Even the most popular cultural phenomena can fade away. A 1921 New York Times Magazine article begins: “Every one now seems to have taken part in the discussion of John Dos Passos’s brilliantly written novel” Three Soldiers.
Today, the novel’s Wikipedia article barely contains any information, while its Goodreads page has 1,131 user ratings. For comparison, the most famous fellow World War I-set novels include 378,971 user ratings for All Quiet on the Western Front and 281,251 for A Farewell to Arms.
This 1921 analysis by Harold Norman Denny criticized Three Soldiers for an excessive focus on the negative in its tale of combat soldiers, particularly galling when the novel’s author himself did not serve in combat but rather was an ambulance driver.
Mr. Dos Passos has combed the army for every rotten incident that happened, could have happened, or could be imagined as having happened, and welded it into a compelling narrative. He pictures this conglomeration as the army. This was not the army, of course, any more [sic] than a graphic description of Jefferson Market Police Court would do for a picture of New York.
“Three Soldiers” purports to be a description of the actions and reactions of men in the combat forces; even to describe them on the battlefield, and in so doing it makes them out abject or malignant. The offense of the book is that Mr. Dos Passos does not know what he is talking about. He was a non-combatant.
Then again, when Bruce Springsteen began writing his iconic songs about cars and the open road, he didn’t know how to drive.
One Soldier on “Three Soldiers”
Published: Sunday, October 16, 1921