The 42nd Parallel ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
With the trilogy U.S.A., John Dos Passos (1896-1970) took a stab at writing the great American novel of the twentieth century. The first book in the trilogy, The 42nd Parallel, is a panorama of American life from 1900 to the First World War, told through its fictional characters. All the characters are striving, desiring, climbing, grappling with the world in one way or another, trying to overcome the circumstances of their birth and attempting to rise in the world.
The 42nd Parallel is written in an “experimental” style (but still very accessible to the reader), meaning that there is no continuous narrative, but the story moves from character to character (some of whose paths eventually converge). All the characters are fascinating American types (the handsome business tycoon with an eye for the ladies and a difficult wife; the young working man who believes in workers’ rights and the coming socialist revolution; the young woman struggling to make a place for herself in a business world dominated by men; the young auto mechanic who doesn’t have much luck with the women or with keeping a job). The characters are swept along on the wave of history, whether it’s revolution in Mexico or Russia, war, labor unrest, the loosening of nineteenth century moral standards, or the changing political landscape which seems to be tending toward socialism.
Another thing that makes The 42nd Parallel unique is that the narrative is interspersed with brief:
- “The Camera Eye” sections, autobiographical vignettes in the stream of consciousness style, which means they don’t always make much sense.
- “Newsreels” sections, consisting of (sometimes) relevant front-page headlines.
- “Biography” sections, short accounts of the some of the notable people of the first two decades of the twentieth century, such as Thomas Edison, Eugene Debs and Henry Ford.
“The Camera Eye,” “Newsreels,” and “Biography” sections are not as annoying and intrusive to the story as you might think. They are thankfully short and easy to read. They serve more as a brief respite (like a scene change) to the story.
If you are an avid reader (like me) or a student of American literature, you will love The 42nd Parallel. It’s a real piece of Americana and one of the greatest and most unique literary creations of the twentieth century. I haven’t yet read the other two parts of the trilogy (1919 and The Big Money), but I intend to read them very soon.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp