Three Soldiers (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


The shock of the First World War defined the twentieth century for John Dos Passos and many others of his generation. After serving in a French volunteer ambulance service and then with the American Army in France, Dos Passos wrote his novel Three Soldiers (1921). The novel follows the intersecting lives of three Americans as they suffer the war's monotonous and dehumanizing military routine and contemplate escape or revolt against its grinding discipline and extraordinary ...
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Three Soldiers (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


The shock of the First World War defined the twentieth century for John Dos Passos and many others of his generation. After serving in a French volunteer ambulance service and then with the American Army in France, Dos Passos wrote his novel Three Soldiers (1921). The novel follows the intersecting lives of three Americans as they suffer the war's monotonous and dehumanizing military routine and contemplate escape or revolt against its grinding discipline and extraordinary horrors.

Three Soldiers demonstrates the guiding principle shared by Dos Passos and other expatriate American writers that a new age called for a new art, one schooled by new ways of seeing afforded by modern technologies. His recognition of the machine age placed Dos Passos at the center of his century's new artistic developments, and for his literary accomplishments Jean-Paul Sartre hailed him as "the greatest writer of our time."

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Meet the Author

Born in Chicago in 1896, John Dos Passos was raised outside of conventional, respectable nineteenth-century family arrangements as the illegitimate child of the attorney John R. Dos Passos and Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison. He received an excellent education, attending Choate and Harvard. He is best known for his 1937 trilogy of novels, U.S.A., which begins with The 42nd Parallel, follows with 1919, and ends with The Big Money.
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Introduction

The shock of the experience of the First World War defined the twentieth century for John Dos Passos and many others of his generation. After serving in France and Italy in a French volunteer ambulance service in 1917 and then with the American Army in France in 1918, Dos Passos wrote his novel Three Soldiers, which was published in 1921. The novel follows the intersecting lives of three Americans - Andrews, Chrisfield, and Fuselli - as they suffer the war's monotonous and dehumanizing military routine and contemplate escape or revolt against its grinding discipline and extraordinary horrors. Three Soldiers demonstrates the guiding principle shared by Dos Passos and other expatriate American writers like e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein that a new age called for a new art, one schooled by new ways of seeing afforded by modern technologies. The horrific, total war that Dos Passos experienced - a war that was captured by photography, and for which soldiers were prepared by viewing propaganda films - seemed to have radically overthrown past ways of thinking and feeling. His recognition of the machine age placed Dos Passos at the center of his century's new artistic developments, and for his literary accomplishments Jean-Paul Sartre hailed him as "the greatest writer of our time."

Dos Passos is best known for his 1937 trilogy of novels, U.S.A., which begins with The 42nd Parallel, follows with 1919, and ends with The Big Money. The trilogy, which includes spatialized, prose poems called "Newsreels" and "Camera Eyes" (conveying public and personal experience, respectively), constitutes the most mature expressionof his avant-garde aesthetic. Assimilating experimental artistic approaches came naturally, perhaps, as a result of his position as both an elite American insider and outsider at a number of different levels. Born in Chicago in 1896, Dos Passos was raised outside of conventional, respectable nineteenth-century family arrangements as the illegitimate child of the attorney John R. Dos Passos (of Portuguese descent) and Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison. His parents finally married after the death of John R. Dos Passos' first wife, Mary Dyckman Hays Dos Passos. He received an excellent education, attending Choate and Harvard. After his first wife, Katy Smith Dos Passos, died in a terrible car accident in 1947, Dos Passos married Elizabeth Holdridge in 1949, and lived with her at his inherited farm in Virginia until his death in 1970. By the time of his death, Dos Passos' career had come to encapsulate - with its political affiliations first on the left and then on the right - the intellectual history of the century. His revolutionary political views aroused during the First World War significantly changed after the Communists executed his friend the Spanish poet José Robles as a suspected fascist spy during the Spanish Civil War, and word of the Moscow show trials in the Soviet Union reached the world in 1937. Disillusioned after many years of holding leftist views, Dos Passos reacted quite differently than Hemingway, who thrilled to the Spanish cause and replaced Dos Passos for a time as the literary lion of the American left. Whereas Dos Passos had published in the New Masses and criticized capitalism in his earlier years, he wrote for the National Review and criticized the New Left in his later years. Dos Passos began as an expatriate - of a spirit canonized in Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises - and ended as a writer devoted to American history and supportive of U.S. foreign policy. Yet throughout his life Dos Passos always regarded the First World War, which killed and maimed millions of young men, as an immense, unjustifiable human catastrophe.

