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Waking Up to History: John Dos Passos, the Cut-up, and World War I

By M.C. Armstrong


When M.C. Armstrong traveled to Iraq as a war reporter, he took with him the work of WWI volunteer ambulance driver and American novelist, John Dos Passos. Like Dos Passos did in 1919, Armstrong came back and began to assert his own theory of war writing based on lessons learned. In this post, Armstrong analyzes language as a weapon in war through the ways Dos Passos criticizes journalism using fiction. Read Waking Up to History: John Dos Passos, the Cut-up, and World War I, which discusses the war propaganda machine and Dos Passos' signature "cut up" technique at WWrite this week!


ArmstrongUSADPDesign for U.S.A. Trilogy cover by David Crunelle. Image source: doedemee.be 

Ten years before traveling to Iraq as a war reporter, I took an undergraduate class on World War I and the Modernists at James Madison University. At the time (1999), I was an acolyte of the Beats, a history major who suddenly believed his time would be better spent as an English major exploring the virtues of spontaneous prose and the open road. But my professor, Mark Facknitz, saved my soul. If I could not see the dialectic between English and history prior to this course, I certainly recognized it afterward. Facknitz wore a suit and tie to class every day. He was famously sadistic in his demands of his students and would sometimes erupt in outrage when you could not keep up with the reading. And no author seemed more worthy of his passionate advocacy than John Dos Passos.

Armstrong1combine imagesArmstrong's photos taken in Iraq. From top left to right: 1. Armstrong with Iraqi child in Haditha, Iraq. 2. Armstrong with Hadithan Sheikh (who lived downstream from KBR burn pit), Iraq. 3. Armstrong atop tank in Al Jazira Desert, Iraq. 4. Armstrong in transit to Haditha, Iraq.

Facknitz structured his course around The Library of America’s edition of Dos Passos’ USA trilogy. At well over 1200 pages, USA is an ambitious undertaking simply by virtue of sheer bulk, to say nothing of the density of its prose and its acrobatic use of narrative device. With seven other texts on the syllabus, several students dropped Facknitz’s course in the first week, but I was mesmerized by both Dos Passos and Facknitz and the way they seemed to speak directly to my confusion as to whether I should study history or English. Facknitz was no neoliberal. He did not believe that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War constituted an end to history. He seemed to teach with a prophet’s conviction that history was merely hibernating, as it always does, between wars.

ArsmstrongDPHEMHemingway and Dos Passos were both ambulance drivers during WWI. Image source: The Economist

When the towers fell on September 11, 2001 and the literary world returned to history with what I saw as a sudden commitment to non-fiction, I felt prepared to read the new rhetoric thanks to Facknitz and Dos Passos. If our current wars bear a “phantasmatic” quality, as Marc Redfield suggests in The Rhetoric of Terror, Dos Passos offers us a decoder ring for the phantoms, a critical lens focused not on bombs, torture, drones, casualty counts, or any particular topic or theme but on language. Language as history. In his introduction to the 1932 edition of Three Soldiers, Dos Passos reflected on the condition of the post-war world in 1919, the year he began to write what was to be his first major novel:

            Lenin was alive, the Seattle general strike had seemed the beginning of

            the flood instead of the beginning of the ebb, Americans in Paris were

            groggy with theatre and painting; Picasso was to rebuild the eye,

            Stravinski was cramming the Russian steppes into our ears, currents of

            energy seemed breaking out everywhere as young guys climbed out of

            their uniforms, imperial America was all shiny with the new idea of Ritz,

            in every direction the countries of the world stretched out starving and

            angry, ready for anything turbulent and new (v).

ArmsDPDos Passos while serving in the Volunteer Ambulance Corps during WWI. Image credit: johndospassos.com

Thirteen years after the completion of Three Soldiers, Dos Passos is hardened, disillusioned, and in the midst of the Great Depression. Although he briefly laments the loss of the world of 1919, the purpose of his new introductory essay is not to express regret so much as to assert a theory of writing based on lessons learned. By 1932 Dos Passos had grown into a passionate and well-informed critic of capitalism who viewed the novelist as the producer of a “commodity that fulfills a certain need” (vi). Thus, his essay is concerned with how a writer can transcend the base function of “the daydream machine” and, thereby, participate in the shaping of human history. By dealing with the speech of his generation and making “aspects of that speech enduring by putting them into print,” the writer’s function expands to that of “the architect of history” (viii). For artists caught up in the relatively new world of mass-produced media, Dos Passos believed that it was imperative to “deal with the raw structure of history now . . . before it stamps us out” (ix). This was in the introduction to Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers that hooked me on the impact of WWI on the Modernists.

