10:3:20 John Dos Passos's U.S.A. Trilogy, a book review

His magnum opus, John Dos Passos's U.S.A. Trilogy is an expansive, and, at times, impressionistic, literary equivalent of a Diego Rivera mural for big-picture reach. Comprised of three titles--The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and Big Money—it covers the first quarter of the twentieth century, and obviously WWI. Weighing in at 1,251 pages for the editions I read, the U.S.A. Trilogy is nonetheless a real page-turner--for great literature lets you read much more with less effort.

john dos passos

Dos Passos uses a multi-pronged approach to filling out his literary canvas. Four types of chapters, but used consistently across the novels. An impressionistic THE CAMERA EYE (XX) reports: "a squirrel was scolding in the whiteoak but the Pennypacker girls all the young ladies in their best hats singing the anthem who were the Molly Maguires? thoughts, bulletholes in an old barn mine pits black skeleton tipples ..." (p. 112, The 42nd Parallel). A collagist NEWSREEL (XX) combines found text (actual newspaper headlines), free form prose, and snatches of poetry to give the reader the Zeitgeist.

A third technique, and a favorite, are short bios of era notables. Revealing, factual, and imaginatively told portraits of, say, William Jennings Bryant ("The Boy Orator of the Platte") or Steinmetz of General Electric ("Proteus), but two of many across the trilogy.

The fourth and traditional technique is straight-ahead character-driven narratives about ordinary people caught up in the river of humanity's folly, triumph, and insanity. But these narratives have Dos Passos’s twist, signalling his confidence in the literary mural he’s served up. For so often, the story of a Mac, a Janey, an Eleanor Stoddard, a Charley Anderson ends, snaps off, without any resolution, without the meaning of a “bow tie.”

Yet, these page-turning, absorbing lives we read about that end inconclusively are not the disappointments we would have in other novels. We’re in this great sweep of a mural that is all of America. Would one life make a difference?

In the U.S.A. foreword, E. L. Doctorow states Jean-Paul Sartre found it was “exactly in the novel's refusal to redeem its characters that he found its [U.S.A.’s] greatness." Or in the existentialist philosopher's words, "The pressure exerted by a gas on the walls of its container does not depend on the individual histories of the molecules composing it."

Read the U.S.A. Trilogy for its scope of the American experience and adventurous literary technique with a surprisingly contemporary feel.

The 42nd Parallel, 1919, Big Money, all by John Dos Passos, Foreword by E. L. Doctorow. All First Mariner Books editions, 2000.

Image credit: loa.org.


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Read Charlie Dickinson's latest novel, Losing Laika, as an ebook in these five downloadable formats:

.azw3 and .mobi (Kindle)
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf and .txt (for PCs)

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Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf (for PCs)


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