John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy – The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money – is considered a landmark in American fiction, ranking 68th on the Novel 100, 23rd on the Modern Library 100, and 55th on the Brit-lit-skewed Guardian 100. Leading literary lights from Jean-Paul Sartre to Norman Mailer have praised Dos Passos’ writing in U.S.A. and the influence the work had in bringing modernism to the American novel. Taken in sum, this series of interconnected stories presents a panoramic view of the United States from the start of the Great War to the end of the Roaring 20s, where the main character is the scene and setting rather than any individual in the book. It’s not an easy read – more on that in a moment – but it is an important read if you read as a student rather than just for pleasure. (Not that there’s anything wrong with reading just for pleasure, of course.)
(Aside: The Novel 100 is back in print after several years out of it. The book, by literature professor Daniel Burt, ranks the 100 greatest novels ever written with an essay on each, and features a bonus, unranked list of the “second 100” after those. It’s been a great reading list for me, and I enjoy Burt’s analyses and comments on each book’s influence, even if I don’t always agree with his selections.)
Each book in the trilogy includes lengthy chapters following a dozen or so characters whose lives intertwine and whose paths cross with major historical figures, such as the young idealist who ends up working publicity on the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti. These chapters, heavy on descriptive prose, are bookended by two types of mini-chapters, the Newsreel and “The Camera Eye.” The former is a list of clipped fragments from newspaper and magazine articles of the time, anchoring you to a specific year or month while also setting up some of the emotional framework for the chapter to follow; the latter is a somewhat indecipherable stream-of-consciousness, worm’s-eye view of society that I found myself skimming because it gave me bad memories of struggling through Ulysses last winter. Dos Passos also inserts short, stylized biographies of important Americans of the time period, from Henry Ford to Woodrow Wilson to Frederick Taylor to now-forgotten names like dancer Isadora Duncan and labor activist Joe Hill, written with an opinionated voice that also seeks to inform.
Dos Passos also based large chunks of the books on his own experiences in World War I as part of the volunteer ambulance corps in Paris – a role that seems to have required a lot more drinking and carousing than actual ambulance-driving, but one that also seems to have fueled the book’s derogatory portraits of upper-class American twits in Europe, chasing money or skirts or good times while there was a war going on around them.
What I didn’t like about U.S.A. was the lack of a central story, or even set of stories. The existential nature of the trilogy means characters wink in and out of the book and Dos Passos gives a lot of time to mundane matters without investing the reader at all in anyone’s fate or happiness – because, I presume, that wasn’t his point. Dos Passos set out to provide a slice of life, and I’m not sure any American writer has done it better – but it makes for a more academic read than a leisurely one, a trilogy you might pick up to help you better follow the transition in American literature from the 1920s to the 1940s, but not something you’re going to grab to get you through your next long plane ride.
My other regret about U.S.A. is that Dos Passos didn’t use more dialogue, because he was pretty sharp with it and could have given more depth to his characters just by having them speak more often, such as in this banter from 1919 regarding the League of Nations:
“It’s not the name you give things, it’s who’s getting theirs underneath that counts,” said Robbins.
“That’s a very cynical remark,” said the California woman. “This isn’t any time to be cynical.”
“This is a time,” said Robbins, “when if we weren’t cynical we’d shoot ourselves.”
Baseball does come up a few times in the book, as one character is a serious fan (right around the time of the Black Sox scandal, after which baseball earns scant mention – you’d think Babe Ruth would show up in some Newsreels, right?) while the section in The Big Money on Frederick Taylor claims that
At Exeter he was head of his class and captain of the ballteam, the first man to pitch overhand. (When umpires complained that overhand pitching wasn’t in the rules of the game, he answered that it got results.)
And if you’re into food, U.S.A. introduced me to “smearcase,” which can refer to a sort of farmer’s or cottage cheese among the Pennsylvania Dutch, but which in the Baltimore area refers to something more akin to cheesecake. (The name comes from the German Schmierkäse, meaning smear-cheese.)
Next up: I’ve finished Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister and am most of the way through Dawn Powell’s Turn, Magic Wheel. Both authors are among my favorite American writers, Chandler for his phenomenal prose, Powell for her sardonic wit.