When my generation went to war under the banner of a battle against an “axis of evil,” I was not shocked or awed. Dos Passos’ “raw structure of history” is a map of speech in which we can witness the virality of language, phrases like “axis power” mutating into “axis of evil”; “The Cold War” and “the war on drugs” morphing into “the war on terror.” The “raw structure of history,” according to Dos Passos, is made of protean language, an increasingly opaque linguistic collusion between commercial and national forces, a blurring of the line between the private sector and the public sphere slash square. This commerce is what the historian must study.

Armstrong13JSOF Humvee quagmired in Al Jazira Desert, Iraq. Image source: M.C. Armstrong

The onset of World War I, as Raymond Williams describes it in “Advertising:  The Magic System,” forever altered the relationship between language and power. Williams describes the advertising industry prior to 1914 as crude and “quack,” and although occasionally manipulative, insofar as it played on people’s fears of illness, transparent. However, with World War I came the “psychological warfare” from agencies such as George Creel’s Committee on Public Information.  Williams’ primary example is informative:  


Where the badly drawn men with their port and gaspers belong to an

            old world, such a poster as ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’

            belongs to the new.  The drawing is careful and detailed:  the curtains,

            the armchair, the grim numb face of the father, the little girl on his knee

            pointing to her open picture-book, the boy at his feet intent on his

            toy-soldiers.  Alongside the traditional appeals to patriotism lay this kind

            of entry into basic personal relationships and anxieties. (418)

The techniques that public information bureaus developed in World War I were taken into the marketplace when the war ended. World War I, Dos Passos said once in an interview, “was my first experience with the fantastic way people’s minds become imprinted with slogans. Overnight, almost, men I’d known at Harvard who were quite respected—I won’t mention their names—turned from extremely reasonable beings into fanatical Hun haters” (Pizer 277). This moment of crisis in language, although certainly not the first instance of censorship or state-sponsored media, is one of the central events of Modernism. From this moment on language takes on an overt appearance of threat and, thus, requires confrontation.

ArmstrongDP3SOLDIERSCover for Dos Passos' Three Soldiers. Image credit:amazon.com

For Dos Passos, and later for writers such as William S. Burroughs and George Packer, the cut-up is the historian’s way of waking the reader up to history. The cut-up is a central device in the U.S.A. trilogy. The “Newsreel” sections, in which Dos Passos’ splicing and merging of phrases challenges the reader’s reliance on associative blocks of language, is perhaps one of the first places where we see cut-up overtly incorporated in popular American literature. In these sections, the reader sees the artifice, the construction. U.S.A. is full of instances of theory becoming practice, characters engaged in cut-up. Dos Passos lets the reader experience the experiment as both guinea pig and scientist. *

It all begins with an ad. In the first pages of U.S.A. Dos Passos sets up a major theme of the trilogy:  the word for sale. Mac McCreary, the first character, gets his first job working for his uncle Tim’s printing press. “The first print Uncle Tim set up on the new machine was the phrase: Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains” (25). When his uncle’s shop is closed by a bank because of his pro-labor stance, Mac goes to the classified ads to find a new job. The first advertisement that catches his eye reads: “Bright boy wanted with amb. and lit. taste, knowledge of print and pub. business. Conf. sales and distrib. Proposition $15 a week apply by letter P.O. Box 1256b” (27). The advertisement is a con. What the advertiser really wants is an errand boy to help him sell books around the country, but he’s not interested in paying fifteen bucks a week. Mac bites on the bait. He never sees a cent. The novel thus begins with a small-scale con by a corrupt peddler named Doc Bingham that foreshadows the larger cons of J. Ward Moorehouse, the public relations executive whose involvement in the CPI renders him the central figure of the U.S.A. trilogy.

ArmstrongBOURRCuttings. William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique, reminiscent of Dos Passos. Image credit: remix

U.S.A. is a tragic story about the growing disillusionment of characters such as Mac who constantly fall prey to lies, the poetry of the state and the syndicates. Dos Passos’ use of cut-up is often ignored by critics, but it’s fundamental to his critique of capitalism and American democracy. Through cutting up the famous slogans of his time, such as Woodrow Wilson’s promise to “make the world safe for democracy,” Dos Passos threatened to turn the words of politicians against themselves, to revolutionize language. In “Meester Veelson,” Dos Passos sketches a brief biography of Wilson, setting his life in the context of one who grew up “in a universe of words linked into an incontrovertible firmament by two centuries of Calvinist divines” (564). As the son of a Presbyterian minister, “God was the word/and the word was God” for the future president. Years later, during the war, this mentality would influence Wilson’s policies concerning media. Throughout the “Meester Veelson” chapter, Dos Passos quotes the president at length in order to demonstrate Wilson’s belief in rhetoric and its consequences, showing his speeches to be characterized by poetic flourishes and direct commentaries on the importance of harnessing the powers of the press: “We are witnessing a renaissance of public spirit,” Wilson said in his first term, “a reawakening of sober public opinion, a revival of the power of the people, the beginning of an age of thoughtful reconstruction” (567).

