U.S.A (trilogy) by John Dos Passos
The crude purpose of pioneering days has been accomplished. The scaffolding may be taken down and the true work, the culture of a civilization, may appear. ~ Frank Lloyd Wright (quoted in The Big Money)
U.S.A. is usually referred to as a trilogy, consisting of The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, though I think any one of these is incomplete without the others.
The story tells the tale of 12 different characters in the first three decades of 20th Century America; they are microcosms of the greater whole. The true main character is the U.S.A.
It took me a while to realize this – in spite of the title staring me in the face. I was following the individual stories, and not terribly captivated. Once I started glimpsing the “big picture” I found the tale more interesting.
The 12 characters, though they are named, are Every Man / Every Woman. Their stories start independently, but by the end all are interconnected. Most of the characters are either exploited by the heartless capitalist machine or corrupted by it. Few are happy; few are admirable, and a few don’t survive. The rest are still working their way through life when the novel ends – just as the U.S.A. kept rolling along after 1930.
I believe this novel should be classified as experimental fiction. Dos Passos uses four distinct motifs to tell the tale. The bulk is the narrative of the twelve characters. In between their chapters, he injects “Newsreels”, “The Camera Eye” and “Minute Biographies”.
In the main narrative, Dos Passos writes with easy and flowing prose. I especially liked how he would describe people.
One girl was described as:
…an interesting looking girl with black eyes and a long face and a deep kind of tragic sounding voice
In describing another character’s mother, he writes:
…his mother came from a family of New Bedford whalers; she was a great reader of Emerson, belonged to the Unitarian Church and the Browning Society. She was a fervent abolitionist and believed in democratic manners; she was a housekeeper of the old school, kept everybody busy from dawn till dark. She laid down the rules of conduct: self-respect, self-reliance, self-control, and a cold long head for figures.
Newsreels are excerpts from actual headlines, articles, or popular songs of the day. They are given out of context, but still give a gritty feel for the day. Items such as:
HYPNOTIZED BY COMMON LAW WIFE
KILLS SELF AT DESK IN OFFICE
SUPREME COURT DASHES LAST HOPE OF MOIST MOUTH
The Camera Eye are stream of consciousness, memories of the author, also without context.
And finally, Minute Biographies – short bios of prominent persons such as: J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, and The Wright Brothers, and others less well remembered today, but influential at the time such as: Eugene Debs, John Reed, and Isadora Duncan.
I liked these little diversions from the main story. They gave the reader, a sense of being there. (and I accidentally learned a little history)
I wanted to love this, but I didn’t. Undoubtedly, this is partially due to my lack of sympathy with Dos Passos’ political trope, but I do think he delivered his message clearly and dispassionately, which kept me interested. He paints an intriguing picture of early 20th Century U.S.A.
My Rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars
Speaking of painting pictures, Dos Passos was also an artist, usually designing the covers for his own novels. I believe…though I am not certain, that the covers pictured above of The 42nd Parallel and 1919, are Dos Passos’ work.
Also, Dos Passos experienced a nearly 180-degree change in his political philosophy later in life.
There were some well-read bookish sorts amongst Dos Passos’ characters. One read Lorna Doone, Nicholas Nickleby and Les Misérables. Another read The Picture of Dorian Gray, and another A Christmas Carol.
Finally, one character finds himself in Mexico, where he…watched the two huge snowy volcanos, Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihatle. I liked that, because those two volcanos are what Malcolm Lowry refers to in the title of his book, Under the Volcano.
Have you read U.S.A. or John Dos Passos? What did you think?