John Dos Passos was politicized by his experiences of war. During World War I he served as an ambulance driver in Italy and France and his experiences led him to become a Communist. Later, his experiences during the Spanish Civil War caused him to become disenchanted with the left and his politics became increasingly conservative during the 1950s.
When this novel was published in 1921, it caused a sensation. A direct result of Dos Passos’ World War I experiences, it’s a passionate anti-war polemic, albeit one that deals less with the horror of actual warfare and more with the pettiness, corruption and cruelty of military life. The work relates the experiences of three young American men with different backgrounds and motivations, who embark for Europe to serve their country. Ultimately, the narrative focuses on John Andrews, a sensitive Harvard-educated musician, whose attitudes most closely reflect those of the author.
Had I not listened to the audiobook version of the novel immediately after listening to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun also Rises”, I suspect that I would have liked it more. While the writing is powerful and unsentimental, its verbosity does not compare well with Hemingway’s simpler, less cluttered style. The novel would have been much better, I think, – and probably more widely read today – if the prose wasn’t weighed down by quite so many adverbs, adjectives and similes. Even though I usually love ornate prose, the language in this novel at times made me impatient. Further, I was never in any doubt as to what the author wanted me to think and how he wanted me to feel, when I would have preferred to simply feel and think for myself.
That said, I don’t regret the time I spent listening to the novel, which was beautifully narrated by George Guidall, and I plan to read more of Dos Passos’ work. My interest in his writing has been sparked by my “Lost Generation” reading project. It’s been interesting to discover a writer who was well known and critically well received in his time. It’s a shame that he’s not better known now.