Dos Passos' artistic sensibility was profoundly shaped in the period during and immediately after World War I, first in Greenwich Village following his graduation from Harvard in 1916 at the age of twenty and then on the battlefields of France and Italy. Within two years of his graduation Dos Passos would face such experiences as evacuating the wounded at the battle of Chateau-Thiery in 1918. This raw episode, a repetition of previous encounters with the fighting at Verdun, followed hard on years of classical education at Harvard and Choate; like other well-educated, genteel volunteer drivers of the war, Dos Passos delivered the previous century's learning to no-man's land, something of a challenge to the belletristic afterglow of the nineteenth century. Sanguine acceptance of official views of the war could not survive the encounter. Two of the short biographical sketches found in 1919, the second, central novel of the U.S.A. trilogy - one of President Woodrow Wilson and another, "The Body of An American," portraying a composite, multi-ethnic soldier buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery - dramatize Dos Passos' passionate rejection of the war as administered by Wilson and other statesmen. While crossing the Atlantic by ship, Dos Passos overheard Theodore Roosevelt's eldest son, Major Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and Archie Roosevelt marveling over how the war would make the United States "one of the greatest military nations of the world," one "ready" for something more that Dos Passos could well imagine. Rather than sharing in the excitement of emerging world power, Dos Passos was sobered by the arrogance of the growing American empire as personified by young Roosevelt. Like other expatriates, Dos Passos came to detest the cultural provincialism that dominated the American scene, to admire the French and Italians, and to respond to the literary and political currents of Europe. When Dos Passos served in the Norton-Harjes volunteer ambulance unit near Verdun in 1917 and in the Red Cross ambulance service in Italy in 1918 he was attentive to the rise of Bolshevism in Russia and its prospects for changing the world. His need to express his admirations and hopes sometimes led Dos Passos into political trouble. For example, a letter he wrote to José Giner Pantoja in Madrid suggesting that military service meant slavery to stupidity and that only revolutionaries protected the good things in life prompted a Red Cross official to recommend that Dos Passos be dishonorably discharged. The threat of serious consequences was a real one: e.e. cummings had been arrested in 1917 as a result of political remarks in the correspondence of his friend Slater Brown. (Cummings depicted his prison experience in his 1922 novel The Enormous Room, which Dos Passos heralded in the literary review The Dial.) Instead of being discharged, Dos Passos was inducted into the American medical corps and fully experienced the American military drill at Camp Crane in Allentown, Pennsylvania, before returning with his unit to Italy.

While focusing on the life of ordinary men of the kind Dos Passos had come to know well, Three Soldiers contends with worldly twentieth-century pressures on artistic representation by appropriating industrial machinery as motifs for different stages of the army's preparation for and engagement in the war. The various parts of the novel, named after a mechanical production process, document the making of soldiers who, like automatons, constitute a military colossus, the American Expeditionary Force, which was hard pressed to distinguish the Argonnes Forest from the Oregon forest. In the writing itself Dos Passos displaces some conventions of verisimilitude with fragmented subjectivities of the war's participants in much the same way that a Cubist or Futurist painting formally disrupts a unitary perspective. Dos Passos was also influenced by the innovative Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein's disruptive montage technique (Dos Passos later met the director in the Soviet Union), and this principle of disruption is found at the level of the characters' actions in Three Soldiers. Although Chrisfield does take action by killing an American officer, the moment of his individual defiance arrives in isolation from others; there is little dramatic build-up to this revolt and there is little suspense, though there is also little surprise. Readers expecting a plot driven by heroic action will be disappointed by this artistic approach.

Dos Passos wished to convey soldiers truthfully - complete with their personal desires for freedom and authority, their expressed prejudices, profanity, and ethnic slurs - as he sweeps them all to their individual fates. Thus the three soldiers - one from San Francisco, one from Indiana, and one from New York City - represent three actual but individually incomplete responses to the military machine: Fuselli seeks self-advancement, Chrisfield kills, and Andrews escapes for a time to the freedom of Paris. Yet, taken together and in context they express a muted popular will. In keeping with his convictions about regular soldiers during the war, Dos Passos later asserted the view in a 1929 review of Hemingway's Farewell to Arms that "[g]reat literature can only be grown out of the loam of a rich and sprouting popular life." For Dos Passos this meant defending profanity and controversial scenes in his fiction (some of which were ultimately expurgated from Three Soldiers) against the constraints of his publisher. Dos Passos' ideas of popular life and culture, like his politics, were at odds with conventional taste, not to mention religious conservatives of his time.

