1919 ~ A Capsule Book Review

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

The 42nd Parallel ~ A Capsule Book Review

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