Monday, October 1, 2018

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“NUMBER ONE” by John Dos Passos (first published in 1943)

            Twice before on this blog, I have dealt with books related to the life of the contentious and populist 1930s Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long (1893-1935). One was T.Harry Williams’ exhaustive (and very long!) biography Huey Long. The other was Robert Penn Warren’s famous novel All the King’s Men, with its protagonist “Willie Stark” quite clearly modelled on Long, right up to his assassination by a doctor who had a personal grudge. All the King’s Men is still regarded as an American classic.
About the same time I read these two books, I came across a third  book related to Long. It was a novel by a writer who, at the time, was regarded much more highly than Robert Penn Warren, and whose novel was in fact published three years before Penn Warren’s. This is Number One by John Roderigo Dos Passos.
Number One is the story of a political hack and PR man Tyler Spotswood (“Toby”), employee and speechwriter of Senator Homer T. (“Chuck”) Crawford. Homer Crawford is observed fighting his opponent Clyde Gailbraith for his party’s presidential nomination and lining up Governor Steven Baskette to support him. Tyler Spotswood takes a sentimental fancy to Crawford’s wife Sue Ann, but the novel generally shows him sinking into self-pity and booze, his venal political career contrasted implicitly with his little brother Glenn Spotswood, an idealist who died in the Spanish Civil War. This novel does not end with Crawford’s assassination, but with Tyler Spotswood being made the fall-guy in a senatorial investigation into Crawford’s shonky “Every Man a Millionaire” Corporation. The novel ends with  Tyler Spotswood resigning from the Crawford machine, and going to another political hack and speechwriter Ed James, with the implication that they may now work to bring Crawford down.
            Even more than Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, this is clearly a hostile caricature of Huey Long. It may be set in the late 1930s – with its mentions of the Spanish Civil War – whereas Long was assassinated in 1935, before that war began. Even so, the likeness in unmistakable. “Number One” is Crawford’s self-promoted nickname, just as Long liked to be called “Kingfish”. The hack Ed James helps him to write his campaign book Poor Boy to President, just as Long got a hack to ghost-write his campaign book My First Days in the White House. Crawford’s “Every Man a Millionaire” movement echoes Long’s “Every Man a King”. I even wonder if Dos Passos’s choice of the name “Crawford” was meant to echo the Southern “Crawfish” as an allusion to “Kingfish”. Specific events in the novel are taken from the historical record. Within the first few pages, Crawford is offering hillbillies advice on how to eat their greens – just as Long used to win over mountain audiences with folksy advice on cooking. But secretly, of course, Crawford is very cynical about hicks. At one point, Crawford threatens to expose the fact that one of his political enemies has relatives in an insane asylum (Long used the same sort of blackmail). He becomes involved in an unseemly brawl in a nightclub and comes away with a black eye – shouting he wishes he had his “sandwiches”, which was apparently slang for a loaded firearm. He is a thug.
            The portrait is extremely hostile. There is no nuance about it, and no sense that Crawford has (or even originally had) any good intentions. This is very much in contrast with biographies of Long, which show that he began his political career with some honest reformist impulses, and with Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, where Willie Stark begins honestly but is corrupted by power. Dos Passos’s Crawford is no more than the cynical hillbilly bully taking the suckers for a ride. Through the characters of Spotswood and Ed James, Dos Passos even suggests that any eloquence or legal knowledge Crawford has is written for him by others. It is interesting that the perspective is that of a hired intellectual becoming disillusioned with his political boss – as is the case of Penn Warren’s Jack Burden in All the King’s Men – but Spotswood is shallower, boozier and more desperate than Jack Burden.
            In the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, John Dos Passos (1896-1970) was one of America’s best–known novelists, especially with his USA trilogy. Certainly on the Left, he was regarded as a radical and an experimentalist. Politically, and in the eyes of many critics, things began to go wrong for him in the Spanish Civil War. Like Ernest Hemingway, he visited Spain in 1937. Unlike the blowhard Hemingway, he was concerned about the way Communists, in what remained of the Spanish Republic, were waging war on the non-Communist left, and thus weakening the republic’s ability to resist Franco. (See on this blog my review of Nicholas Reynolds’ Writer, Sailor,Soldier, Spy, with its incidental comments on Stephen Koch’s The Breaking Point.) Seeing no real solidarity on the left, Dos Passos began a long political journey to the right. By the 1960s he was writing speeches for Richard Nixon and the very conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Much of this helps to explain why he has been shunned by critics in a way Hemingway, with his cheery, naïve, Hollywood leftism, hasn’t. (Historical note: At first Dos Passos was so much better known than Hemingway that he had the accolade of a Time magazine cover devoted to him years before Hemingway was thus noted.)

To return to Number One, this novel is the middle third of what eventually became Dos Passos’s District of Columbia trilogy. The first novel, Adventures of a Young Man (1939) was about idealistic Glenn Spotswood fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and falling foul of Stalinists who regarded him as a Trotskyite. Though Dos Passos was beginning his journey rightwards, he still had many of the agitprop and newspaper cut-up techniques he had been using since his USA trilogy.
            Each of the five long chapters that make up Number One is preceded with a portrait of an “ordinary” member of the public (a farmer; a mechanic; a miner etc.) so that Dos Passos can affirm who the “real” people are, and how different these sturdy toilers are from the conniving politicians who claim to represent them. This feature reminded me very much of the montages that used to appear in propaganda films of the day – but that may be where Dos Passos got the idea. It is surprising, however, to see the scorn and disdain with which the novelist  treats the hillbilly dialect. [Or maybe not so surprising – see on this blog my review of Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash for ideas on the contempt even America’s left intelligentsia express for poor whites.]
One “experimental” feature Dos Passos displays in this novel is a very irritating one. He has the habit of writing, as one word, two words that would usually be hyphenated or written as two separate words, thus “Spanishstyle” “cocacola” “cigarettecase” “dinnerparty” “expensivelooking” etc. I’m glad this particular affectation did not catch on.
            In my reading diaries, I jotted down just two passages from this novel which clarify where it stands.
In Chapter One, Chuck Crawford says “It’s my profound belief, Senator, that there’s more radical economics in the Holy Bible than those Roosian Reds ever thought of.” This shows that Dos Passos was aware of Huey Long’s Bible-inspired “Jubilee Year” ideas about having a year to cancel debts.
Then in Chapter Five, eventually disillusioned with Crawford, Tyler Spotswood declares to Ed James “We can’t sell out on the people, but the trouble is that me, I’m just as much the people as you are or any other son of a bitch. If we want to straighten the people out we’ve got to start with number one, not that big wind… You know what I mean. I got to straighten myself out first, see…” This gives the novel’s title a double meaning and also shows Dos Passos bidding farewell to collectivism. The individual has to reform before society will improve. This seems to be the moral drawn by somebody who has heard “the people” invoked once too often in left-wing rhetoric – and perhaps is belatedly becoming aware of original sin. The final words of the novel are “the people are the republic – the people are you”.
Regrettably, despite the acuteness of Dos Passos’s idea, this still has the ring of a propaganda slogan.
In the end, Number One is an historical artefact, but not a novel that lives in its own right, as All the King’s Men does.

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