Text and Context: Rethinking John Dos Passos, Post-Revolutionary Soviet Filmmakers, and the Modern Novel
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Critics have written about American modernist John Dos Passos and the ways he adapted and adopted modernist philosophies and techniques, including those of Soviet filmmakers Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, in fashioning his own narrative methods. In discussing U.S.A., most critics point to the ways in which the documentary elements—the Camera Eyes, Biographies, and Newsreels—form the historical and sociological context for the fictional characters that appear and disappear in the three novels; readers often argue that these elements tend to interrupt and interfere with the narrative flow of the stories. Critics further assert that Dos Passos did nothing new because many of the techniques he uses in the four types of text were first developed by other modernists, and often used by them for greater effect. I suggest, however, that we reverse this line of thought and regard the fictional characters as providing context and texture for the documentary elements. Like Vertov, Dos Passos created documentary montages in which the narrative fragments achieve meaning as cultural artifacts, rather than playing a primary role as stories that develop meaningful character, plot, or setting. Like Eisenstein, Dos Passos devised densely-packed texts that allowed him to cross-cut between the fragments, ultimately creating a comprehensive portrait of an era (the first three decades of the 20th century), which both documents and critiques on several levels. Regarding the trilogy from this perspective foregrounds aspects of the trilogy that anticipated some of the more radical forms of late 20th century writing, including hypertext, and gives a new critical focus to the novels.