Using cut-up, Dos Passos holds Wilson to account on the slogans that he used to get elected, such as “He kept us out of war,” and the slogans he used to promote the war: “If you objected to making the world safe for cost plus democracy you went to jail with Debs,” Dos Passos writes, demonstrating the power of cutting into a slogan and confronting “the raw structure of history,” “the speech of our time.” The effect of blurring the lines of these texts renders them interactive and desanctified, dialogic where once, during the war, the relationship was monologic and, thus, controlled. In this sense, Dos Passos’s novel serves as an eerie precursor for the mashups and contextual violence of the Internet.

ArmstrongcensorshipThe censorship board created by Wilson. George Creel is seated at the far right. Image credit: The Conversation

The controlling force behind the single voice of the Wilsonian slogans, the man behind the curtain, was, arguably, George Creel. The character of J. Ward Moorehouse, Dos Passos said in a 1962 interview, was largely based on one of Creel’s right-hand men, a publicity agent by the name of Ivy Lee.**  Lee, like the character of Moorehouse, joined the CPI in 1917. He met Dos Passos in a hotel in Moscow as the author was beginning his work (Pizer 245). Dos Passos’ interviews with Lee led to the creation of a character who seemed to think and speak in cut-up, what we might now call “talking points.” Moorehouse, like Mac, embodies the theme of “The word for sale,” the individual who has lost his agency and doesn’t even know it.   

As a young boy growing up in Delaware, Moorehouse wanted to be a songwriter. He showed noticeable talent in the area, but upon reaching adolescence he channels his skills toward real estate and advertising with a company in Ocean City, Maryland.  From there, his fortunes lead him into one of the many horrible marriages of U.S.A. and, upon divorce, the city of Pittsburgh, one of the centers of labor controversy in the country at that time. In Pittsburgh, as a journalist, Moorehouse witnesses the relationship between capital and labor and begins to develop ideas for shaping the tarnished public image of both big businesses and the working class.  However, when the opportunity arises, Moorehouse drops his low-paying job as a journalist and begins working again in advertising for a man named McGill. When World War I begins, Moorehouse has his own firm, and like, Ivy Lee, is viewed as one of the top publicity agents in the country. Like so many men with talent in language, J. Ward Moorehouse joined that historical convergence of corporation and state known as the CPI. 

ArmstrongCPI"U.S. Official War Pictures", CPI poster by Louis D. Fancher. Image credit: Wikipedia

Dos Passos is a careful critic and prophet of fascism. He does not characterize J. Ward Moorehouse as an evil man, but as a character who slowly trades his relationship with capital and labor for one exclusively with capital. Moorehouse, quite simply, follows the money and, thus, comes to represent the great Jeffersonian threat to democracy: the faction: the corporation. Moorehouse, like Mac, is often described as thinking in factionalized language, popular phrases, and slogans, dangerous clusters.  Talking points. In The 42nd Parallel, the first installment of the trilogy, we find him on a train to Chicago dictating to one of his many stenographers, Miss Rosenthal:

He forgot everything in his own words . . . American industry like a

steamengine, like a highpower locomotive on a great express train

charging through the night of old individualistic methods . . . What does

a steamengine require?  Cooperation, coordination of the inventor’s brain,

the promoter’s brain that made the development of these highpower

products possible . . . Coordination of capital, the storedup energy of the

race in the form of credit intelligently directed . . . labor, the prosperous

contented American working man to whom the unprecedented possibilities

of capital collected in great corporations had given the full dinnerpail,

cheap motor transport, insurance, short working hours . . . a measure of

comfort and prosperity unequaled before or since in the tragic procession

of recorded history or in the known regions of the habitable globe.

