John Dos Passos (1896-1970) is not among the most celebrated names in American literature anymore, but several of his books had major cultural impact when they were published in the first half of the 20th Century. An ambulance driver during WWI, Dos Passos published the famed anti-war novel Three Soldiers in 1921 before writing his magnum opus, a trilogy of novels known as U.S.A.
U.S.A. is comprised of three full-length novels: The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936). They cover a sweep of American and world events over the early decades of the century, focusing on labor activism, participation in World War I, the Red Scare and the cultural changes of the 1920s. All three of these books received very positive reviews when they were published, and Dos Passos enjoyed international notoriety among the intellectual elite. Like Sherwood Anderson, Langston Hughes and other well-known literary figures of the time, Dos Passos openly supported leftist political causes, including the Communist Party prior to the 1932 elections.
His politics changed, however, as he traveled extensively throughout Europe, America and Latin America in the 1920s and 1930s, visiting many countries and styles of government. Reviewers of The Big Money were already fretting over its pessimistic tone, even as it was largely sympathetic to the American Communists, but things truly turned between 1936 and 1937. Dos Passos and his friend Ernest Hemingway were living in The Second Spanish Republic at the time, where the “Republicans” in this case were an unstable alliance of left-wing parties. Dos Passos and Hemingway had a mutual acquaintance named Jose Robles, a Republican political, who was arrested during this time of political infighting. Robles was later known to be executed, ostensibly for his connections to fascists. To abbreviate what must have been a multi-faceted dispute, Hemingway believed the Republicans about Robles’ suspected ties, while Dos Passos was far more skeptical, and this led to a falling out.
Dos Passos left Hemingway and Madrid (they fought in Paris soon afterward), and visited more of Spain away from his old influences. He also met with George Orwell, who may have put him on the fast track away from Stalinist Communism, as he published an article “Farewell to Europe!” in the pro-democracy Common Sense before the year was out. His reputation, and that of U.S.A., have suffered for this change in political leanings — a cursory search of opinions today finds some obstinate pooh-poohing of the massive trilogy and absurd claims about his art “dying” in 1937.
Even though U.S.A. represents the pro-left attitudes of the author at the time of its writing, Dos Passos invested an immense amount of research into its many narratives and one can read it as an authoritative description of life in the early 20th Century. Each book contains the life story of two or three major characters, whose paths overlap each other. These are always told in an intensely detailed, realistic manner. Initially, The 42nd Parallel centers around Mac, a “hobo activist” (extinct in the country today) who travels by hopping trains and helps print pamphlets for strikes and labor rallies. His shoestring life is eventful but sad, since his political obsessions prevent him from serving his responsibilities as a life partner or parent. The other main character is J. Ward Moorehouse, a Carolina-born innovator who struggles to build his own public relations business. He marries into money, but this doesn’t last and we get a window into the long struggles that accompany divorce.
We also see the early life of Janey, a young woman who escapes the “stuffy treeshaded streets of Georgetown” to work in Moorehouse’s New York office:
When her father died in early September it was a great relief to all concerned. Only, coming back from Oak Hill Cemetery all the things she’d wanted as a girl came back to her, and she thought of Alec, and everything seemed so unhappy that she couldn’t stand it. Her mother was very quiet and her eyes were very red and she kept saying that she was so glad that there’d be room on the lot for her to be buried in Oak Hill too. She’d have hated for him to be buried in any other cemetery than Oak Hill. It was so beautiful and all the nicest people in Georgetown were buried there.
Passages like these pop up often: the values of one generation are not reflective of the attitudes of the next, and there is a need for modern men and women to migrate — to get away from home and make their way in the world. All of the featured characters in U.S.A. have this in common, although they experience very different fates.
Each of the three novels of U.S.A. have their own major focus:
- The 42nd Parallel describes the growth and struggles of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, nicknamed the “Wobblies”) as they organized behind the socialist ideas coming from Europe. It also tells the stories of women breaking into the urban business world, through their own devices and through social connections.
