... [Ross Lockridge, Jr.] encouraged his students at Simmons [1942-3], many with boyfriends and fiancés abroad, to write about the war and reflect on what is noble and mean in American culture.
And he got into trouble over it. When he assigned Dos Passos's U.S.A. to his freshmen, some students and parents objected and the matter went to the dean. "Apparently few of us had ever read anything stronger than Little Women," wrote one undergraduate. He defended his selection in a lengthy letter, as usual covering all bases.
From: Shade of the Raintree, by Larry Lockridge, p 219
~ A STATEMENT
of Some Reasons for Using
U.S.A. by John Dos Passos
As a Representative of the Modern American
(1943) by Ross Lockridge, Jr.
U.S.A. by John Dos Passos is regarded by our most competent reviewers, critics, and scholars of American literature as one of the most significant books to appear in the last decade. Dos Passos is regarded as among the first four or five contemporary writers, and some place him first.
Selections from U.S.A., the author's most famous and important work, appear in almost any recent anthology of American literature, used as a standard college text. The Oxford Anthology of American Literature says in part concerning Dos Passos and his work:
Upon completion of his trilogy...U.S.A., John Dos Passos emerged as a major figure in contemporary American fiction. No less remarkable than his assimilation of the historical events and situations which characterized the years of the World War and the decade immediately following it was his ability to create a new technique in the writing of a social novel....
The inclusion of U.S.A. among the select group of Modern Library books, where it keeps company with works by Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Homer, Plato, and similar revered names, is an indication that it is not only a popular work but a work of serious artistic value.
John Dos Passos and his works are studied, discussed, and evaluated in undergraduate and graduate courses devoted to the study of American literature everywhere throughout the United States. Despite the fact that the author is living and less than fifty, Harvard dissertations have been undertaken in the study and evaluation of his works.
. . .
Objection may be made that U.S.A. contains, as it does, some profane or obscene language, "tough" characters, and actions unbecoming well-bred people. It is true that the Victorian Age would have rejected this book, but this age has rejected the Victorian Age. Right or wrong, modern publishers, modern writers, modern critics overwhelmingly agree that the use of such material is permissible if it serves a legitimate purpose. No serious artist would try to justify obscenity for the sake of obscenity, though some modern fiction is merely nasty for no justifiable reason. No one who has read U.S.A., instead of skipping along to find "hot stuff," could for a moment maintain that it is an "evil" or "immoral" book. A book may contain examples of immorality without being itself immoral. U.S.A. could not possibly debauch anyone. It does not make sin attractive. People looking for pornigraphical reading are not known, I believe, to wade through U.S.A.
In his view of what may or may not be legitimate material for fiction, Dos Passos is in agreement with nine-tenths of our most famous contemporary writers--Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, Farrell, and Steinbeck, to name a few.
. . .
U.S.A. is a sociological novel. Its purpose is to show in the medium of fiction some of the intricate economic, social, and political factors which have made modern civilization what it is. There can be no doubt that the author looks almost exclusively at the darker side of the picture. His interest is not to glorify the best aspects of American life. That job has been amply done. With candor and courage, he has tried to seek out in the frustrated, pathetic, broken lives of a great section of the American people the conditions of the economic, moral, and social crises and collapses of the years 1900 to 1942. A world that within the space of a quarter-century has been convulsed by the two most devastating wars in the history of mankind is a world in which imperfection perhaps outweighs perfection. Dos Passos is one of those who believe that part of the trouble lies in the fact that one half of the world--and that the most cultivated, the most intelligent, the most energetic--steadfastly refuses to see how the other half lives.
. . .
With reference to the way in which I use U.S.A. in a college English course, I wish to make a few observations.
U.S.A. is really three novels printed together, and it is too long to be read in its entirety for class work. Because of its plan, it lends itself well to selective treatment. One of its faults--and it is not devoid of faults--is an overabundance of material. An artful selection and assignment of material can minimize this defect of the book and at the same time illustrate the techniques and purposes of the novelist as well as if the whole novel were assigned.
I am not personally interested in the "tough" parts of the book. I do not discuss them in class. As it happens, the assignments I make from the book avoid most of the more violent passages, although such an avoidance is not the basis of selection. I am simply not interested in such passages, and they are of no importance to the purposes for which I teach the book, except in so far--and the point needs no belaboring--they illustrate modern practice in that regard. Certainly, there would never be anything in the class discussion of the book which would offend anyone.
Ordinarily I prefer that fiction assigned be short enough so that it can be handled in its entirety. All other fiction connected with the course has been selected with that in view. But U.S.A. is a special work, and I propose special objectives in its use. Whatever the novel selected, my treatment of it is very different from the usual high school method. In high school, emphasis is placed on the novel as a story. Often other and frequently higher implications of the novel, if any, are left for the student to guess at. The high school teacher is fortunate if his students remember the action of the novel, and high school students are generally tested upon the story alone.
With a novel like U.S.A., the students are not required to memorize details and summarize narrative. Such a procedure would be entirely alien to the purpose and spirit of the work. I like for the novel selected to serve as a point of departure for a discussion of important aspects of modern life and approach to art. The novel chosen is discussed in its relationship to other novels of its class and its time.
