I made a terrible mistake in my first reading of Dangling Man. Hailed as one of the great works to come out of World War II America, I figured that it was great in the conventional way that war novels are great. My expectations were horribly violated by the book's form (it is a journal) and by the subject matter (a man in the doldrums because of bureaucratic and self-imposed inaction while waiting to be drafted). I was not expecting an existential mediation on the human condition conducted on that most bland of World War II fronts--the American home front.
Because of this violation of expectations, I was initially put off by the book. This was ultimately extremely wrong- headed. The genius of this work lies in how it uses the vast historical background of the war and unemployment to show Joseph, the fictional journal keeper, descend further and further into his own personal short-comings, narcissism, and irascibility. A mixture of pessimism and comical farce, the reader of the work is privy to the inner workings of a personality that is watching its degradation.
We find at the journal's opening that Joseph has been awaiting conscription for several months. Initially believing that he was to be mobilized within several weeks of his initial notice of mobilization, Joseph had left his regular work-a-day life behind him in order to concentrate on putting all his affairs in order. Government bureaucracy interceded to make this much more complicated than it otherwise should have been. Because of his Canadian nationality and because of certain completely reasonable regulations, Joseph found himself in a position that would have been familiar to many of his generation only a few years before during the Depression; out of work and with a lot of time on his hands.
A somewhat bookish and highly intellectual person, Joseph and his infinitely patient wife Iva, both welcomed the free time as a chance for study and as an extended vacation. As time wears on though, and it really wears on Joseph, he develops not only an intelligent critical viewer of friends, family, the war, and society, but also an unbearable wretch as he goes further and further into himself. Every disgusting personality trait that Joseph possess becomes exacerbated and almost beyond his control. To many readers of this work in 1944, this would have resonated with their personal experiences with political and economic redundancy, or with what they saw occur in their families and communities during the Depression. For Joseph though, this would have to much more alienating than it would have been for him just a few years before. During the Depression, it was plain to see that if you were unemployed, you were part of a vast multitude of the like. With full employment during the war, the opposite would have been true. Joseph really is alienated from the mainstream of America.
Although Joseph's irrational side is what we are first exposed to, his insights into what America is and is becoming because of the war and the prosperity it is bringing in its wake are, from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, nearly prophetic. The very hard learned lesson of the depression, that what is good for the wealthy is not necessarily good for the country and ultimately not even the wealthy, is fading fast from even the memory of small business owners like Joseph's tailor acquaintance, Mr. Fanzel. After long period of economic marginality, Fanzel is up to his ears in orders. Abandoning not only his poverty, he has also abandoned much of his human feeling since his time has become valuable beyond any previous comparisons. His outlook on life is best summed up in Joseph's opening reflection in the journal entry he recounts a recent conversation with him: "Look out for yourself, and the world will be best served." (109) His thinking are a blandly frightening caricature of everything that went wrong with America before the Depression--this includes a positive reference to a newspaper piece by the disgraced President Hoover that argued for more war profiteering. Joseph sees in Fanzel's behavior a great amount of rationalized selfishness that would allow Fanzel, and any others that conformed to his way of thinking, to accept human degradation as moral, if not a necessity. This is a sentiment Joseph can not abide, and its growth does not bode well for the post-war history of America.
What is truly terrifying to Joseph though is the thought of being a bystander. Not only of being bystander during the war, but of being a bystander period. He remembers as traumatic experiences that he had as a child when his mother died and nightmares where he was forced to take a powerless position in the wake of a massacre. These are just some of the extreme cases of where he feels himself impotent. He feels and sees the entire world going about him, without him and without need--though there is plenty of regard--for him. Joseph is not at home with feeling doubtful or is any good in the morally ambiguous circumstances the war has given birth to. As a supporter of the American war effort Joseph is ambivalent enough and honest enough to say that "between their imperialism and ours, if a full choice were possible, I would take ours. Alternatives, and particularly desirable alternatives, grow on imaginary trees." (84) Joseph's need to end his status as a bystander will eventually overtake some of his ambivalence about the war, but I would be giving away a great deal if I explained how. Joseph unfortunately gives in to a need for regimentation that the rest of the country is allowing itself to be subjected to as necessary to win the war. It is sad to witness, especially since this comes at the books end.
Joseph's recounting is comic-opera in many instances. The lack activity that he tries to accustom himself to leads into extreme tension and hyper-sensitivity. He constantly feels his dignity insulted by the actions of those around him and as far as he is concerned no can do right. Joseph had some lousy personality traits prior to his period of dangling--he was a know-it-all Communist, an adulterer, and something of a brawler--but in the eleven months that he is waiting to be called to duty, he becomes an out and out prick. He is unwilling to accept either his friends, families, or wife's personal foibles while he expects them to all tolerate his meanness and irritability. He is slowly but surely turning into a hypocritical and petty man, incapable of compassion for anyone but himself. He describes his brother's wife after giving him a very mild reproach for spanking their daughter as finding her "farther on the hellward side than ever." (78) He denounces his wife and all women in general, as naturally given to frivolity and not teachable simply because Iva has not bent totally to his will. (98) At one point early on in the book he even makes a huge seen in a restaurant, embarrassing a friend when a former comrade from the Communist Party that he abandoned does not acknowledge. Joseph is bent on picking fights wherever he can find them, and to recount all of them would be redundant. The book makes obvious that if Joseph is not descending into madness, he is at least descending into silliness and absurdity.
One sees in this book all the aspects of intellect and personal struggle that will characterize Bellow's novels and short stories during the more than half-century after this work's publication. In Dangling Man we are given the very ordinary situation of a man living in a burdensome situation trying to use his intellect as guide to get closer to a proper way of living. The war as background is extraordinary, but the situation is anything but that.