In keeping with my usual method of associational reading, I decided to read this literary World War One novel.
Review: Three Soldiers, John Dos Passos, 1921.
I was rather disappointed with this novel.
I’m an admirer of Dos Passos’ later USA Trilogy, but his modernistic style wasn’t fully developed yet when he wrote this novel though we do get a lot of snatches of music and a story allotted to several viewpoint characters. There’s also little of his experience as an ambulance driver in World War One. Indeed, there’s not that much actual combat in this novel at all.
The novel follows, despite the title, more than three soldiers.
Fuselli is an ambitious man from San Francisco. His desire to be promoted ultimately comes to nothing despite his good behavior. Sex and relationships were a big part of the USA Trilogy, and that’s true in this novel. Fuselli is engaged but a womanizer, and his fiancé ultimately marries someone back home anyway.
There’s the Jewish Eisenstein from New York who is a Marxist agitator, and he’ll get involved with Reds in France. He’s in the garment trade and also older, 30, than most of the other draftees. We’re not exactly sure what happens to him except he gets in trouble for speaking out against the war.
John Andrews, the novel’s main viewpoint character, is a would-be composer from a Virginia family and moved to New York City. We follow him from enlistment screening to the very end of the novel. He joins the Army thinking that it will somehow fix him; he is sick of his individuality. He needs, he thinks, to be scorned.
Bill Grey is a former cowboy. He’ll be the first one to talk about desertion, a major theme of the book.
Some of the soldiers are definitely not in the “making the world safe for democracy” mold. They talk about wanting to rape German women and humiliate German officers before shooting them. I suspect that must have been rather shocking in 1921. Chrisfield, from Indiana, is rather like this.
On the ship over, there is talk of some onboard casualties (falling overboard, spinal meningitis), and Chrisfield will develop a murderous fixation on an officer he will eventually kill later.
There is a brief appearance by a soldier from Minneapolis, a major setting in the USA trilogy. He comments on how he knows a lot less about what is happening in the war when he’s in France than when he was home.
Eisenstein talks about the “system” and how you have to “turn men into beasts before ye can get ‘em to act that way.” It’s a similar metaphor to the machine one used for the titles of the book’s parts except the last two: “Making the Mould”, “The Metal Cools”, “Machines”, “Rust”, “The World Outside”, and “Under the Wheels”.
There is a great deal of interaction with the “Y” men (as in YMCA), sometimes they are helpful, other times they come across unsympathetically as parrots of patriotic clichés who have never seen combat. There is mention of the YMCA distributing a pamphlet on German atrocities with pictures of children with their arms cut off, babies on bayonets, and women strapped to tables and being raped by Germans.
There are a couple of men who have seen combat and disabuse, in a café, the newbie characters about the glory of combat. One of them frequently seems to be facing court martials including one for going AWOL. Another soldier literally can’t take the stress. One day he refuses to get out of bed. An officer places him under arrest, and he just dies.
It isn’t until the third part of the book, “Machines”, (slightly more than a quarter into the book) that we get to combat and then, of course, not for all the characters.
The battle seems to be the Meusse Argonne, and Dos Passos actually captures what little I’ve read about it. Fought in a forested area, American units often lost contact with each other, and, at times left the fight (either because they were lost or temporarily deserted). It is during this battle that Chrisfield gets to kill the object of his fixation, a wounded Sergeant Anderson.
There is a line uttered by Andrews about how maybe the best thing that could happen to them is be killed in battle because they are a “tame generation”. He says this to Chrisfield who is anything but tame.
Another moment that was probably shocking for 1921 readers of this novel was the part when an officer heavily insinuates, due to their shortage of rations, that surrendering Germans should be killed and not taken prisoner. The Y men refuse to believe any American solider would shoot a surrendering German. To them, barbarism is only a German trait.
While hospitalized, several soldiers disparage making the world safe for democracy and how they are all suckers.
Andrews also gets hospitalized and thinks, when discussing the war with another soldi,er that
Men were more humane when they were killing each other than when they were talking about it.
While hospitalized, Andrews learns the war is over, and the book isn’t even half done.
The Army of Occupation in Germany is brought up a fair bit. Andrews even hears officers talking about going AWOL in Paris.
Chrisfield is eventually promoted to a corporal, and Andrews makes the acquaintance of another “college man” who tells him about a program where soldiers can stay in Paris and study.
The last third of the book is mainly following Andrews around Paris and the subculture of the deserters. He also takes a French lover and also falls in with the set of a rich French woman. (Paris of the Peace Conference was also a major part of Dos Passos’ Nineteen-Nineteen.)
Andrews keeps trying to get discharged. Then, one day traveling with that French woman, Genevieve, he is arrested by some MPs for not having a travel pass. It’s implied they’ve been robbing supplies or army payroll.
He is sent to a labor battalion, escapes, and falls in with a family crew on a river barge and then finds his way to Genevieve’s villa. Andrews starts to openly identify with the socialist/communists here, and Dos Passos’ ideological point becomes more blatant.
Genevieve greets Andrews and he takes a room, but he has no money, the landlady turns him in as a deserter, and the novel ends with him jumping out a window to his death, the papers with his composition flying about in the breeze.
The novel is interesting for the little asides that later Great War novels might leave out.
Dos Passos has a lot of dialogue and most of his descriptions are of the landscape, particularly its light. While the cynicism, socialism, and bitterness are interesting, the novel goes on too long in the last part.