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The New International, February 1947


Avel Victor

Book Reviews ...

First Encounter


From The New International, Vol. 13 No. 2, February 1947, p. 61.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


First Encounter
by John Dos Passos
Philosophical Library. $2.00

John Dos Passos was at his best as a reporter of the First World War. His mediums were a departure from the usual – the Camera Eye, the short biographical sketch; the bit of verse and the middle class characters who experienced a First World War and emerged into the era of the Big Money. His mood was that of the disillusioned intellectual, the participant in a war which was glorified by the patriots and then turned out to be a war for profits. Then followed a post-war era in which the capitalist world was determined to realize its profits. All these things Dos Passos portrayed with a kind of keen journalism which rose above most previous levels for reporting.

This reporting was done with the attitude of the post-war student generation ... it was the disillusionment of a young democrat stuffed with the now outmoded ideals gleaned from the Jeffersonian tradition. And it was expressed best in the trilogy U.S.A.

Philosophical Library has issued a previous and very early bit of Dos Passos reporting entitled First Encounter which presents in all of its stark madness the panorama of the battlefront, death and cynicism, fatigue, and agony and whiskey and sex. These are the first impressions of a sensitive young Harvard student who went to Europe to drive an ambulance and gain an experience.

First Encounter does not have the quality of U.S.A., the sharpness of contrast between patriotic ballyhoo and bitter reality. It does not have the well developed irony, the contrast of character and development of motive which made it possible for U.S.A. to have such an impact upon the pacifist generation in the late thirties. First Encounter does not even possess the refinements of Three Soldiers, such as they were. But First Encounter is nevertheless an honest and graphic account of circumstances which cannot be too carefully recorded for the young people of a world which has been subjected to imperialist wars twice in a quarter of a century. It is a good reaction and no writer should be at all apologetic about having written it. The style may have been devious; but the reaction was direct and straightforward.

It is therefore, with some concern that the reader will detect a strong apology in the preface written by Dos Passos in 1945. This preface was written toward the close of a second imperialist war. Dos Passos’ reporting of the Second World War was neither as direct nor real as it was in U.S.A. He came to the battlefront again, to be sure. This time he came as a reporter for Life and Time. And he saw less that was real and less that was ugly. It was all there for him to see; but he failed to discern it.

But having failed in 1944 and 1945 why should the decrepit Jeffersonian apologize for the freshness of his approach in 1918? Why should he adopt the cliché of all aged ex-radicals that the reactions of youth to the horrors of an imperialist war are part of the illusions of a generation which disappear with maturity?

What Dos Passos calls the “enthusiasms and some of the hopes of young men already marked for slaughter in that year of enthusiasms and hopes beyond other years, the year of the October Revolution” is far better than “the young men out in the Pacific” whom Dos Passos talked to in 1945 and 1946 “just hoped that what they would return to after the war would not be worse that what they had left.” This was not merely an absence of illusion as Dos Passos so naively thinks. This was blank and utter despair.

Dos Passos’ apology notwithstanding, First Encounter is an honest and forthright bit of writing. It suffers from inexperience and looseness of style and composition. But it is good and true. Would that the same could be said of what Dos Passos has written lately.

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