Wednesday, May 25, 2011

U.S.A. Trilogy / by John Dos Passos

Born in Chicago in 1896, John Dos Passos was the illegitimate son of his father John Dos Passos Sr., a prominent attorney of Portuguese ancestry. Following the death of John Sr.'s wife in 1910, he married John Jr's mother Agnes and acknowledged the younger Dos Passos as his biological son. Despite his somewhat irregular family situation, Dos Passos received a first rate education, boarding first at the Choate School then Harvard and ultimately studying abroad at the Sorbonne institute. Traveling extensively over the next few years, he met up and mingled with people all over the world including several widely-known American ex-pat writers living in Europe. His 1938 novel U.S.A., a trilogy describing the three decades between 1900 and 1930, is by far his most famous work and one of the most endearing descriptions of American history to be put into fictional form.
A new century dawns on the United States of America and with it a conflux of new people with new ideas, better machines and bigger buildings, different dynamics and deeper conflicts that are all configured together inside this "slice of a continent". For people like Fainy "Mac" McCreary, the first generation American son of Irish immigrants, it's a chance to get out and see the country apart from the east coast. For J. Ward Morehouse, the new century brings a wave of new business opportunities and the promise of prosperity. Excitement also finds Charlie Anderson of Fargo, North Dakota as he hops the rail and begins a nomadic life toward anywhere and everywhere, seeking for a job where he can work with his hands and a woman who'll love him. All the while, as individual lives come and go, America steadily creeps toward its destiny.

U.S.A. is unique among American novels, both for it's length, three full-size novels in all; its subject, three decades of history; and its depth of personal encounter where individual lives are illuminated to the reader. The novels which make up the trilogy--The 42nd Parallel, 1919 & The Big Money--create an unforgettable depiction of a still young country. Represented through a collective experience which spans all places, races, classes and backgrounds is a story about a place and a people who form a nation. Crucial to the plot are events, small and large, indirectly affecting the central characters (a cast of about 12 individuals in all) like the lingering presence World War I, job shortages and unionization as well as, in some cases like that of J.Ward Morehouse, the overwhelming surplus of opportunity and enterprise.

But one shouldn't think that because of its length and range of characters that U.S.A. requires a deep investment. Dos Passos masterpiece isn't a prudently serious novel; nor is it a conventional work where a diluted backstory must be trudged through to realize the plot. It's a funny book with sardonic humor and intermediary "updates" never far from the central narrative. The author uses several startlingly clever literary devices to capture the aura of early twentieth century life. With his "newsreels", he broadcasts the headlines and impressions upon the public conscience; in his "camera eye", he subtly incorporates a vague autobiographical soliloquy inside a stream-of-consciousness arrangement. Within the sweeping scope of the story are major historical figures like Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Ford and Dale Carnegie as well as lesser known names now all but forgotten. To be sure there's a lot to the book. And it may take a reader some time to get through. But the point is never to vigilantly keep track of every detail. For as Dos Passos himself summarized, the book is "many things . . . but mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people". (FIC DOSPASSO)

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