I am in the first 50 page of Midcentury, a 1961 novel by John Dos Passos. Dos Passos (born 1896, died 1970) is largely forgotten today. He doesn't even appear much on syllabi in undergraduate American literature courses. There are two reasons for that. One is Dos Passos' politics. Like so many others, he started out as a writer on the left, in the 30s flirting with the Communist Party and joining Hemingway in Spain to help in the fight against the Fascists. The murderous conduct of Stalinists in Spain turned him off of communism, and further world events pushed him farther right during and after the war. The more he came to despise collectivism, even to the point of briefly supporting Joe McCarthy, the less the literary world favored him. The other reason Dos Passos has disappeared is literary. (Randy Boyogoda's essay in the current issue of First Things directly relates to this point.) His fiction comes out of an era in which the novel was a great carrier of history and ideas. To midcentury American writers and critics, a novel could be just as intellectually powerful as a work of political philosophy or ethical theory. They examined the modern age just as much through Moby-Dick and Mann's Dr. Faustus Sartre's Nausea as much as they did through The Will to Power and The Road to Serfdom. The greatest writers expected their works to meet that need. Midcentury is one of them. In the beginning, it tracks a soldier just back from Okinawa trying to adjust to civilian life. Vignettes on Douglas MacArthur and other historical figures, along with brief commentaries on psychoanalysis and other contemporary phenomena, are interspersed in the story. The effect is to combine a narrow personal story with sweeping historical realities—which is precisely what the great novel is supposed to do. It's what Hemingway and Bellow and Sinclair Lewis shot for, and we still have a few aged ones in Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe. But it isn't the kind of fiction that comes out of a creative writing workshop or an assistant professor of creative writing hoping for tenure. So far, I find Midcentury a nice antidote to my newspaper which just presented me with a story on Facebook stars.
I've recently read Brighton Rock, a novel its author Graham Greene described as a “discussion, too obvious and open for a novel, of the distinction between good and evil, and right and wrong and the mystery of the ‘appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.'” The novel describes a contest between Ida, a simple-minded crusader on the side of right, and Pinkie and Rose, two terribly confused but deeply religious people who choose wrong. Greene, whose sympathies are very much with the devout, criminal, lower-class duo, wrote the novel to show “the contrast between the ethical mind and the religious” (Americans today might say blue and red, or Belmont and Fishtown). The distinction is real and important, though I wonder how healthy either can be without the other.
Matthew H. Young
I've recently completed Being Nixon, a new biography of former President Richard Nixon, by award-winning journalist Evan Thomas. While I haven't yet formulated my thoughts on the volume as a whole, I was struck by how one-dimensional most portrayals of “Tricky Dick” are. As a political science major, I'd like to imagine that I'm better informed about American political history than your average Joe, yet I've rarely encountered a discussion of Richard Nixon that went far beyond Watergate and his morose, melancholy attitude. Being Nixon does not even address the Watergate scandal until late in the volume, focusing instead on Nixon's early political life, and the various obstacles he overcame on his way to the White House. An interesting read, for sure!