I have always intended to work my way through all three volumes of Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy, published between 1930 and 1936 and clocking in at 1,300 pages. During today's strange pandemic times, I have taken advantage of the opportunity to do so. And I can tell you that, while at times it was a steep climb and rocky road, I have reached the final ascent. It is truly a unique trio of novels. U.S.A. is a demanding modernist masterpiece which dispenses with any notion of a conventional plot. Instead, it operates by way of a pattern that illustrates the deepest impulses of the American experience over the first three decades of the twentieth century. It ends with the series of hammer blows that announce the onset of the Great Depression.
Dos Passos employs a truly revolutionary prose style and juxtaposes four distinct types of writing in the narrative. These styles serve to operate in a conveyor belt manner to capture the onrush of the new technologically-advanced society that comes into being in these pivotal years. First, the reader must attempt to grasp and make sense of Newsreel sections. These exemplify the rapidly changing circumstances that his generally hapless characters must attempt to adapt to despite the disadvantages of their circumstances--they are not part of the class of wealth and power that will dominate. This is followed by the brilliant short Biographies of key individuals who stand for either the best, or the worst, of the era. We are then funnelled toward the fictional narrative of the novel. We follow the lives and the temptations and challenges that threaten to sweep away 12 different characters living in various parts of the nation (from one end of the 42nd parallel to the other, as it were). The fourth, very different prose style is the "Camera Eye", which employs impressionistic - and at times poetic accounts - of the world that the diverse characters experience. The subjective viewpoint is Dos Passos' - one of frequently acute observations of the situations in a much richer prose style than the flat, purposeful and naturalistic style used to describe the fictional characters.
The three novels making up the trilogy are: The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money. I will focus primarily on the middle volume, 1919. In The Guardian 's survey of the 100 best novels, critic Robert McCrum lists 1919 as the outstanding volume of U.S.A. and number 58 on his (necessarily subjective) list.
1919 introduces us to several...