“[He’s] the greatest living writer of our time.” -Jean Paul Sartre, 1938
“Dos Passos came nearer than any of us to writing the Great American Novel, and it’s entirely possible he succeeded. I can only say, from my own point of view, that no novel I read while in college stimulated me more, astounded me more and showed me what a thrilling inner life was there for anyone gifted enough to be a major American novelist.” – Norman Mailer on Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy
Dos Passos created a “whole new school of writing.” - Sinclair Lewis, on Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer
One of the greatest pleasures of being a reader is not only discovering a hidden gem in a book, but finding a hidden gem in a new author…especially one that made you leery at first. I was not overly excited about John Dos Passos or his U.S.A. Trilogy. Even though basic research would/should have made me anticipate it with joy. A forgotten member of the Lost Generation? Contemporary and friend (sort of ) of Fitzgerald and Hemingway? This should have tipped me off. but instead, I was apprehensive about my ability to like Dos Passos. Somewhere along the line, he had become lumped in with Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. Not that I don’t sometimes enjoy Lewis and Dreiser (Main Street was one of my favorite books I read this year). They can just be a little daunting sometimes.
And then, lo and behold, I very quickly learned that I was oh so wrong in my apprehension. 42nd Parallel, the first volume of the trilogy, turned out to be FABULOUS!
42nd Parallel, published in 1930, tells the story of five characters: Mac, Janey, Eleanor, Ward, and Charley, following them from all childhood until the beginning of America’s direct involvement in WWI. They’re all from different backgrounds, different places. Eventually they converge and begin to play parts in each others lives. They’re all trying to figure out where they fit in – where they fit in society, in the country, the new century, the political world - what their role could or should be. But it’s not a character study – Dos Passos isn’t trying to be Henry James and describe every minute detail…every motivation. It just goes – it moves…somewhere I saw Dos Passos’s writing described as “rapid-transit pace,” and that is an apt description.
Dos Passos calls his style "contemporary chronicle." The novel isn’t just these characters, and it’s not traditional narrative. The story of each is told intermittently from that characters point-of-view (but in the third person). This is interspersed with news headlines, song lyrics, biographies of famous or important people of the time, and what Dos Passos calls the “camera eye,” which I will post about later. And when I say biographies, I don’t mean, “so-and-so was born at this place, on this date, and here’s what he did.” Here’s two examples:
(From "The Electrical Wizard")
Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, in eighteen fortyseven;
Milan was a little town on the Huron River that for a while was the wheatshipping port for the whole Western Reserve; the railroads took away the carrying trade, the Edison family went up to Port Huron in Michigan to grow up with the country;
his father was a shinglemaker who puttered round with various small speculations; he dealt in grain and feed and lumber and built a wooden tower a hundred feet high; tourists and excursionists paid a quarter each to go up the tower and look at the view over Lake Huron and the St. Clair River and Sam Edison became a solid and respected citizen of Port Huron.
Thomas Edison only went to school for three months because the teacher thought he wasn't right bright. His mother taught him what she knew at home and read eighteenth century writers with him, Gibbon and Hume and Newton, and let him rig up a laboratory in the cellar.
Whenever he read about anything he went down cellar and tried it out.
When he was twelve he needed money to buy books and chemicals; he got a concession as a newsbutcher on the daily train from Detroit to Port Huron. In Detroit there as a public library and he read it...
He worked all day and all night tinkering with cogwheels and bits of copperwire and chemicals in bottles, whenever he thought of a device he tried it out. He made things work. He wasn't a mathematician. I can hire mathematicians but mathematicians can't hire me, he said.
In eighteen seventysix he moved to Menlo Park where he invented the carbon transmitter and made the telephone a commercial proposition, that made the microphone possible
he worked all day and all night and produced
the incandescent electric lamp
and systems of generation, distribution, regulation and measurement of electric current, sockets, switches, insulators, manholes. Edison worked out the first systems of electric light using a direct current and small unit lamps and the multiple arc that were installed in London Paris New York and Sunbury Pa., [YEAH SUNBURY!]
the threewire system
the magnetic ore separator,
an electric railway.
(I just had to make sure I included the part about Sunbury! It's friggin' awesome when you come from a small town without any nationally known import and then you come across it in a book of such importance.)and from "Proteus"
In eighteen ninetytwo when Eichemeyer sold out the corporation that was to form General Electric, Steinmetz was entered in the contract along with other valuable apparatus. All his life Steinmetz was a piece of apparatus belonging to General Electric...
General Electric humored him, let him be a socialist, let him keep a greenhouseul of cactuses lit up by mercury lights, let him have alligators, talking crows and a gila monster for pets and the publicity department talked up the wizard, the medicine man who knew the symbols that opened all the doors of Ali Baba's cave...
Steinmetz was a famous magician and he talked to Edison tapping with the Morse code on Edison's knee
because Edison was so very deaf
and he went out West
to make speeches that nobody understood
and he talked to Bryan about God on a railroad train
and all the reporters stood round while he and Einstein
met face to face;
and but they couldn't catch what they said.
And Steinmetz was the most valuable piece of apparatus General Electric had
Until he wore out and died.
His narrative has a similar pace and rhythm as the biographies.
42nd Parallel is experimental and modern. You can see the coming generation of writers, and I was struck by the similartiy of cadence in Dos Passos as in Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. I don't know if Ginsberg read or was influenced by Dos Passos, but I can't imagine he wasn't. I know Kerouac was. He quotes U.S.A. Trilogy in his letters, and was reading Dos Passos (aloong with Dreiser, Wolfe and Sinclair Lewis) during the time he was outlining Dr. Sax. What I don’t understand is why, apart from my book lists, have I not heard of Dos Passos? Why isn’t he mentioned in school, in literary resources, along with Stein, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Hemingway? Where did his reputation sour such that, while he was just as popular and important in the early 20th century as those others were, somehow he is now pretty much forgotten?
On average, I finish almost one book per week. Over the last 10 years, that means almost 500 books. Probably more than half of those are just ok. So far this year, I’ve read 53 books and looking at my list, less than 15 really stand out. So, to find a new author that really excites me…that’s what reading is all about. Jeanette Winterson, in one of her essays, says, “knowing that there are favorite books still to come is a continuing happiness.” That’s why I bother with book lists…for an increased chance to find those great authors. The chance that I would have picked up Dos Passos without his appearance on The Lists is probably relatively small. But I loved 42nd Parallel…I’m so glad I found it. I cannot wait to read the next two books in the trilogy, and his other work. A+ for this leading contender for the Great American Novel.