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“San Francisco Looks West” by John Dos Passos, 1944

June 27, 2015


I’m reading Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco. In the chapter on San Francisco’s role in World War II, he quotes from a March, 1944 Harper’s Magazine article by John Dos Passos. I found that article and gave it a read. It’s really pretty amazing.

Dos Passos wrote a series of essays for Harper’s Magazine as he traveled across the United States from Maine to San Francisco during the Second World War. If this essay is like the others, he seems to be searching for the heart of America, constructing a portrait of that moment. This essay, entitled “San Francisco Looks West” captures the country two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor as the U.S. shifts more and more focus to Japan. And San Francisco, its shipyards churning out ship after ship into the Pacific, plays an important role in that war.

The essay is observational, through the keen eyes of an outsider visiting the city, relayed with a novelist’s flair for detail (Dos Passos is most famous for his USA trilogy of novels, but in addition to his novels—42 of them!—he wrote plays, essays and poetry). As Dos Passos wanders around town, three themes emerge and intertwine: the beauty of San Francisco, the booming industry and the fear and uncertainty of those ready to ship off to war.

“As you have probably noticed, this town is build to give everybody a grandstand view,” says a man identified only as “the man I had come to see.” Dos Passos confirms this, wandering from hilltop to hilltop, reporting the spectacular views from each.

“Whoever laid the town out took the conventional checkerboard pattern of streets and without the slightest regard for the laws of gravity planked it down blind on an irregular peninsula that was a confusion of steep slopes and sandhills. The result is exhilarating.”

Of course there is mention of the fog, described here from inside a crowded saloon looking out: “Against the window-panes and the glass of the door the white fog pressed as snuggly as flannel.”

Inside, men stand at the wall waiting for space to open up at the bar. An intoxicated gentleman shouts into the ear of a blank-faced sailor, “You are the most hated nation on the face of the earth.” When he gets little reaction from anyone, he continues, “You are asking me why you are the most hated nation [nobody is asking]. I’ll tell you; it’s because you get the most to eat, and the most to drink, and the most to wear. You can sit down with the war on and eat a turkey dinner if you want one. You can sit down and drink a glass of beer.”

“‘Like hell I can,’ muttered one of the men waiting for a seat at the bar.”

After a bit of arguing and rising tempers, the bartender does something that kills the commotion. He puts out a sign that says, “No Beer.”

“The place all at once was as quiet as a bird cage that’s had a cloth thrown over it.”

What a wonderful description of silence.

And this description of another bar scene, this one down by the docks and packed with longshoremen:

“There was an air of well-being at the long bar that stretched from the window into the dim interior of the building. Along it stood a row of big men bulging out of their work clothes. Big profiles stood out in the slanting light, chins thrust out, Adam’s apples, hooked noses, jutting cheekbones, brawling mouths, snaggle-teeth under mustaches tobacco-stained to the color of shredded wheat. Along the line tiny whiskey glasses winked and bobbed, each lightly held between a grimy thumb and forefinger. Cusswords shot out of the corners of mouths, filthy phrases were wiped off causally on knotted backs of hands. Here and there a fighting epithet was slung down the line, to be picked up and tossed languidly back with a smile, the way a ballplayer warming up might catch a lightly curved ball and pass it back not too hard…

…Among the faces along the bar there were some with bleared eyes and boozy mouths and square heads, heavy and battered as the packing cases they handled all day; but here and there a countenance stood out; a ruddy fisherman’s face of fine creases radiating from the mouth and eyes; or the lean-lipped face of a hunter; or a canny hired farmhand’s face; or one of those faces, clearcut in repose, that stamp on your mind the plain human majesty of a man at ease in the strength of his body and the certainty that what he knows how to do he knows how to do well.”

The war is the financial backbone of the city in this moment—the gold rush between the first Gold Rush and the gold rush of the tech boom, each one inflating and reshaping San Francisco, each revolution driving massive shifts in demographics, culture and in the skyline of the city.

“The Army and Navy have done an immense job in the whole Bay region,” the Man He Had Come To See says. “The war’s been the salvation of the city. That’s the truth. A few years ago we were dragging along the bottom. Nobody could talk about anything but class war. Now the Bay region has been turned into a pretty darned effective machine for repairing ships and spouting supplies out to the Antipodes. The state of mind round here has changed so much we hardly know ourselves.”

But like the other booms in San Francisco, there is a lingering fear that it will not last, that the gold, the money, the work will dry up as quickly as it arrived. A “stocky Irishman…who acted as trouble shooter for the government along the waterfront” says, “One thing is it’s hard to get the boys to believe the work’s goin’ to last. They been on the bricks so much in the old days they can’t help tryin’ to spread the work out so it’ll last. They can’t get it into their heads that there’s plenty work for many years to come.”

“Do you think there is?” Dos Passos asks.

“Sure. This Pacific business ain’t begun yet,” the Irishman says ominously.

The city is beautiful. Industry is booming. But the war looms. San Francisco faces west, as the title says, and west is uncertainty. West is danger. The bay is open to the ocean, a door to the city that can be protected and watched over, but never fully closed. The threat of submarines looms here. And out there, as those ships power out and disappear over the horizon, who knows what lay over there?

At the Cliff House, looking out over the ocean, he sees two sailors watching enviously a young couple giggling together. Then they watch a marine come out, a girl on his arm. Then they turn to the horizon, stare out to sea.

“I wondered what these two had been thinking. I suppose there’s the same question in all of our minds when we look westward over the Pacific. Beyond the immense bulge of the world, is the ocean ours or is it theirs?”

This is so foreign, situated as we are at the back door of the country, feeling isolated and thus protected by the continent, to think that at one time our greatest enemy lay over the horizon, nothing separating them from us but a lot of water. But it’s these personal pictures, these snapshots of young men ready to ship out that are the most poignant parts of the essay.

There is a young sailor waiting to catch a flight. He is drunk. He has eighteen days to see his wife and baby boy before he turns around and heads back.

And this scene, one of many families having a nice meal with their sons or brothers before they go:

“At the table next to mine there’s a white-haired man and woman and a stoutish lady with pixie frames on her glasses who’s evidently a doting female relative and seems to be somewhat in the way. They don’t take their eyes off a first lieutenant in khaki with a close-cropped black bullet head and ruddy cheeks who looks barely old enough to be in high school. The minute you see them you know the old people have come to say good-by. Maybe it’s their last meal together. They are all trying to be very self-possessed. The father is always starting to tell little jokes and neglecting to finish them. They keep forgetting where the salt cellar is on the table. The mother handles the plate of rolls when she passes it round as if it were immensely breakable. They fork the food slowly into their mouths. None of them knows what he is eating. All their motions are very careful and precise as if they feared the slightest false move would break the fragile bonds that are holding the day together for them. The slightest fumble, and these last few hours will be spilt and lost.”

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