Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dos Passos's U.S.A.

I have been lax at updating this blog, mostly due to limited time, but also because the last major work of fiction I read was a behemoth.  John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, made up of The 49th Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money clock in at well over 1000 pages and, I feel, makes a strong case for the War and Peace of North America.  Dos Passos released these three novels over the course of several years but, following the original plan that he laid out, I read them as a single whole and in retrospect feel that this is truly how it was intended to be read.

The three novels are structurally the same but thematically different.  The 49th Parallel has an intense focus on the labour movement at the turn of the century.  1919 moves much of the setting offshore as we follow several characters engaged in WWI in one way or another.  The Big Money returns to the United States and covers the period between the end of the war and culminates just before the stock market crash.

Stylistically, Dos Passos takes a unique approach to this work, which is consistent across all three novels.  Rather than a sustained narrative, there are several key people followed in each book, interspersed with interludes called The Camera Eye and Newsreels, and brief character sketches of famous (and some now sadly neglected) figures.  His desire to show the character of the United States involved pulling together as broad a portrait as possible and the addition of these two elements performs this role.  Newsreels is a collection of just that: snippets of headlines, newspaper articles and popular songs.  The Camera Eye compliments these by providing glimpses from another viewpoint, some say to reflect Dos Passos himself.

Now, all these disparate elements could have easily blown apart but instead they form a cohesive whole on the strength of the character writing.  Almost every character he writes about he makes eminently likable.  In fact, the closest writer I've read who can say so much about a person and their inner life in so few words has been in the short stories of Joseph Roth.  You follow a character from their youth into their mature selves, including some through to their death.  Dos Passos also has another trick up his sleeve in his ability to showcase his characters.  A character who is the focus of one group of segments is routinely involved in the lives of one or more other characters where they are a bit player, meaning you see their own inner lives, then you see them again in other situations through other eyes.  This effect is striking as is some cases you will read about a person you dismiss as shallow or unimportant, only to reverse your opinion when they become the central protagonist and you begin to understand their motivations.  This weaving together of people, not only within the same part of the trilogy but through all three books, adds further cohesiveness to a novel that is not only the sum of its parts but brilliant in its individual elements.

As mentioned, Dos Passos also includes numerous brief character sketches, some flattering and some critical. There are segments on Woodrow Wilson, Thornstein Veblen, the Wright brothers, among many others.  Again, Dos Passos set out to write a portrait of his time and country and these interludes further develop that.

The U.S.A. trilogy is a monumental work.  Dos Passos's personal politics shines through, particularly in The 49th Parallel but, whether you agree with his politics or not, the strength of his writing and the scope of his vision makes this a must read work of American literature that I can't speak of highly enough.

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