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The Complicity of Consumption: Hedonism and Politics in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day and John Dos Passos's USA

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 October 2013


This article is a comparative study of two epic works that share a historical setting and a broad political outlook, but diverge significantly in at least one respect. Frequent and heavy alcohol consumption is a feature of both Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day and John Dos Passos's USA trilogy, but the way in which these authors describe heavy drinking – and hedonistic behaviour in general – indicates fundamental differences between the modernism of Dos Passos and Pynchon's postmodernist strategies. The article contends that this aspect of Pynchon's novel represents a critique of attitudes within the twentieth-century American left towards sensuality, patriarchy and the failure of leftist aspiration within a contemporary context that invokes such subjects as the complicity of consumption, terrorism and the ethics of political assassination.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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1 USA was originally published in separate volumes as The 42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen Nineteen (1932) and The Big Money (1936). The trilogy was first published in one volume in 1938.

2 See (for example) Mattesich, Stefan, Lines of Flight: Discursive Time and Countercultural Desire in the Work of Thomas Pynchon (London and Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002)Google Scholar, Robberds, Mark, “The New Historicist Creepers of Vineland,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 36, 4 (1995), 237–48Google Scholar, Chambers, Judith, Thomas Pynchon (New York: Twayne, 1992)Google Scholar.

3 The consumption of alcohol is an especially significant topic given the growth of the temperance and prohibition movements that culminated in the ratification of the Volstead Act of 1919. This event is acknowledged in USA by occasional references to hip flasks, blindtigers and speakeasies, but goes curiously unmentioned throughout Against the Day.

4 In Nineteen Nineteen, a character named Robbins comments that “John Bull's putting his hands on all the world's future supplies of oil … They've got Persia and the Messpot and now I'll be damned if they don't want Baku.” Passos, John Dos, USA (1938; reprint, London: Penguin, 1978), 585–6Google Scholar. Further references to USA are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text as USA. In Against the Day, intrigues over oil supplies in the Middle East form the basis of the voyage of the “subdesertine frigate Saksaul.” Pynchon, Thomas, Against the Day (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), 434Google Scholar. Further references to the novel are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically as ATD.

5 For a speculative description of the relationship between Pynchon's ancestors and banking plutocrats such as Morgan see Hollander, Charles, “Pynchon's Politics: The Presence of an Absence,” Pynchon Notes, 26–27 (spring–fall 1990), 559Google Scholar.

6 Barbara Foley argues that USA was employed as a template for another postmodernist novel: E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime (1975). See Foley, , “From USA to Ragtime: Notes on the Forms of Historical Consciousness in Modern Fiction,” American Literature, 50 (March 1978), 1, 85105CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Dickson, David, The Utterance of America: Emersonian Newness in Dos Passos’ USA and Pynchon's Vineland (Gothenburg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1998), 140–41Google Scholar.

8 See Green, Jeremy, Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 1112CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 119.

9 See Rayback, Joseph G., A History of American Labor (New York: Free Press/Macmillan, 1966), 160–68Google Scholar, 195–96, 232–34; and Wiebe, Robert H., The Search for Order 1877–1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992), 78, 91Google Scholar.

10 See Goldberg, David J., Discontented America: The United States in the 1920s (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999), 112Google Scholar; and McCartin, Joseph A., Labor's Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912–1921 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 104–5Google Scholar.

11 See also McCartin, Labour's Great War, 28; and Rayback, 258.

12 McCartin, 108, also 210; and Goldberg, 71.

13 Wiebe, 156.

14 See ibid., 289; Goldberg, 11–12, 42–44, 66–67; McCartin, 172; and Rayback, 282–90.

15 See Blake, Casey Nelson, Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 78Google Scholar; and Bourne's, Randolph S. essay “War and the Intellectuals,” in Bourne, , War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays 1915–1919, ed. Resek, Carl (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), 314Google Scholar.

16 Blake, 206.

17 See Rose, Kenneth D., American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 1218Google Scholar; Behr, Edward, Prohibition: The 13 Years That Changed America (London: BBC Books, 1997), 1522Google Scholar; and Sinclair, Andrew, Prohibition: The Era of Excess (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), 5657Google Scholar.

