Years ago, the first thing that captured my imagination about John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy was the clever artwork of the Signet Classics, which were prominently displayed in the bookstores of my college youth. I finally bought them, and they stayed on my shelves for a number of years. I do not recall when I finally read them, but I did it over a period of years, probably during the 1990s.
The Signet Classics were notable because they each contained an introduction by writer and literary critic Alfred Kazin (1915-1998), who summarized the three books of the trilogy —The 42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen Nineteen (1932), and The Big Money (1936)— as a portrayal of America before it became a superpower. We grew up thinking of America as that way, but Kazin reminds us that America was a raw and often brutal country in the first three decades of the 20th century. Kazin writes that Dos Passos shows how the wealthy men of America controlled the lives of working men and women. An average person didn’t have a chance against “mass culture, mass superstition and mass slogans” perpetrated by the powerful.
I don’t recall that the prose itself was exceptional except the passage in Nineteen Nineteen that stuck in my mind. It’s a description of the body of a dead Frenchman who has shot a “pretty peasant girl” then turns the weapon on himself:
That’s it! Three books over twelve hundred pages of reading and that’s what I specifically remember— A dirty bare toe. But it general, the arc of the book which warns us that the forces of wealth and government will crush the common man or woman, is unforgettable as is Dos Passos’s narrative technique. The specific characters themselves? Not so much.
This summer I become motivated to reread the book twenty-five years later. As a founding member of a two-person book group (Advantages: picking a book is easy, everyone reads the book and there is no relying on the intellect of others.) This two-person “book club” began during the pandemic as a way a college buddy and I could manage to read what we perceived as more challenging books—the first being Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Our self-serving motto is People who only read the classics are sure to remain up to date comes from Austrian novelist Maria von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916).
For those who value lists, The U.S.A. Trilogy is ranked 23rd on the Modern Library list of 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century. James Mustich, author of A Thousand Books to Read Before You Die refers to it as an “unvisited historical monument in the annals of American Literature, A Grant’s Tomb of the bookshelf.”
But this year being the 200th anniversary of Ulysses S. Grant’s birth and the re-evaluation 18th President’s as a general butt-kicker of Robert E. Lee and a staunch presidential defender of civil rights for Black Americans during a brief period during Reconstruction (our book group/duo also read Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant this year) Dos Passos’s tome merits to be more than just “a classic of radical literature,” as it was referred in the introduction of Townsend Ludington 1980 biography, John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey. Of course, there is the ever-present danger of the Dos Passos books falling under the umbrella of Mark Twain’s definition of a classic– a book which people praise and don’t read.
At the very least, Dos Passos’s trilogy provides an excellent baseline of how much our nation has changed and hopefully progressed in the last 100 years.
His Life and Times
Born in a Chicago hotel, John Dos Passos (1896 – 1970) was the illegitimate son of a Southern woman and a successful lawyer, and as a youth was raised primarily by his mother in England and spent significant time abroad before returning stateside and enrolling at Harvard University. His mother died in 1915, but at the urging of his father Dos Passos graduated from Harvard in 1916. Financially, he usually had resources, but he was not wealthy. Like many of the characters in the U.S.A. Trilogy “he prided himself,” according to Ludington, “on living a kind of hand-to-mouth existence that appeared bohemian and adventurous.”
After his father died in 1917 and driven by the need to see what is happening in Europe, Dos Passos volunteered for ambulance service where eventually he met Ernest Hemingway in Italy. They would be friends, literary colleagues and to some degree, competitors for the public and critical attention throughout their writing lives and beyond. Dos Passos lived in the shadow of the mythical Hemingway. What has made Dos Passos even more relatively obscure was that after the U.S.A. Trilogy Dos Passos wrote for another thirty years but you would be hard pressed to find anyone who could name any of his other works. (Ideologically he did an about face to his earlier work as Dos Passos soured on leftist ideology after the Spanish Civil War.)
The U.S.A. trilogy begins at the dawn of the 20th century—at the onset of the Spanish-American War—and ends with the controversial trial and execution of American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti on the eve the stock market crash of 1929.
Because Dos Passos lived between the turn of the century and America’s entry into the war in Europe, his writing has a richness of detail. Moreover, he leverages his own extensive experiences traveling in the United States and Europe. Many of his characters live hand-to-mouth, working a variety of low paying (non-unionized) jobs, hitching rides to distant destinations—the Pacific Northwest, Mexico, and Western Europe. The latter required working on a grimy shipping freighter and living in constant fear of German U-Boats.