- 1919 incorporates Dos Passos’ wartime experiences as an ambulance driver in Europe, and World War I is depicted behind the lines of combat. It also features the Wilson-era reaction against IWW and the Communist Party, manifested as The Red Scare. The violence of The Red Scare is shown in much more detail than the violence of WWI.
- The Big Money is dominated by the tale of a midwestern mechanic who, after a long struggle to fit into society, so-founds an aviation company. The trappings of success and market turmoil of the 1920s take over his life, and that of the actress who becomes his girlfriend. However, the cause of Socialism is also shown to be using up its believers, a frequently-imprisoned intellectual and a woman who sacrifices her time and livelihood to an endless series of adult dependents.
U.S.A. is at least as well-known for its innovative style as its content. Inspired by the events of WWI, Dos Passos set out to reinvent the novel form by mixing the character-driven narrative passages with other elements:
There are many self-contained miniature biographies of significant individuals of the 20th Century — these were my favorite parts of the U.S.A. trilogy. Their style radically departs from detailed Realism and resembles that of a reporter’s notebook. Since the breakup of the (formerly unbreakable) General Electric is in the news, I’ll quote from the story of Charles P. Steinmetz:
In eighteen ninetytwo when Eichemeyer sold out to the corporation that was to form General Electric, Steinmetz was entered in the contract along with other valuable apparatus. All his life Steinmetz was a piece of apparatus belonging to General Electric.
First his laboratory was at Lynn, then it was moved and the little hunchback with it to Schenectady, the electric city.
General Electric humored him, let him be a socialist, let him keep a houseful of cactuses lit up by mercury lights, let him have alligators, talking crows and a gila monster for pets and the publicity department talked up the wizard, the medicine man who knew the symbols that opened up the doors of Ali Baba’s cave.
Some of my other favorite profiles were of Minor Cooper Keith, Paxton Hibben, Wesley Everest and Thorstein Veblen — interesting and significant figures whose names have faded over time. Veblen was a wayward economist who originated the phrase “conspicuous consumption” and was featured in Clifford Simak’s They Walked Like Men (see my sheepish comment).
I was less of a fan of the “Newsreel” segments, which were periodic jumbles of headlines, employing a variety of font sizes, capitalization schema and formatting choices. They mark the passage of time between the main narratives, and reflect the incomplete understanding the characters have of the world around them.
OFFICIALS KNOW NOTHING OF VICE
Sanitary trustees turn water of Chicago River into drainage canal LAKE MICHIGAN SHAKES HANDS WITH THE FATHER OF THE WATERS German zuchterverein singing contest for canary-birds opens the fight for the bimetallism at the ratio of 16 to 1 has not lost says Bryan
BRITISH BEATEN AT MAFKING
For there’s many a man been murdered in Luzon
CLAIMS ISLANDS FOR ALL TIME
More irritating than informative were the many punctuation-free “Camera Eye” passages. They have an autobiographical focus, but without extensive use of footnotes or detailed insights into the author’s life, I’m at a loss as to how to interpret these sections:
they were little brass cannons and were bright in the sun on the platform of the Seventh Street Depot and Scott hoisted us all up and the train was moving and the engine bell was ringing and Scott put in your hand a little handful of tiny brass cannons just big enough to hold the smallest size firecracker at the battle of Manila Bay and said Here’s the artillery Jack
These attempts to bring in a restricted, single-viewer perspective to the greater narratives reminded me of the “stream of consciousness” trend gagged on by so many mid-century SF writers.
Fans of literary SF may know U.S.A. by the fact that John Brunner appropriated its style for his book Stand on Zanzibar, one of the most famous works of the 1960s. Stand on Zanzibar is on my to-read pile, and it will be interesting to see which elements it contains.
U.S.A. keeps its status as a classic on American literature, as a monumental description of its times and places. It’s less of a permanent fixture as an advocate of Dos Passos’ socialist political philosophy, although the side of the IWW he does tell is vivid. It’s also less of a war epic than a tale of the decades surrounding it, skeptically examining the American commitment to its allies, and to a fair democracy. Dos Passos accomplishes a great deal in the narrative chapters and condensed biographies; the rest of his rule-breaking content does not have the same impact. 7/10.