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"Fighting lies": the committed essayist and the biographies in Dos Passos' U.S.A

Abstract : John Dos Passos deserves our attention today, not only for his defence of Harlan County’s miners in 1931, of Sacco and Vanzetti four years earlier, or for the texts that he published in New Masses. The biographies included in U.S.A. must also be examined. They have been puzzling critics since the publication of the masterpiece (The 42nd Parallel, 1930 ; 1919, 1932 ; The Big Money, 1936 ; gathered in one volume in 19381), but debates about their nature have overlooked their relation with the tradition of the American essay. I would like to analyze the generic reference to essays in the U.S.A. trilogy which is crucial in Dos Passos’s commitment: his writing aims at inviting the reader to rid himself of cliches, ready-made ideas and preconceptions, and to act. When Sartre asserts in his famous text that Dos Passos’s novels are an incitation to “revolt”2, I should like to argue that this is largely due, to the biographies, rather than to diegetic chapters. Dos Passos uses some essayistic features of the biographies; as a “persuasive discourse” (Angenot), modern essay is characterized by its attention to its reader, so much so that the essayist is viewed as a “committed” writer, a “temptator trying to win others to his cause” (Bense). My hypothesis is that U.S.A. is different from other works by Dos Passos (Manhattan Transfer, for instance), not only on account of its scope, but because in this book, commitment is three-fold. U.S.A. expresses a political and social commitment, which echoed in the writing that is itself committed because it refers to a genre (the essay) which is specifically viewed as capable of committing readers to react. To prove this, I will show that the biographies in U.S.A. are close to contemporary essays. This resemblance sheds a light on the faculty that they possess to establish a relation with the reader – which is precisely an essayistic feature – and to commit him into action: to think, in this case. But where is the dividing-line between inciting to think and influence?
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Vincent Ferré. "Fighting lies": the committed essayist and the biographies in Dos Passos' U.S.A. Frédéric Sylvanise et Anne Ollivier-Mellios. Ecriture et engagement aux Etats-Unis (1918-1939), 2010, 978-2-7080-1252-3. ⟨halshs-03599648⟩

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