The students are free to accept or reject any of the criticism of life or art associated with a novel like U.S.A. I reject some of it myself. I only require of my students that they think as honestly and deeply as possible, write as well as possible, formulate convictions, and maintain them with good arguments.
. . .
The variety and richness of material in U.S.A. make that work a good one for illustrating the techniques and purposes of modern writers. Here are some of the more important objectives which I wish to reach in a class discussion of the novel:
1. I illustrate from the book the preponderant interest which modern writers take in the lives of the disinherited of the earth, the emphasis on the common, the everyday, as subject-matter for writing.
2. I point out the manner in which the book reproduces in a way impossible for the historian and sociologist the living, plastic stream of life in the American past. I point out--although it is unnecessary for the girls whom I teach--that this is not intended to represent the whole of American life.
3. I illustrate the extent to which the modern novel has been attempting, with varying degrees of success, to take over some of the functions of the sociologist, the economic theorist, and the historian.
4. I illustrate how the novel can be used for propaganda purposes.
5. I illustrate how the book contains important reflections, direct and indirect, of such events within the past forty years as World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Stock Market Crash, and the beginning of the Great Depression.
6. I emphasize a device regularly employed throughout the book--namely, the introduction of real personages in sketches which at one time personify a man and a period in American life. Much of the reading assigned is devoted to those justly famed pen-portraits of William Jenning Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, Henry Ford, Rudolph Valentino, and other representative figures.
7. I show how the writer is careful to give us the authentic décor of the period and the milieu portrayed. In this respect, the work is a work of scholarship--really an over-elaborate piece of documentation.
8. I illustrate the variety of new techniques which Dos Passos employs as a writer, how the attempt is made at times to perform in prose the traditional functions of poetry, how much of the novel is experimental in technique, how much of it is at the same time simple, straightforward, unadorned.
9. More specifically, I show how the example of the motion picture has influenced the art of fiction--the visual character of much of the writing, the use of flashbacks, odd camera angles, the effort to perform in writing the office of the News Reel.
10. I show the influence of newspaper writing on fiction and explain the use of selected newspaper headlines, which give the flavor of a bygone day just as it passed before the eyes of the people.
11. I illustrate from the book how modern writers are experimenting with words--compounding words, seeking new words, taking words from technology. I hope thereby to teach the students an important fact about language which few of them understand--namely, that it is changing all the time, that we are continually creating it.
12. I hope incidentally to cultivate in the minds of our students (who are often very uncharitable toward those in harder straits than themselves) an attitude of sympathy toward the underprivileged, an indignation at the evils of society on some levels, a determination someday to do something about it all when they are helping to erect the new world on the ruins of the old.
. . .
I think anyone will agree that the objectives outlined above are valid (setting aside now the question as to the merit of the novel U.S.A.); but it may be argued that there are many other objectives which can be pursued in a course in Freshman English to as good advantage, and without reading U.S.A. I agree that many other objectives should be sought in a course in Freshman English, and I wish to observe that the assigned readings in U.S.A. and class discussions of it, leaving out the interspersion of other work, will occupy about two weeks of the class time--that is to say, about one sixteenth of the total time devoted to Freshman English. In the rest of the course our reading is taken from a standard anthology, our writing consists of the usual practice in composition, and in both the first and second semesters other fiction will be assigned and read, in which, of course, I shall not care to repeat the objectives obtained in a discussion of U.S.A.
I am aware that readers of college age need guidance in the understanding of a work of this kind. I have been so much disturbed by the suggestion that someone may have been offended by the choice of this novel that I have taken the matter up with the class and offered to permit the reading of some other novel for all or any who would prefer to read something else. I have assured my students that this change would be in no way prejudicial to their mark in the course. No one took advantage of this offer in class, and for fear someone might hesitate to volunteer objections before the class, I set a time when I might be seen by individuals or a delegation of the entire class. No one came. Of course, a single individual without support would probably feel a reluctance to come. The offer still stands.
I have a deep conviction that two weeks of a Freshman English class can be profitably spent in a guided introduction to contemporary writing through the medium of the novel U.S.A. If it be objected that this immersion should be delayed until the students are more mature, I wish to observe that for many of the students at Simmons, the last course in college English which they will take (the last course in English which they will ever take) is the Freshman course. We intend at Simmons, among other things, to provide the girls with a practical preparation for life. The future nurses, secretaries, social workers, writers, laboratory workers, and business women now in my classes can, I think, be at least as well served in their preparation for life by a book which permits the objectives stated as by a classic 19th century novel.
If I had been acquainted with a modern novel which would enable me as a teacher to reach the objectives enumerated above and at the same time avoid all the faults and disadvantages rightly or wrongly ascribable to U.S.A., I would have chosen it.
I believe my personal ability as a teacher is not at issue in this matter. I have not wished to imply--and I am far from believing--that I am always "a great big success" in realizing the objective I set for myself as a teacher.
--Ross F. Lockridge, Jr.
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