With the exception of a couple of tracts by Upton Sinclair,1 carefully disguised as novels but none the less ignored by the righteous booksellers of America, Three Soldiers by a young Harvard man named John Dos Passos2 is the first war book by an American which is worthy of serious notice. Even The Red Badge of Courage3 is pale beside it. Laying Three Soldiers down I am filled with that nameless emotion that only a piece of work created in supreme detachment can arouse. This book will not be read in the West. Main Street was too much of a strain. I doubt if the “cultured” public of the Middle Border will ever again risk a serious American novel, unless it is heavily baited with romantic love.
No, Three Soldiers will never compete with The Sheik4 or with those salacious sermons whereby Dr. Crafts5 gives biological thrills to the wives of prominent butchers and undertakers, nor will it ever do aught but frighten the caravanserie of one-hundred-and-twenty-proof Americans, dollar-a-year men,6 and slaughter-crazy old maids who waited in line at the book stores to buy and read the war masterpiece of the Spanish Zane Grey, the one that is now being played in the movies by a pretty young man with machine oil on his hair.7
To a dozen or so hereabouts who require more seemly recreation I heartily recommend Three Soldiers. The whole gorgeous farce of 1917-1918 will be laid before him. He will hear the Y.M.C.A. men8 with their high-pitched voices and their set condescending smiles, saying, “That’s great, boys. I would like to be with you only my eyes are weak. * * * Remember that your women folk are praying for you this minute. * * * I’ve heard the great heart of America beat. * * * O boys! Never forget that you are in a great Christian cause.”
He will hear such stuff as that, and he will see these same obnoxious prigs charging twenty cents for a cup of chocolate and making shrill, preposterous speeches full of pompous ministers’ slang. He will see the Military Police (the M.P.’s) ferociously “beating up” privates for failure to salute an officer.
He will see filth and pain, cruelty and hysteria and panic, in one long three-year nightmare, and he will know that the war brought the use of these dungs not to some other man or to some other man’s son, but to himself and to his OWN son, that same healthy young animal who came home two years ago bragging robustly of the things he did in France.
Dan Fuselli, from California, petty, stupid and ambitious, is the first soldier. His miserable disappointments, his intrigues, his amiable and esurient humanities are traced from the camp where he gets his “training” to postwar Paris where, considerably weakened in his original cheap but sufficing fibre, he has become a mess-cook.
The second soldier, Chrisfield, a half-savage, southern-moraled boy from Indiana, murders his fancied oppressor—not because of any considerable wrong, but simply as the reaction of his temperament to military discipline— and is A.W.O.L. in Paris at the end.
These two inarticulate persons are woven in the pattern with a third, a musician, who is in love with the mellifluous rhythms of Flaubert.9
It is with this John Andrews, the principal protagonist of the story, that John Dos Passos allows himself to break his almost Flaubertian detachment and begin to Briding-ize10 the war. This is immediately perceptible in his style, which becomes falsely significant and strewn with tell-tale dots. But the author recovers his balance in a page or two and flies on to the end in full control of the machine.
This is all very careful work. There is none of that uncorrelated detail, that clumsy juggling with huge masses of material which shows in all but one or two pieces of American realism. The author is not oppressed by the panic-stricken necessity of using all his data at once lest some other prophet of the new revelation uses it before him. He is an artist—John Dos Passos. His book could wait five years or ten or twenty. I am inclined to think that he is the best of all the younger men on this side.
The deficiency in his conception of John Andrews is this: John Andrews is a little too much the ultimate ineffectual, the Henry-Adams-in-his-youth11 sort of character. This sort of young man has been previously sketched many times—usually when an author finds need of a mouthpiece and yet does not wish to write about an author.
With almost painstaking precaution the character is inevitably made a painter or a musician, as though intelligence did not exist outside the arts. Not that Andrews’ puppet-ness is frequent. Nor is it ever clothed in aught but sophistication and vitality and grace; nevertheless the gray ghosts of Wells’s heroes and those of Wells’s imitators seem to file by along the margin, reminding one that such a profound and gifted man as John Dos Passos should never enlist in Wells’s faithful but aenemic platoon along with Walpole,12 Floyd Dell and Mencken’s late victim, Ernest Poole.13 The only successful Wellsian is Wells. Let us slay Wells, James Joyce and Anatole France14 that the creation of literature may continue.
In closing I will make an invidious comparison: Several weeks ago a publisher sent me a book by a well-known popular writer, who has evidently decided that there is better pay of late in becoming a deep thinker or, to quote the incomparable Mencken, “a spouter of great causes.” The publishers informed me that the book was to be issued in October, that in their opinion it was the best manuscript novel that had ever come to them, and ended by asking me to let them know what I thought of it. I read it. It was a desperate attempt to do what John Dos Passos has done. It abounded with Fergus Fallsls mysticism and undigested Haeckel,16 and its typical scene was the heroic dying Poilu17 crying “Jesu!” to the self-sacrificing Red Cross worker! It reached some sort of decision—that Life was an Earnest Matter or something! When it was not absurd it was so obvious as to be painful. On every page the sawdust leaked out of the characters. If anyone wishes to cultivate the rudiments of literary taste let him read The Wasted Generation by Owen Johnson and Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos side by side. If he can realize the difference he is among the saved. He will walk with the angels in Paradise.
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD.
1. (1878-1968), prolific author of reform novels.
2. (1896-1970); his Manhattan Transfer appeared in 1925 and his U.S.A. trilogy between 1930 and 1936.
3. 1895 novel by Stephen Crane (1871-1900) about the American Civil War.
4. Edith Maude Hull’s best-selling 1921 novel about desert love. During the year of the novel’s publication, Famous Players produced a silent-film adaptation directed by George Melford (1889-1961) and starring Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926).
5. Wilbur F. Crafts (1850-1922), religious writer and prohibitionist.
6. Businessmen who volunteered their services during World War I.
7. Valentino had the lead role in the movie version of Blasco Ibanez’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Paramount, 1921).
8. The Y.M.C.A. workers were disliked by soldiers in World War I.
9. French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), author of Madame Bovary (1857).
10. Reference to H. G. Wells’s Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916), a stiff-upper-lip novel about England during World War I.
11. Adams (1838-1918) was a historian and novelist whose best-known work was The Education of Henry Adams (1907).
12. Hugh Walpole (1884-1941), popular British novelist whose Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill (1910) treated schoolmasters and whose Jeremy (1919) was an education novel.
13. Novelist (1880-1950) who wrote books expressing his socialist convictions. His Family (1918) won the first Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
14. (1844-1924), French man of letters who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1921.
15. Location of the Minnesota insane asylum.
16. Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), German naturalist and philosopher.
17. French soldier.
Published in St. Paul Daily News newspaper (25 September 1921, Feature Section).