Monday, July 25, 2022

The Big Money by John Dos Passos

The haves and have-nots in 1920s America
First published in 1936, The Big Money is the third novel in the U.S.A. trilogy by author John Dos Passos. Like the two previous books in the series, The 42nd Parallel and 1919, The Big Money is written in an experimental format merging fictional narrative with biographical sketches of historical figures, interludes of stream-of-consciousness prose, and verbal collages of newspaper headlines and journalistic snippets. These elements combine to form a vivid panorama of American society in the 1920s.

Dos Passos saved the best for last. The Big Money is not only the final installment of the trilogy but also its best. This is largely due to the three very intriguing characters that serve as the novel’s protagonists: Charley Anderson, a war veteran hoping to strike it rich in the aircraft manufacturing industry; Margo Dowling, an attractive young woman who pursues a career in show business; and Mary French, a social worker who selflessly devotes her life to labor activism. The two former characters exemplify the commercialism and depravity of the capitalist rat race, while the latter presents a melancholy portrait of martyrdom to the cause of socialism. The supporting cast includes several characters who were featured in the two previous books. Though the narratives of all three novels are rather open-ended, here Dos Passos does to some extent draw the intertwined lives of his ensemble cast together into some degree of closure.

The chapters entitled “The Camera Eye”—vignettes written in a stream-of-consciousness style bordering on prose poetry—are the least successful element in the trilogy. Dos Passos backs off on these a bit in The Big Money, making those passages fewer and farther between, which is to the book’s benefit. Instead, he devotes more pages to the biographical sketches, which really do enlarge the narrative by providing valuable historical context that is interestingly told through the author’s leftist perspective. Among those whom Dos Passos profiles in this novel are the Wright Brothers, William Randolph Hearst, Rudolph Valentino, and Isadora Duncan. The “Newsreels” chapters also seem less random in this book and more pointedly directed at showcasing societal ills, most notably labor abuse and the class struggle but also murders and corruption.

The anticapitalist message of the book is more subtly presented here than in the more blatantly propagandistic works of socialist writers like Upton Sinclair and Jack London. Dos Passos spends most of the novel showing us characters struggling to survive and thrive within the capitalist system, chasing the brass ring and the almighty dollar. All the men seem to be alcoholics; all the women unfaithful gold-diggers, yet Dos Passos is not unsympathetic to these characters. These are regular people leading realistic lives in an oppressive system that drives them towards competition and exploitation. Only from the Mary French perspective does the reader ever get overt discussion of labor issues like miners in Pennsylvania and Colorado being gunned down for striking. The depiction of socialism is not entirely positive either, however, as Dos Passos often points out the greed and pettiness of those Mary French encounters within the movement.

The Big Money is a literary time capsule of an era in which America was rampant with income disparity, monopolistic trusts, and government corruption, yet somehow much of it feels uncomfortably familiar to the 21st century reader. What’s changed is that the labor movement and American socialism are neither as loud and visible nor as hopeful for change as they were a century ago. The societal problems that Dos Passos addresses appear to be unfortunately timeless, which will doubtless ensure the relevance of this exceptional novel for many years to come.
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