For example, the job of uplifting the popular spirit of patriotism, democracy, and Christian values in what was known, in President Wilson's words, as the war to save democracy, fell largely to the Young Men's Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) and the Salvation Army, who provided song books to soldiers. Their efforts were not universally appreciated by the troops, according to Dos Passos and others. In H.L. Mencken's ironic assessment of the Y.M.C.A.'s "heroes of the war for democracy" published in the New Republic in 1920, Mencken remarks that those from the Y.M.C.A. sent to France were not entirely popular: "The veterans of the line, true enough, dislike them excessively, and have a habit of denouncing them obscenely when the corn juice flows. They charged too much for cigarettes; they tried to discourage the amiability of the ladies of France; they had a habit of being absent when the shells burst in air." In Three Soldiers John Andrews - a somewhat autobiographical figure, despite Dos Passos' protest to the contrary - appears to offer an antidote to the puritanism of the Y.M.C.A. A songwriter who recalls popular Tin Pan Alley tunes, Andrews rejects the worldview of the "Y-man" and plans to compose a song called the Queen of Sheeba based on the seductive temptress of Gustave Flaubert's The Temptations of St. Anthony. Reading Flaubert in the hospital ward after being wounded in the leg by shrapnel, Andrews witnesses how a Y-man urges all of the soldiers in the ward - including the legless ones - to sing the hymn "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus." The novel relates how "[t]he men got to their feet, except for a few who had lost their legs, and sang the first verse of the hymn unsteadily. The second verse petered out all together, leaving only the Y-man and the Reverend Dr. Skinner singing away at the top of their lungs." The Y-man is apparently oblivious to the situational irony in this scene. And it is a legless man in the ward who comments that men like the parson found on both sides of the conflict were as much to blame as anyone for the war.

Clearly, Dos Passos is at pains to show soldiers preferred other songs to hymns, and Three Soldiers could have been aptly called "The Soldiers' Chorus," the name of a song in Charles Gounod's opera to which Dos Passos alludes in his later novel The Streets of Night. Three Soldiers depicts soldiers picking up, for example, "Bon Soir, Mademoiselle" in parody of "Mother, Take in Your Service Flag" and the erotically charged "The Mademoiselle from Armentieres." Other popular songs that appear in the novel, such as "There's A Girl in the Heart of Maryland (With A Heart That Belongs To Me)," "Smiles," and "Home, Boys, It's Home We Want to Be," were the kinds of tunes that appeared in the songbooks issued by the U.S. Army, the Salvation Army, and the Y.M.C.A. While this might not seem surprising today, the popular songs contained in these booklets were not permitted in school curricula until 1940. The U.S. government actually banned the songs "I Don't Want to Get Well (I'm in Love with a Beautiful Nurse)" and "There'll Be a Hot Time for the Old Men When the Young Men Go to War."

Pro- and anti-war sentiments were still fierce when Three Soldiers first appeared in print. One hostile review in the Chicago Tribune written by a war veteran was introduced by the headline, "THREE SOLDIERS BRANDED AS TEXTBOOK AND BIBLE FOR SLACKERS AND COWARDS." The writer, an anonymous member of the First Division, viewed the novel as a "blow at Americanism." In his view, Dos Passos "has become the Knight Errant of all that America does not stand for." Indeed, the characters Andrews and Chrisfield entertain the possibility that protests on May 1, International Workers Day, might truly test the stability of the French government, and the character Eisenstein speaks openly of social revolution in France. Coningsby Dawson's page-one review in the New York Times Book Review chimed in that "[t]he book fails because of its unmanly intemperance both in language and in plot." Three Soldiers also received more mixed reviews. Henry Seidel Canby noted in the Literary Review that the novel was "[b]y no means a perfect book, but it is a very engrossing one, a firsthand study, finely imagined and powerfully created. Its philosophy we may dismiss as incomplete; its conception of the free soul tortured, deadened, diseased by the circumstances of war, we cannot dismiss." Heywood Broun in the Bookman offered praise, and a more guarded review in the Atlantic's Bookshelf called it "aesthetically honest and quite fearless" but criticized its "propaganda." Claude McKay in The Liberator expressed appreciation for the novel and analyzed its social typology. Three Soldiers and Dos Passos' later Manhattan Transfer (1926) influenced McKay's novel Home to Harlem (1928), a story about an African-American soldier's return from serving in the A.E.F. in France that generated controversies among African-American reviewers. Fully engaged in the characterization of Dos Passos' novel, McKay wrote that "[w]hoever has been up against the granite of our industrial life" should recognize Fuselli and Chrisfield. McKay's strong (and negative) reaction to these two particular characters testifies to his understanding that Dos Passos had not written a high modernist aesthetic object at a remove from the hubbub of real life, but rather a novel closely connected with a recognizable social world. While some reviewers have complained that Dos Passos' characters usually find despair and little joy, in Three Soldiers people have a good time - but usually only by breaking the rules in Paris.

