First Edition: 1939.

We turn from the immediate crisis in Europe in “This Quarter” to the crisis of the First World War, in a story that is a harbinger of  the present just ahead. Dos Passos’s Adventures of a Young Man was first published in 1939, and the Partisan Review publication,”Red, White, and Blue Thanksgiving,” is a story-length section of that novel.

You may remember from 2 years ago, another story by DosPassos, “The Migratory Worker,” in the January, 1938 issue of PR.{Blog post, Dec17, 2016} It is a naturalist portrait of the fall of a man in Depression America, and it reminds the reader that PR isn’t all theory and cosmopolitan high culture.  Set in Arizona, the narrative is of a young man without many skills, but some experience of the clap, freight train riding, and what he thinks of as ‘easy women.’.  He has been doing unskilled ‘pick and shovel’ work, but a second dose of the clap sends him to buy a ticket to Phoenix where a ‘part-Indian’ doctor is rumoured to provide a cure.  Ike Hall is  strong and confident, eager to learn, and he finds a job which can train him in electrics. He is a member of the IWW, founded in 1905 — The International Workers of the World — an American union, “One Big Union”–, known as the”Wobblies,” and he feels the pride and the power of being in employment. The Wobblies were linked to the politics of socialism and anarcho-syndicalism. Committed to an inclusive membership, it welcomed people of all races, both sexes, and promoted the slogan; “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

While learning the electrical trade, Ike meets Jinny Connor, who is young and pretty and ‘thinks the world of him.’ Her family objects to a marriage between them, which forces the young couple to leave Phoenix, and go to Kansas City.  But Ike’s luck turns, and “The electrical workers local wasn’t taking in any new members on account of the slump and before Ike could say Jack Robinson there he was smashing baggage at the Railway Express and Jinny was counter girl in a one-armed lunch”. 

That story and the one at hand here  belongs  to the genre of ‘proletarian literature,’ which sometimes means literature written by the working class, and sometimes means literature about the working class, written with a pro-socialist or communist politics. It was the stuff of socialist and  CPUSA periodicals from the founding of the CPUSA in 1919, and became an official ‘line’ in Third Period Communism, and through the Popular Front.  The New Masses, one of the most popular of the CPUSA-related periodicals, published many ‘proletarian’ stories and poems. The earlier story’s ‘naturalism’ is not unlike the novels of Theodore Dreiser,in his An American Tragedy, and Sister Carrie, where forces that work within society at large press the hero or heroine into ruin.

The shades of the prison house start closing in around the young couple, they sleep in the cold at night, and “There wasn’t a living soul they could call on for help.”    Ike, in despair, has to sign on for a job that will take them to Oklahoma so he can work in the oilfields.  It means that he has to turn in his “red card,”his IWW membership card, and he becomes what they called a ‘scissorbill,’ a union busting scab.

In the novel, Adventures of a Young Man, a disillusioned young American radical, Glenn Spotswood, fights on the side of the  Second Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War and is killed. The novel is contemporary with Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, with its similar theme. Both books are the outcome of the 1937 visit of Dos Passos and Hemingway to Spain during which their friendship broke up in a sharp quarrel on political as well as personal grounds.  In “Red, White, and Blue Thanksgiving,” which comes from an early part of the novel, Dos Passos uses the end of the First World War as a sign of the kinds of conflict and division it delivered to the Americans who fought in it. Thanksgiving, the only holiday in the USA where you don’t give presents, which makes it, if only slightly, a less money/bling/useless gift day, is the setting here. The food looks glorious and various members of the Spotswood family gather for the Thanksgiving feast. The colours of the flag are motifs of the overabundant decorations of the dining room, and there is a thin string of tension in the pace of the opening portrait of the family rushing to get everything ready for the meal.The War has ended, and news has arrived that the older Spotswood son, Tyler, has been promoted and sent into the post-war Army of Occupation. The father Herbert’s voice arises from the din of cooking and setting the table and putting out the candies:

Dad was in his shirtsleeves, mashing the potatoes, and saying ‘ Ada, he couldn’t help feel bad about the thought of our boy in a uniform strutting about lording it over those poor miserable defeated Germans. “I’m afraid he will never be good for anything again.” Mother was whispering that she could only be  thankful that he was safe.

The father’s words cut straight across the triumphal US celebration. He is thinking of the terrible decisions made in the Treaty of Versailles. And his voice is, most importantly, internationalist. From this point on, the story runs on two tracks: the heaps of food being eaten in the middle of this day of Thanksgiving, and the opening rift between Herbert and his brother,Matthew. The women maintain a feminine distance from the political battle that ensues.

 “Well, now the Huns would get what was coming to them,” Uncle Mat said. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Dad was speaking his carefully pronounced words from the end of the table, when Lorna kicked up a fuss,”etc.  The interruptions of the argument are from the children, self-involved and eliciting distracted or fierce replies from the men in the family. Dad got that cornered look on his face. He took off his glasses and rubbed his grey bulging eyes, and leaned forward across his plate before he spoke. He hoped that those really responsible for the war would pay for it, instead of the poor people of Germany, who were their first victims.

And so it goes — Herbert defending jailed pacifists, Mat calling them traitors. We feel the seams opening around them: the young Glenn trying to do everything right so that the party can go on — feeling protective and annoyed with his father — the various minor disturbances at the table scarring the surface of  false bonhomie.    I hope you will read it yourself, and get the sense of immediacy that permeates the story. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles becomes the starting point for the world of 1939…

first go to:  http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/web/guest/collections/partisan-review  next: click on year 1939, and follow from there…