Monday, June 6, 2022

The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos

Kaleidoscope of the American experience, 1900-1917
The first book in the U.S.A. trilogy by American author John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel, was published in 1930. The trilogy continues in the novel entitled 1919 and concludes with The Big Money. If this first volume is an accurate indication of the series as a whole, the U.S.A. trilogy is one of the best written and most important works in American literature of the early 20th century, on a par with great American novels like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.

The 42nd Parallel is a modern Balzacian overview and critique of American society in the first two decades of the 20th century, with a special focus on the class struggle between capital and labor. Stylistically, it combines the muckraking naturalism of works by Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser with the cinematic modernism of Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. Although, like Steinbeck, Dos Passos clearly has leftist leanings, this is not a propaganda novel but rather a kaleidoscopic rendering of socioeconomic reality at a crucial time in the history of American labor. Dos Passos writes of Socialism not with the stridently hopeful enthusiasm of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, but rather with the nostalgic melancholy of a lost cause.

Dos Passos constructs the book in a collage-like format. The bulk of the text consists of chapters that chart the individual lives of a handful of characters from childhood through education (or lack thereof) to their entry into the workforce and their subsequent struggle or rise. As the title indicates, the characters gravitate towards cities along the 42nd parallel of latitude—New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh—though the narrative occasionally wanders as far afield as Mexico. Each protagonist navigates the sociopolitical landscape to pursue the American Dream in his or her own way, whether that means striking it rich in big business, living independently as a single woman, or working to promote the cause of Socialism. The unflinching, nothing-is-sacred realism with which Dos Passos writes these lives is remarkable. The intricate narratives vividly illuminate the time period in question, yet readers of today will still find much to identify with in these characters’ experiences, making for a very compelling read.

Interspersed between these meaty chapters are shorter vignettes, including “Newsreels” that combine snippets of newspaper headlines, popular song lyrics, and radio journalism to offer glimpses into the historical events and general atmosphere of the time. The sections entitled “The Camera Eye” are free-form stream-of-consciousness prose poems that resemble personal reflections or dialogues between unnamed characters. Dos Passos also periodically inserts a brief biographical sketch of an important historical figure from the world of industry, labor, politics, or finance, such as Eugene V. Debs, Thomas Edison, Bob La Follette, and Andrew Carnegie. The “Camera Eye” sections often get overly self-indulgent in their surrealist beat-poetry aesthetic, but the “Newsreels” and biographies really do enlarge the reader’s understanding of the times.

Judging by this first book, it would seem the U.S.A. trilogy is not so much a trilogy at all but rather one big novel divided into three volumes. The 42nd Parallel can’t really stand on its own as a complete work of literature. There is no ending to the book nor endings to any of the narrative threads within. Instead, it’s a book comprised of beginnings. Nevertheless, I don’t fault Dos Passos for that because after having read The 42nd Parallel I certainly want to read the next two books to find out what happens to these characters and experience more of the author’s innovative re-creation of this pivotal period in American history.
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