It’s hard, reading today, to get a grip on the  impact which John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers had on the American reading public when it was published in 1921.  What today seems as pretty thin and naive hyper-individualism in the mouth of John Andrews, the most significant of the three soldiers, was treasonous stuff in 1921. As Donald Pizer reminds us in his “Towards a Modernist Style: John Dos Passos.”

“The war to end all wars and to save the west from the Huns –a Holy War– had ended with a glorious victory only three years before and the United States was still basking in the euphoria generated by its late but decisive role in the conflict. But here was a novel that sought to destroy the principle myths on which support of the war rested. … the Army was a mechanism for turning men into mindless automatons,  and the battle itself unleashed all that was most vicious in man’s nature.

Three SoldiersWithout reminding ourselves of this, Three Soldiers, is a ‘famous’ book which, once started we might continue to read out of obligation rather than enjoyment or literary appreciation.  In my case I pushed forward because I was noting down the vocabulary of WW I American soldiers for possible help in a re-translation of a French novel of the same era.  Wearing much the same clothing, using similar weapons and talking pretty similar man-talk, I thought I might get some help from Dos Passos and be able to improve on a much outdated 1921 rendering of Wooden Crosses by Roland Dorgelès.

I got some help, but as it turns out much of the book is not about the war at all, at least war in the trenches.  The novel is structured around three men representing different types of Americans — the petty clerk, the farm boy and the college educated, none of them very appealing.  Their fight is much less against the Germans than against the stultifying, conformity demanded by the army and by extension, modern life in its entirety.  In fact, despite being three men, their complaints are virtually identical, written straight from the anarchic impulses of the young Dos Passos — which eventually led to the extreme conservatism of late-middle age. 

 He felt full of hopeless anger against this vast treadmill to which he was bound. The endless succession of the days, all alike, all subject to orders, to the interminable monotony of drills and line-ups, passed before his mind.
He was free. The thought came to him gleefully, that as long as he stayed in that cot in the hospital no one would shout orders at him. No one would tell him to clean his rifle. There would be no one to salute. He would not have to worry about making himself pleasant to the sergeant. … Perhaps he was badly enough wounded to be discharged from the army. The thought set his heart beating like mad. That meant that he, who had given himself up for lost, who had let himself be trampled down unresistingly into the mud of slavery, who had looked for no escape from the treadmill but death, would live. He, John Andrews, would live.
 John Andrews, a sensitive, Harvard graduated, composer-hopeful gets the majority of Dos Passos’ attention,  first as he discovers and chafes against the strictures and bureaucracies of modern life, above all in the army, and secondly as he discovers Paris after the armistice.

Even as he wins an army scholarship assignment to the Sorbonne after the Armistice, he cannot revel in his good fortune or celebrate what most would call a marvelous degree of freedom.  He is obsessed with what he does not yet have. Impaled on his own idealism he cannot adjust to life as he lives it.  He is picked up for being out of uniform and not carrying his papers and held in an army work battalion; he deserts and makes the acquaintance of various French country folk, including an anarchist bargeman and his family.  Eventually, like a moth to a flame, he seeks out other American deserters in the poor parts of Paris, tries to hide in plain sight as a French-dressed young man, hopes vaguely for the May Day demonstrations to turn into a real revolution and at the end, is hauled off by the Military Police, likely to face decades of prison time for desertion.

As with many early novels, Three Soldiers follows Dos Passos’ own trajectory pretty closely.  Though not a deserter, he did serve in the ambulance corps during severe fighting at Verdun and he did study at the Sorbonne.  Like e.e. cummings, who was also in a French-American ambulance service with Dos Passos,  he was tossed out for expressing ‘disloyalty’ in a letter which the censors caught.  [Cummings did time in a prison camp; Dos Passos was allowed to return to the US where he enlisted in the Army Medical Corps] He returned to France as a medic but before seeing any fighting the war was over.  He  stayed in Paris to study anthropology at the Sorbonne.  There he began Three Soldiers, to be his second novel after One Man’s Initiation, 1917, and finished it in Spain, returning to the US in 1921.

The problem for a modern reader is several fold.  Since we are likely to enter into it expecting a war novel, and since such novels have changed so entirely since at least Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and especially following the war in Vietnam, with very tough realism, decreasing censorship of language and profoundly rich in technical and psychological details, the matters dealt with in Three Soldiers seem very slight indeed, the descriptions not particularly convincing:

As they started down the slope, the trees suddenly broke away and they saw the valley between them full of the glare of guns and the white light of star shells. It was like looking into a stove full of glowing embers. The hillside that sloped away from them was full of crashing detonations and yellow tongues of flame. In a battery near the road, that seemed to crush their skulls each time a gun fired, they could see the dark forms of the artillerymen silhouetted in fantastic attitudes against the intermittent red glare.

What is the central theme of the novel — the soullessness of modern life– similarly seems trifling next to the deeper despairs voiced by the inter-war existentialists, post WW II writers, or indeed the cries in college campuses in the early 60s that  ‘you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!” At least these had the virtue of being a call to action, not a prolonged, and repetitive whine.

Finally, what are in some ways the most enjoyable passages of the book,  his descriptions of nature, trees, grasses, skies, are mitigated by the over wrought and not very well integrated nature of the prose.  His master work, U.S.A. is still ten years away and it seems here he is still learning.  As, Stanley Cooperman points out in his interesting essay on Dos Passos in  The First World War in Fiction. (Holger Klein, ed, Harper and Row, 1977)

…a serious problem… is the ubiquitous intrusion of Dos Passos into the mind which ostensibly bears the weight of narrative; the novelist is repeatedly given to pausing, in the very midst of his action, for scenic observations, colour-metaphors, and elaborate, subjective literary allusions which could not possibly relate to the mind experiencing them….

or again, with reference to Andrews, the central character

…the prose surrounding Andrews is so completely over-ripe, so undigested within the narrative itself … [he] all but vanishes beneath the literary and musical allusions, adjectives, color poems, chiaroscuro ‘moment’, and enameled surfaces: Dos Passos the young artist flexes his vocabulary, but the resulting prose too often has little relationship to the experience.” 

A related issue for today’s readers, though a commonplace then, is the use of typographic dialect. We’ve settled on more modest conventions today, showing accents or dialects with very sparing orthographic signs.  A passage such as this is distracting:

“Ah went A.W.O.L. ’cause a sergeant… God damn it; it’s weighin’ on ma mind awful these days…. There’s a sergeant that knows.”


So, no.  Not a great novel, however inviting to those interested in Dos Passos, the “Lost Generation,” WW I, the awakening to the disappearance of individualism in the modern, industrialized world. There are good reasons to read it, but discovering why men go to war, what it’s like when there and how experience changes them is not one of them.

For a short, very interesting review of Three Soldiers see Stanley Cooperman, “John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers: Aesthetics and the Doom of Individualism,” in  The First World War in Fiction, ed Holger Klein Harper and Row, 1977