Taken by Stealth : Everyday Life and Political Change in John Dos Passos's U.S.A. Trilogy

University dissertation from Uppsala : Engelska institutionen

Abstract: John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (1938) tells the story of an erosion of American values and ideals – an ideological shift – during the first three decades of the twentieth century. In this study, I explore how Dos Passos locates the mechanisms of this shift in the seemingly trivial aspects of everyday life. The trilogy, I propose, is characterized by a twofold concern with everyday life, encompassing both aesthetic interest and political anxiety. In chapter one, I present a series of interrelated literary, historical, and intellectual contexts that together reveal the significance and urgency of Dos Passos’s interest in everyday life. The ideas informing Dos Passos’s work, I propose, can be productively understood when placed alongside the theories of certain thinkers who turned their eyes to everyday life in the same period, chief among them Henri Lefebvre, but including also Walter Benjamin and Antonio Gramsci. In chapter two, I emphasize the centrality of everyday life to the historiographic character of the trilogy. Here, I view Dos Passos as a kind of chiffonnier, who finds historical significance in that which others have discarded, and expresses that significance through the techniques of montage. In chapter three, I investigate the central role played by mass culture in Dos Passos’s historical analysis; the trilogy depicts a society that has begun to internalize the properties of the dominant culture to the point where it affects people’s way of seeing the world, producing a form of indifference that impedes critical discrimination. In chapter four, I examine how the lack of discrimination engendered by the state of indifference is what allows the ideological shift to go by unnoticed in the everyday lives of the general public, culminating in what Dos Passos sees as the insufficient reaction to the violation of civil liberties in the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Taken together, the dissertation argues that the preoccupation with everyday life is central to the trilogy’s combined aesthetic, historical, and political project.

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