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The USA Trilogy: (The 42nd Parallel, 1930; Nineteen Nineteen, 1932; The Big Money, 1936) ()


Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (23)

    My sympathies lie with the private in the front line against the brass hat; with the hodcarrier against
    the strawboss, or the walking delegate for that matter; with the laboratory worker against the
    stuffed shirt in a mortarboard; with the criminal against the cop.
            -John Dos Passos

This is my last review for the Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.  I intentionally left this one for last because I've tried reading the trilogy before and, quite honestly, find it one of the most putdownable books on God's green Earth.  Dos Passos uses a variety of techniques to try to capture the panoramic sweep of America early in the Century,  including inserting short biographies of historical figures like Eugene V. Debs and pasting in actual newspaper headlines.  But between these continual interruptions and the sheer number of characters and storylines he pursues, it is a story that becomes horribly segmented and jerks to a halt whenever its building up some momentum.  There are some excellent set pieces and some of the interludes are pretty interesting, but the whole work does not really flow to well.  Stylistically, it is an experiment that goes awry.

However, Dos Passos real importance is not as a stylist.  Instead, it is the way in which his career arc tracks that of Western Man over the course of the Century.  In many ways he is the American Orwell (see review of  Homage to Catalonia).  At the start of the trilogy Dos Passos is an angry young man, dreaming of the paradise that will arise when the "Workers of the World Unite", railing against Big Business, etc.  But he gradually realized that the organized workers were merely another big bureaucracy, and he loathed institutions of whatever stripe.  He also received a rude awakening during the Spanish Civil War when his friend Jose Robles was arrested and murdered by Stalinists.  In a conversation with his wife and Hemingway he threatened to return to the United States and tell the truth about the situation in Spain.  Hemingway warned him that if he did the critics would "bury" him.  To which Mrs. Dos Passos responded:  "Ernest, I never heard anything so despicably opportunistic in my life".

This began a long drift to the right which did in fact result in the critics dismissing his later works and by the time of the Vietnam War, which he supported, he was viewed as a reactionary hack.  We see the first inklings of this political shift in the final sections of the trilogy as the tone becomes increasingly pessimistic as regards "the Movement", with scenes of Party infighting and the increasing impression that the very individuals and organizations that started out to improve the lot of the working man will now be merely another source of oppression.

On balance then we end up with a book that doesn't truly succeed but which is emblematic of the times.  It almost has to be on the list, but I advise skimming.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

John Dos Passos Links:

    -ESSAY: A Second Act for the Work of Dos Passos (DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, August 30, 2003, NY Times)

Book-related and General Links:
    -BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: John Dos Passos, 1917-1928 (Erin Templeton)
    -John Dos Passos (Web Page with Links)
    -John Dos Passos - an amateur appreciation page
    -BIBLIO: PAL: John Dos Passos (1896-1970)
    -ARTWORK: Colors That Will Not Fade Rare John Dos Passos watercolors on exhibit at USC McKissick Museum
    -EXCERPT from: Writers on the Left by Daniel Aaron   CHAPTER FIFTEEN -- THE ADVENTURES OF JOHN DOS PASSOS
    -U.S.A.: Agitprop or Masterpiece? (Civilization Magazne)
    -EXCERPT: John Dos Passos on Randolph Bourne (from U.S.A. 1946)(Disability History Project Web Site)
    -EXCERPT: SAN FRANCISCO LOOKS WEST The City in Wartime   By JOHN DOS PASSOS
    -ETEXT: One Man's Initiation: 1917 A Novel  By John Dos Passos
    -STUDENT GUIDE: for "The Body of an American" John Dos Passos (1896-1970) Contributing Editor: Robert C. Rosen
    -ESSAY: Reading Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer (Erin Templeton)
    -ESSAY: Dos Passos, the artist  by Teri Tynes
    -ESSAY: The Intellectual (Howard Fast, The Daily Worker 1956)
    -REVIEW: of USA  by John Dos Passos A continent-sized book (Edward T. Wheeler, COMMONWEAL, April 11, 1997)
    -ESSAY: JOHN DOS PASSOS - ODYSSEY OF AN OPTIMIST (John Chamberlain, NY Times)
    -ESSAY:  Dos Passos and the Many Lives of 'U.S.A.'  (Richard Gilman, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of 1919 by John Dos Passos  When Life Became Journalism  (John Chamberlain, NY Times Book Review, March 13, 1932)
    -REVIEW: of DOS PASSOS: A Life By Virginia Spencer Carr (Kenneth S. Lynn, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: DOS PASSOS: A Life By Virginia Spencer Carr (Herbert Mitgang, NY Times)
    -REVIEW:  Thomas R. Edwards: Dos Passos Divided, NY Review of Books
        The Fourteenth Chronicle: Letters and Diaries of John Dos Passos
        Dos Passos' Path to U.S.A.: A Political Biography 1912-1936 by Melvin Landsberg
    -REVIEW:  Thomas R. Edwards: Outsider, NY Review of Books
        John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey by Townsend Ludington
    -LETTER:  JOHN DOS PASSOS: A LETTER FROM THE FRONT (NY Review of Books)
    -LETTER: Edmund Wilson: Letters to John Dos Passos

GENERAL:
    -ESSAY: The Other Vietnam Generation  (Douglas Brinkley, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: WHEN INTELLECTUALS DO BATTLE (David M. Oshinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: When Writers Think They're Politicians  (Greg Mitchell, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: MALICE AND REUNIONS (Edmund Wilson, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: AMERICAN WRITERS SEEN THROUGH A SOVIET GLASS (THEODORE SHABAD, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Irvin Ehrenpreis: Teacher, NY Review of Books
        The Twenties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period by Edmund Wilson
    -REVIEW: of  AN AMERICAN PROCESSION By Alfred Kazin  THEY SHAPED OUR LITERARY SENSIBILITY (Marcus Cunliffe, NY Times Book review)
    -REVIEW: Denis Donoghue: The Return of the Native, NY Review of Books
        An American Procession by Alfred Kazin
    -REVIEW: of DOUBLE LIVES Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas Against the West. By Stephen Koch   Communism of the Rich and Famous (Maurice Isserman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas Against the West By Stephen Koch (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Denis Donoghue: Cummings and Goings, NY Review of Books
        Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings edited by F.W. Dupee and George Stade
    -OBIT: Malcolm Cowley, Writer, Is Dead at 90 (ALBIN KREBS, NY Times)

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