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History and utopian disillusion: The dialectical politics of John Dos Passos' novels in the era of high capitalism

Jun Young Lee, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


As modern epics of radical modernism, the major novels of John Dos Passos portray the history of modern American capitalism by means of their narrative politics of dialectical totalization, while giving rise to a utopian impulse. In other words, his novels are designed to present the historical portrayal of American capitalism as a whole by the dialectical totalization of their narrative politics and, at the same time, they articulate dialectically a utopian impulse in their sentiments of despair and disillusion. Thus, the theoretical perspective of my dissertation is based on the dialectical totality of history and its utopian impulse. As a modernist, Dos Passos employs the innovative forms and techniques of modernism for his epic-scale project of fictionalizing American capitalism during the early twentieth century. Moreover, he articulates the spirit of political radicalism with the dialectical form of utopian disillusion in his novels. After all, the dialectic as a philosophical method is an open window through which a glimpse of the utopian future flickers, not a closed, totalitarian conspiracy of which postmodernists unfairly accuse it. Therefore, it is indispensable for my study to discuss the tripartite mediation involving the innovative aesthetic forms and revolutionary spirit of radical modernism, the historical aspects of modern American capitalism, and the perspective of the dialectical totality of history and its immanent impulse toward a utopia. ^ The major novels of Dos Passos attempt to portray the various historical frontiers of American capitalism through their narrative politics of dialectical totality. Three Soldiers represents the panoramic totality of World War I by its narrative style of contrast and juxtaposition, while Manhattan Transfer describes the metropolis, New York, as the physiognomy of high capitalism by its montage-shape narrative structure. However, it is the U.S.A. trilogy that fully realizes the utopian logic of the dialectical totality of history in its narrative politics. Through the dialectical politics of the four modernist narrative modes, the trilogy portrays the history of American capitalism during the first three decades of the twentieth century as dialectical totality. In consequence, U.S.A. is neither an elegy nor an epitaph for the ideals of the American past, but it is a radical hymn of faith that inspires in the reader the utopian resolution of American history by way of presenting entropic despair and disillusion. ^

Subject Area

History, United States|Philosophy|Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Lee, Jun Young, "History and utopian disillusion: The dialectical politics of John Dos Passos' novels in the era of high capitalism" (2004). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3126955.