18 Sinclair, 350.

19 Dos Passos's suspicious treatment of alcohol recalls Lutz Koepnick's discussion of the significance of whiskey and coffee within the western movie. According to Koepnick, the stimulating effect of drinking coffee supports the American work ethic and acts as an agent of social bonding. By contrast, whiskey is an unstable (and exclusively male) bonding agent that frequently results in masculine isolation and destruction. See Koepnick, Lutz, “Siegfried Rides Again: Westerns, Technology and the Third Reich,” Cultural Studies, 11, 3 (1997), 418–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Similarly, Blake, 233, reports that Van Wyck Brooks advocated the emergence of a body of “great men” who would become “exemplars of cultural heroism.”

21 See Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Postmodern Condition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984)Google Scholar.

22 A viewpoint echoed by Andrew Sinclair's description of the pre-Prohibition saloon as “the church of the poor” that acted as a labor exchange, site of political organization and source of community and consolation. Sinclair, 91–93.

23 Examples of alcoholic excess in the novel are legion: witness the experiments of Neville and Nigel with “opium beer” (ATD 490), the obsession of the Chums of Chance with champagne, the creation of the anarchist Crocodile cocktail (ATD 941), the persistence of incidents in which “the brown jug came out” (ATD 174), and the repast on board the Russian airship Bolshai'a Igra that is accompanied by “an enormous jug full of vodka” (ATD 1024), amongst many others.

24 Blake, 132, 215, 237.

25 Colley, Ian, Dos Passos and the Fiction of Despair (London: Macmillan, 1978), 40CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 149.

26 Pynchon, Thomas, Gravity's Rainbow (London: Picador, 1978; first published 1973), 742Google Scholar.

27 For an investigation of the significance of 1919 in Pynchon's early fiction see Dugdale, John, Thomas Pynchon: Allusive Parables of Power (London: Macmillan, 1990), 3134CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Marcuse contends that any radical critique of contemporary society will appear utopian, given the extent of reification within that society, adding that, because of that reification, “the established reality rather than its opposite is utopian.” See Marcuse, Herbert, One Dimensional Man (London: Sphere, 1970, 198–99; first published 1964)Google Scholar.

29 Ibid., 198.

30 See Diggins, John Patrick, The Rise and Fall of the American Left (New York: Norton, 1992), 2342Google Scholar. See also Marcuse, 61–65.

31 Dickson, The Utterance of America, 56, 149–83.

32 Adorno, Theodore, “Commitment” (1962), in Bloch, Ernst et al. , Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 1980), 177–95, 194Google Scholar.

33 Therborn, Göran, From Marxism to Post-Marxism? (London and New York: Verso, 2008), 23Google Scholar. For an extended reading of countercultural complicity see Hutchinson, Colin, Reaganism, Thatcherism and the Social Novel (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 7680CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 156–59.

34 Green, Late Postmodernism, 119.

35 Fitzpatrick, Kathleen, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television (Nashville, TE: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006), 187CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Subsequent references to this text in parentheses.

36 See in Adorno, Theodor W. and Horkheimer, Max, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in Adorno, and Horkheimer, , Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Jephcott, Edmund (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 94136Google Scholar.

37 Although Dos Passos is not the subject of Fitzpatrick's accusations, it is certainly arguable that women – and racial minorities especially – remain marginal within USA. Admirable and substantial female characters feature in the trilogy, but it seems that the ability to live a relatively undistinguished life of integrity is of a lower standing than the ability to live up to the heroic ideal of the “great man.”

38 On this latter topic see, for example, Gair, Christopher, The American Counterculture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 9Google Scholar.

39 It is arguable that the literally transcendent Chums of Chance may be a satirical representation of the Young Americans group as described by Blake: predominantly upper middle class, somewhat dandified, compromised by their apparent inability to confront power, but united by a persistent belief in friendship.

