Chad's Reviews > U.S.A., #1-3

U.S.A., #1-3 by John Dos Passos
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's review
Feb 19, 2010

it was ok
Read in February, 2010

I want to appreciate stream of consciousness writing, but I cannot find any artistic merit in it. Thankfully, John Dos Passos restricts that style to certain short sections of The 42nd Parallel, 27 mini-chapters intended to give a broader perspective than those of the expository characters. Perhaps for other readers it serves that purpose. The narrative is also interspersed with 19 “newsreels”, in which he cuts short phrases from the headlines of various contemporary news stories. Unfortunately, for a reader far removed from the time in which these events took place there is rarely enough detail to have more than guess at what is actually happening. I do enjoy the stories of Mac, Janey, J.Ward, Eleanor, and Charley, but even here Dos Passos manages to annoy by being cute with language, inventing his own compound words with no discernible rhyme or reason for their selection. Each of the narratives are interesting in their own right, but while a few of the main characters do have chance encounters there is no overarching plot holding them together. This is almost more like a collection of short stories written to together paint a picture of American life at the beginning of the 20th century than a traditional novel. I cannot say that this is among my favorite reads, but it has shown enough to convince me to give 1919 a try.


It was with some trepidation that I followed The 42nd Parallel with the remaining two books in the series. To make the task a bit less onerous, I stopped reading the “Camera Eye” sections entirely and only skimmed through the “Newsreel” chapters. Dos Passos took up a new frustrating habit of inserting paragraph breaks seemingly arbitrarily in the middle of sentences. I am sure there was some poetic purpose behind this, but its effect was to remove any interest I may have had in reading something else “artistic” in the near future. The cast of disparate characters fractured enough over the rest of the series that by the time I reached a chapter about some particular character I had forgotten entirely which of the stories thus far applied to them. As I expected, there was nothing to eventually tie the stories together. Both books end around momentous events — the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, but these cannot be seen as real resolution since most of the characters are involved peripherally or not at all.

I can say a few good things about the books. They have indeed painted a broad picture of life in the United States in the first 30 years of the 20th Century. I learned more about the socialist movements during those times than in any study of history, and have seen more clearly how the transfer from government by/for/of the people to government by/for/of the corporations was already well underway before even my grandparents were born. In the one Camera Eye that I did read carefully after the fact, Dos Passos wonderfully turns around the anti-immigrant sentiment that fueled the Red Scare to note that it was the men who sailed from distant shores to find a land where all men were created equal who were Americans in spirit:

America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul
their hired men sit on the judge’s bench they sit back with their feet on the tables under the dome of the State House they are ignorant of our beliefs they have the dollars the guns the armed forces the powerplants
they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch
all right we are two nations
America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have bought the laws and fenced off the meadows and cut down the woods for pulp and turned our pleasant cities into slums and sweated the wealth out of our people and when they want to they hire the executioner to throw the switch

we stand defeated America

(Lack of punctuation, capitalization, and sensible structure preserved in case you somehow find it meaningful.) Now, time to pick up a book from someone who knows how to tell a story.
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