. I can't imagine anyone except English majors studying the Lost Generation ever picking up anything so dark, its psychic wounds bleeding faithlessness and horror. I can't imagine anyone reading that novella purely on choice. It is not fit for our age. I can't imagine it being published. And maybe that says something about us.
It was not hard to follow but immensely difficult to get through.
But I'm very glad I did. It wasn't pleasant--not one bit. But I won't forget that taste of disillustionment, ever.
I wonder what my uncle would have thought.