Saturday, October 26, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 186: John Dos Passos, Views of Washington (#140)

John Dos Passos, "Views of Washington" (1934) from John Dos Passos: Travel Books & Other Writings 1916–1941:

John Dos Passos really seems like a forerunner of Hunter S. Thompson and the New Journalism of the 60s and 70s. I say that confidently because I don't actually know all that much about New Journalism. But Dos Passos's reporting on the Bonus Army marching on Washington in 1931 has that literary, semi-impressionistic attitude I associate with Thompson, et al. (Again: from a position of massive ignorance. I'm coming up on the end of this Story of the Week daily read--I think we're close enough for me to admit my ignorance is so vast that it includes several climate regions.)

That said, what I do know a fair bit about is the 1890s march on Washington called, colloquially, Coxey's Army: a bunch of un- and under-employed people demanding that Washington help them through the depression by making work, such as building roads and making other infrastructure improvements. If you see Coxey's platform as a pre-cursor for Roosevelt's New Deal, congratulations--you have eyes.

So all through these reports on the 1931 march, I kept waiting for Dos Passos to make the connection to my special interest. He never does, though he does make a connection between this march and the idea of "direct action" that was pushed by the Wobblies in the Pacific Northwest.

But even without scratching my particular itch, Dos Passos shows off a lyricism and a passionate POV that makes reading about this history interesting. When he notes that "Even the cops are smiling," we get some foretaste of how this is going to go badly for Hoover. (Though, it should be noted, when Hoover called out the army to disperse this march, largely made of up veterans, it first went badly for the marchers.)

Given that this is a vision both of Washington (the city) and Washington (the people), one of Dos Passos favorite techniques is anthropomorphism and comparison: the Capitol is smug, the Washington Monument is a finger, and, in my favorite line,
The gentleman from Texas has a determined, mean mouth, set in a countenance strikingly devoid of warmth, generosity, intelligence, feeling, whatever it is that makes the human features better to look at than a paving stone.
Now, for all that Dos Passos invests in the humanness of the architecture of Washington, I'm a litle disappointed that he swings for the low-hanging fruit of "Real America" vs. Washington, which sounds pretty much like something you'd hear Senator Ted Cruz say (speaking of Texans who have no warmth, generosity, intelligence, or feeling). It's a simple us-vs.-them notion that isn't otherwise upheld by these views of Washington, where even the cops are friendly to the marchers.

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