            But he had to stop dictating because he found he’d lost his

voice. (234)

“He’d lost his voice.”  This is the slogan at work, bullet-pointing through the brain on a fast train. “He forgot everything in his own words.” He is in a boxcar attached to other boxcars and he is thinking in groupings for groups, for the industry as a whole, factionalization here embodied as a mode of both economy and consciousness. To J. Ward Moorehouse the working class, described under the title of “the prosperous contented American working man,” is the recipient, not the cause, of wealth in America. Dos Passos’ description and spacing of Moorehouse’s thoughts in this segment suggest that his vision is limited by association blocks, which is to say, blocked. As this hyper-efficient corporatized Twitter-like way of thinking leaks from industry into government, these association blocks, these slogans, are what begin to lead the young American men of Dos Passos’ generation not just towards products and services but “service” itself, straight into the hate and the bigotry, straight into the trenches and the rapid-fire clusters of the machine-gun.

ArmstrongCPI2Publication by the CPI. Image source: Wikipedia

In 1919, the second installment of the trilogy, the Newsreel shouts:  “BONDS BUY BULLETS BUY BONDS” and “AGITATORS CAN’T GET AMERICAN PASSPORTS,” signifying CPI propaganda and hostility to Americans who might just be pacifists, socialists, or laborers (445). As Mock and Larson detail, “scholars will long discuss the precise division of “real opinion” in America when war was declared, but there can be no uncertainty regarding articulate opinion as it was expressed in newspapers, books, pamphlets, cartoons, and public addresses—it was overwhelmingly and wholeheartedly on the side of the Allies and in favor of our belligerence” (8). The wide-scale propaganda of the CPI obscured the opinions of “agitators” during the war, using the classic excuse of a state of emergency, the same excuse Hitler and Goebbels used so many times to suppress dissidents. As the character of Jerry Burnham says, “a newspaperman had been little better than a skunk before the war but now there wasn’t anything low enough you could call him” (544).

The media’s collusion with the CPI and the consequent abnegation of its duties as a free press weakened public faith and incited the paranoia that occasioned the multimedia techniques of U.S.A., the novel as a “counter-narrative” to the nation it critiqued. The cut-up can be seen as a critical response to conventional formats of information that had been suddenly rendered not just inadequate, but lethal. Viral. The challenge for the post-war writer was now quite serious: How to combat a faction of interests who sell death to the poor and uninformed through bigotry and the glorification of war? How to save lives through language? These questions, first introduced to me in 1999 by John Dos Passos and Mark Facknitz, are far from academic. This is the history of how we create and resist viral language. This is the history we all write, right now.

 Armstrong2combinedArmstrong's photos taken in Iraq. From top left to right: 1. Two brothers in the Al Jazira Desert, Iraq. 2. The women of Haditha. 3. Leader of Iraqi SWAT Team in Haditha. 4. Iraqi Pepsi.

Works Cited

Burroughs, William S.  Nova Express.  New York:  Grove, 1964.  Reprinted in

            Burroughs, Three Novels.  New York:  Grove, 1980.

Dos Passos, John.  Facing the Chair.  New York:  Da Capo Press, 1970.

__________.  Three Soldiers.  New York:  The Modern Library, 1932. 

__________.  U.S.A.  New York:  The Library of America, 1996.

Mock, James R. and Cedric Larson.  Words that Won the War.  New York:  Russell

            & Russell, 1968.

Packer, George.  The Unwinding.  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

Pizer, Donald, ed.  John Dos Passos:  The Major Nonfictional Prose:  Detroit:

            Wayne State University Press, 1988.

Redfield, Marc. The Rhetoric of Terror.  New York:  Fordham University Press, 2009.

Williams, Raymond.  “Advertising:  The Magic System.”  The Cultural Studies

            Reader.  Ed.  Simon During.  New York:  Routledge, 1999.



*This is one of the primary structural differences between U.S.A. and its Beat/Postmodern spawn, William S. Burrough’s Nova Trilogy. With the former the cut-up is more often described as an effect of characters’ interaction with media. With the latter it is the form itself, no formal isolation—no hand-holding—allowed. In other words, whereas Burroughs seems to be conducting a continual experiment in altered linguistic consciousness,

**Lee, the uncle of William S. Burroughs, was “the No. 1 public-relations adviser of American businessmen” during the war.


Author's bio

Armstrong1M.C. Armstrong embedded with JSOF in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. He published extensively on the Iraq war through The Winchester Star. He is the winner of a Pushcart Prize and the author of The Mysteries of Haditha (forthcoming from Potomac Books). His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Esquire, The Missouri Review, The Gettysburg Review, Mayday, Monkeybicycle, Epiphany, The Literary Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is the singer/songwriter for the band, Viva la Muerte. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with Yorick, his corgi, whose interruptions to his writing are frequent but welcome. 



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