Dos Passos was also a voracious reader and compulsive note taker. The U.S.A. trilogy is a blend of Dos Passos’s personal experiences reflecting on what he had witnessed firsthand and his diligent scholarship. All contributed to the veracity of the narrative. But what separates him from other works at that time was his revolutionary techniques.
Revolutionary Techniques (in Contrast to Hemingway)
Beginning with The 42nd Parallel, Dos Passos incorporated four distinct styles of writing: The Camera’s Eye, Newsreels, thumbnail biographies of historical figures and a sweeping novel where a dozen main characters who sometimes cross paths with each other — often only briefly and hundreds of pages apart.
The Camera Eyes are 51 one- to three-page prose poems written with little capitalization and no punctuation. They are impressionistic, where Dos Passos provides visceral descriptions of a place or an event, but not necessarily one the reader can ascertain. These Camera Eyes are often related to the narrative that surrounds it. For example, in The Camera Eye (38) a soldier going AWOL while in France slips away to a bathhouse:
In the following chapter of the main narrative, one of the main characters Eveline Hutchins (she is introduced in Nineteen Nineteen but is also prominent in The Big Money) has a soldier friend who shows up unexpectedly in civilian clothes. The soldier has ditched his uniform. The cleansing of that experience is reflected in The Camera Eye (38).
Throughout the trilogy there are 68 Newsreels. Like The Camera Eye, they are one-to-three-page interstitial sequences, that include headlines, lyrics from songs (some satirical), and short newspaper clips that capture the times and how they were described by mass media. Here is an example of a Newsreel from The 42nd Parallel announcing the United States entering the war in Europe. Notice how they were typographically displayed on the page to indicate whether it was HEADLINE (all caps), song lyrics, or a newspaper clip:
Newsreel XIX is a good example of a typical Dos Passos newsreel. Underneath the bold headlines and the song patriotic lyrics Dos Passos reveals the sick underbelly of what was really going on—the capitalists cashing in on the war, and any dissenters that didn’t believe in this jingoistic patriotism of America’s greatness were ostracized, punished, incarcerated, and even murdered.
Somewhere thematically and stylistically between The Camera Eyes and the Newsreels, as Dos Passos explained, “portraits of real people are interlarded in the pauses in the narrative because their lives seem to embody so well the quality of the soil in which Americans of these generations grew.”
These 28 portraits included Americans who Dos Passos admired such as union activists like Eugene Debs and Big Bill Haywood, and progressives like Fighting Bob LaFollette. These biographical sketches ranged from innovators and thought leaders such Thomas Edison, Fred Taylor, Henry Ford, and sociologist Thorstein Veblen to entertainers such as the dancer Isadora Duncan and Rudolph Valentino. Dos Passos had contempt for Woodrow Wilson and J.P. Morgan, who he believed had tricked the public into believing in the righteousness of joining the Allies in 1918.
One of the more scathing examples is “The Body of an American,” when Dos Passos describes how “John Doe was born and raised in Brooklyn, in Memphis, near the lakefront in Cleveland, Ohio in the stench of the stockyards in Chi…” only to die in the mud, the blood, and the anonymity of a French battlefield. Bits of him were “selected” from piles of pine boxes (“enie, minie minie moe”) and transferred to Arlington National Cemetery to be interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. These five pages are perhaps the most well-known passage of the entire trilogy, the final chapter in Nineteen, Nineteen. The piece ends seeped in irony as Dos Passos has juxtaposed a soldier’s ultimate sacrifice with the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony. It ends with:
Woodrow Wilson brought a bouquet of poppies.
Dos Passos was equally contemptuous of J.P. Morgan. Dos Passos closes his portrait of the financier with:
His original publisher Harpers insisted that Dos Passos pull this passage because Harpers felt an allegiance to Morgan because Morgan’s firm had loaned Harpers money previously. Dos Passos refused and simply found another publisher (Harcourt Brace).
Don’t Forget the U.S.A. Trilogy Is a Novel
Though techniques like The Camera Eye, Newsreels and the portraits set the book apart of how novels were written at the time, the trilogy is still a novel.
Most of the main characters are borne into humble and troubled beginnings, stumble through life with no real purpose and finish with unhappy or bad endings. This is not a book about the upper class, but rather ordinary people who have those aspirations to rise above their station (a version of the American Dream), but really have little or no chance to improve their status. Some examples:
J. Ward Moorehouse was raised in Wilmington, Delaware. He was a bright boy but grew up in a lower middle-class family. He scrapped and clawed to become a publicist for big business, especially the coal industry.
