1919 ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
American writer John Dos Passos wrote three novels in the 1930s that is really one extended novel of 1200 pages that came to be known as the trilogy U.S.A. The three installments of the U.S.A. trilogy are The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). U.S.A. is a saga of American life as seen through the eyes of some of its more ordinary everyday people: a sailor, a set designer, a stenographer, a marketing man, a college man, a labor activist, a pampered Texas belle, a mechanic, etc. Life for these characters is at times cynical, gritty, ugly, difficult, frightening, tiresome, worrisome, unglamorous, prosaic, confusing and confounding.
The Great War (“The War to End All Wars”) was the overlying event in American life in the late teens. Woodrow Wilson ran for (and won) the presidency in 1916 with the promise to keep America out of the European war, but it was drawn in eventually, anyway. In 1919, we see some of the characters who were introduced in The 42nd Parallel living in Paris in pursuit of the war effort. It seemed it was the thing to do for stylish young women to go to Paris and volunteer their services, more in the pursuit of glamor or having a good time or finding a suitable man than out of a sense of service to mankind.
Another important topic in the novel is socialism and the impending (it was believed) worldwide workers’ revolution. With the revolution in Russia in 1917 and then with the Great War, many people believed the stage was being set for the world (and the United States) to abandon capitalism and democracy and revert to a system of government for the people (the workers) and not for a few elites to accrue wealth. (Background information reveals that John Dos Passos was himself an ardent leftist.)
The U.S.A. trilogy is a landmark of American fiction, although it’s not what we might call a people pleaser or a bestseller. It’s accessible to the modern reader and well worth the time and effort to read it, but it doesn’t have a central character that we (the reader) might root for, and there is really no plot to speak of because the story moves around from one character and one situation to another. And, then, there are the Camera Eye and Newsreel sections, which are described as “experimental” (many people are put off, including me, by the word “experimental” when it’s applied to fiction). There’s plenty here of interest, though, especially if you are a student of literature or American fiction of the twentieth century.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp