Thursday, October 02, 2008

The USA Trilogy- The Work Of John Dos Passos In His Prime


USA Trilogy: The 42nd Parallel; 1919; The Big Money, John Dos Passos, Library of America, 1997

I believe that the USA trilogy presented here (thankfully, under one roof- when I first read it in my youth I had to scrounge around for the third book) was the first time that I had read a novel than used the literary devices that the author John Dos Passos employed here. Vignettes, bits of poetry, snap biographies, headline banners all are employed here to great effect to both set up the drama of the narrative (such as it is) and the interplay between the various characters. Today we are all very familiar with the device; as the modern reader has E.L. Doctorow to rely on to continue this tradition as he has done in such works as Ragtime and The Book of Daniel. But back then this was rather an unusual format and one that today’s academic literary scholars have taken apart piece by piece in their efforts discount this work as a worthy insight into a slice of Americana in the first third of the 20th century. However, back in his day he was rated right up there with old Hemingway. That was rarefied air indeed.

The stories here cross between the exploits of the rich (and their wannabes) and the exploitation of poor (and their gonnabes). As is natural in a novel, modern or otherwise, we also have the search for love, the trauma of lost love, the inevitable longings and the occasional betrayals of that condition. We have hustlers (in high and low places), drifters, grifters and midnight shifters. In short, a regular cross-section of the white native and immigrant populations of that period. We see these characters in America and the other noted spots of the period, such as Mexico, Europe and Russia. We see them as political, anti-political, non-political and clueless, wise or broken. In some 1300 pages we get a companion as much as a novel. For those of certain generations, including this writer’s generation of '68, these characters- designers, high powered executives, labor organizers, scabs, revolutionaries were types we were at least familiar with from stories in childhood. Well, friends they are back here in this edition. So take your time and get re-introduced to a slice of America that is long gone and ain’t coming back.

A short comment on the author's politics- at this period in his life (the 1920’s) he was an ardent leftist of some persuasion. (I have asked around but nobody believes that he was actually in the American Communist Party (any help here?). In Spain in the 1936-37 period he was, according to my sources, close to some of the Americans in the International Brigade (Abraham Lincoln Battalion) and wrote some good articles on their exploits and their trials and tribulations. All this is by way of saying that I think that Dos Passos' youthful leftist political slant helped fuel the book and gave it a vitality lacking in some of his latter work when he got old, cranky and right-wing about politics.