Thus Dos Passos, absorbing avant-garde ideas while also recording in his diaries the songs that soldiers sang and the world that they experienced, defies the received wisdom that high Modernism was antithetical to popular culture. To be sure, this position involved some personal contradictions. While undoubtedly an intellectual himself, Dos Passos wrote in a moment of extremity to his friend Rumsey Marvin: "As for an intellectual class it can go f--- itself." Dos Passos found many intellectuals of his time to be less than critical of power. This class, he wrote, is "merely less picturesque and less warmhearted than the hoi polloi and a damnsight eagerer to climb on the band wagon in time of need. The war's the example. Why they had to run special trains to get the intellectuals to Washington they were in such a hurry to run to cover. And those that didn't went into the spy service." Such intellectual complicity was less attractive than the perhaps rougher sentiments that could be gleaned from popular culture. Thus in this period when Dos Passos was viewing the paintings of Pablo Picasso and Fernand Leger, listening to the music of Stravinsky, reading James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and works by Henrik Ibsen and Flaubert, he was also recalling the sound of artillery, airplane bombings, and soldiers' songs. This conjunction in his own experience braced him for combat against what he called in Vanity Fair in 1925 "the idiotic schism between Highbrow and Lowbrow." While the epigraph of the Y.M.C.A. Victory Songs asks, "Give me the man who goes to battle with a song in his heart," Dos Passos sought to discover which song the soldier might be singing and what his heart might reveal. Three Soldiers provides an answer. Indeed, some of the most vibrant currents of this intriguing experimental novel can be found in popular culture as expressed among the soldiers, and their aspirations intermingle and conflict with the powerful forces arrayed against them. Three Soldiers, as Dos Passos wrote in his 1932 introduction to the novel, was merely the first step in a process, continued in later years, that began to "strip the bunting off the great illusions of our time." It is valuable to recall Dos Passos' early perspective on what he then named "imperial America," now that the American bunting has returned to the world stage in our own time.

John Trombold holds a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University. A Dos Passos scholar, he has published in numerous academic journals, and also co-edited a collection of fiction and nonfiction about Seattle.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2014

    An Essential WW 1 Novel

    Read John Dos Passos "Three Soldiers" this weekend.
    Written in 1921, it covers a year of three U.S. soldiers sent to
    France during WW 1.
    Nothing pretty or romantic about it - war is stupid and costly.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2006

    Unusual

    An interesting read about three men in WW I with a very poor ending. Lets all three men in limbo for you to, I guess write your own ending. Lot's of French speaking that leaves on wondering what was said. A pleasant waste of time!

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2003

    World War I Comes Alive

    World War I seems to have fewer books and novels written about it than WWII and other conflicts, perhaps because it happened so long ago. And distant events become distant. But this book brings WWI its culture and its horrors alive. This is a unique story of 3 average american infantry soldiers from different ethinic, economic and educated backgrounds whose perceptions of what warfare will be evaporate into the horrorful reality and how they respond as people. The writing is excellent; these characters with all their faults and individualistics come alive as does the confusion and paradigms of war. This is a book I could not put down. Mesmerizing and a great read, I would recommend it to anyone.

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    Posted March 14, 2011

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    Posted November 18, 2009

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    Posted January 14, 2009

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    Posted December 15, 2011

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