40 In Henry James's The Princess Casamassima (1886) – the novel being read in Against the Day by the dog Pugnax – the principal character, Hyacinth Robinson, experiences a similar dilemma that ends in his own self-annihilation. Hyacinth swears allegiance to a revolutionary cadre, but is seduced by the attractions of aristocratic and bourgeois life. Again, attitudes towards alcohol play a significant role, and are couched in gendered terms according to which masculinity is associated with deferment, abstraction and purity, and femininity with pragmatism, sensuality and fulfilment in the present. Robinson's political mentor, Paul Muniment, is an abstemious ideologue who remarks that “the world is full of unclean beasts whom I shall be glad to see shovelled away by the thousand,” whereas Robinson's lifelong friend Millicent Henning indulges “an appetite for beer and buns, for entertainment of any kind. She represented … the eternal feminine.” James, Henry, The Princess Casamassima (London; Penguin, 1987; first published 1886), 289Google Scholar, 159.

41 Therborn, 64–65.

42 Rose, American Women, 2–4.

43 Wagner, Linda, Dos Passos: Artist as American (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979), 93CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 Stefan Mattesich contends that the concept of “preterition” in Pynchon's earlier work – present also in Marcuse's work – represents the failure of the counterculture in that its assumption of marginality necessarily compromises any project of resistance. See Mattesich, Lines of Flight, 14.

45 Blake, Beloved Community, 289–90, 132.

46 Thomas Pynchon, “Nearer My Couch to Thee,” originally in the New York Times Book Review, 6 June 1993, available at, last accessed 7 Feb. 2012.

47 Colley, Dos Passos, 66.

48 Ludington, Townsend, “John Dos Passos 1896–1970: Modernist Reader of the American Scene,” Virginia Quarterly Review, 72, 4 (1996), 565–80Google Scholar, part IV.

49 Wagner, 175.

50 Eagleton, Terry, After Theory (London: Verso, 2004), 5758Google Scholar.

51 Pynchon is foreshadowing the battles of Ypres (1914 and 1915) during World War I, the attacks on the Chechen city of Groznyi by Russian forces in 1994–95, the guerrilla and peasant rebellions in the Mexican region of Chiapas during the 1990s, the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl in 1986, and the siege of Sarajevo by Serbian forces in 1992–96. The passage that features the “Figure” is a surreal amalgam of the story of King Kong, a Christian apocalyptic vision and the 9/11 attacks on New York City.

52 Foley, “From USA to Ragtime,” 92, argues that whereas the fictional creations of Dos Passos are “subdued to the demands of history,” postmodernist authors such as Doctorow and Pynchon seek to undermine confidence in the solidity of history.

53 The twin characters of Renfrew and Werfner recall the claim by Peter Nicholls that the presence of the double is a feature of modernist writing. In this instance, Pynchon represents the double identity of the scientists as indicative of the Enlightenment project in crisis at the beginning of the twentieth century: at once predicated upon the dream of rational progress, but delivering the nightmare of mechanical destruction. See Nicholls, Peter, Modernism: A Literary Guide, 2nd edn (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 1519Google Scholar.

54 See (for example) Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio, Empire (London: Harvard UIniversity Press, 2000), 138–55Google Scholar. Dickson sees in Vineland an attempt to articulate a postmodernism of renewal and recuperation rather than of apocalypse or endless recursiveness. See Dickson, The Utterance of America, 144–55, 153–54, 189.

55 Barth, John, Chimera (London: Random House, 1972), 256Google Scholar.

56 Smith, Allan Lloyd, “Brain Damage: The Word and the World in Postmodernist Writing,” in Bradbury, Malcolm and Ro, Sigmund, eds., Contemporary American Fiction (London: Edward Arnold, 1987), 3950, 41Google Scholar.

57 Green, Late Postmodernism, 13, 216.

58 Diggins, The Rise and Fall of the American Left, 23.

59 Blake, Beloved Community, 206, 296–7.

60 Gair, The American Counterculture, 23,130; Blake, 297.

61 Gair, 144, emphasis in original.

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