Eleanor Stoddard grew up in Chicago and showed promise and interest and art at an early age. After working at Marshall Fields in Chicago, she moves with her friend Eveline Hutchins to start a decorating business in New York City. She ends up decorating the offices of J. Ward Moorehouse and becomes romantically infatuated with him, despite Moorehouse’s second wife who was an invalid (but she has money). In a patriotic fervor, J. Ward joins the military propaganda machine. Eleanor offers to go to France too, “I’ll join the Red Cross,” she said. “I can’t wait to get to France.” In Nineteen Nineteen, Stoddard retreats to a secondary character while Hutchins briefly shifts to the forefront in The Big Money. (Going to France solves a problem for many of the characters because they have little better to do with their lives.)
At the end of The 42nd Parallel we are introduced Charley Anderson, who grew up in Minnesota and acquired some skills as a mechanic, but drifted throughout the middle part of the country before ending up in New York City. Caught in the war fervor and with little else to do, he ships out to Europe at the end of the first novel. Anderson reappears as a main character in the final book returning as a heroic-fighter pilot hoping to leverage his aviation and engineering skills into some big money. Charley craves wealth, but like many of Dos Passos characters he is self-serving and self-destructive.
One other shared characteristic of the Dos Passos world is that the people lack much depth. An upside is that the fast-paced plot is not slowed down by interior monologues. When Charley says to himself “Gosh money’s a great thing” it kind of sticks out in the narrative. Instead, the omnipotent narrator relays the characters’ motivations, prejudices, and desires. (There are no major or minor characters of color in the book and thus epithets abound.)
Contributing to the plot is the never-ending tension between the men and women. Men like Charley are always craving sex. They know that they are supposed to see marriage as the way society wants them to behave, but they have strong urges and cannot always control themselves, especially when they been drinking. They sleep around, which sometimes ends up in a sexually transmitted disease or forced into marriage because their girlfriend becomes pregnant.
The women want to be married (as they are supposed to) and know the what the men want, and will use their wiles to try to control them, but they have their urges as well, which gets them in trouble (such is the world without safe, legal abortion). Women like Eveline and Eleanor are vulnerable to men and their greatest fear is to be tied down to someone who is “tiresome.” The women are not above using their charms to get want they want, but often it’s because they want to survive.
Ultimately, the characters share the same fate, they have little chance against the “mass culture, mass superstition and mass slogans” perpetrated by the powerful. (Think Alfred Kazin.)
History vs. Chronicles
When summing up The U.S.A. trilogy, Ludington quotes the work of Italian philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) who makes a distinction between the historian and chronicler. One primary difference is that the historian sees “characters and events as alive and their meanings vibrat[ing] in the historian’s mind, the chronicler sees those characters and events as inert relics whose ultimate meaning he does not try to comprehend.” For Croce, “history is a living chronicle, chronicle is a dead history.”
But what extends the trilogy’s life span is the damning consequences of monopoly capitalism. The names and principals have gone from J.P. Morgan to Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Henry Ford can be combined into an Elon Musk. Unions fight for a place at the bargaining table, while non-union workers are exploited (no better example than during the Pandemic when “essential workers” like meat packers, grocery workers and delivery truck drivers had little choice but to stay on the job). The newspaper hegemony of the early 20th century has been replaced by the powers of social media. Unfortunately, change has been fast, but progress is slow.
The Dos Passos trilogy satisfies. It manages to cut and paste thirty years of American history into a cohesive narrative (better read as one big book—such as the Modern Library of America edition—than three paperbacks). Still more importantly, it reinforced the core Ebner-Eschenbach belief of my book club duo (https://bit.ly/30712Rx) that those who read the classics will remain up to date.
A special thanks to the other member of the book club duo, Francis Walker, for his support and assistance on this piece.
Murray Browne is a writer, publisher and bookseller who lives in Decatur, Georgia outside of Atlanta. This is his seventh essay for ToM. His website is murray-browne.com.
Dos Passos, John. U.S.A. The 42nd Parallel, Nineteen Nineteen, The Big Money, The Library of America, 1985.
Ludington, Townsend. John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey. E.P Dutton, New York, 1980.
Hanson, Matt. “What John Dos Passo’s ‘1919’ Got Right About 2019” The New Yorker, December 29, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/books/second-read/what-john-dos-passoss-1919-got-right-about-2019
Mustich, James. “E Pluribus Unum: On John Dos Passos’s U.S.A.” Medium, February 27, 2019, https://jamesmustich.medium.com/e-pluribus-unum-d4e32995c01f