John Dos Passos, 1930
After reading Babbitt and The Great Gatsby in tandem with my presidents series, I thought that I would move on to the '30s and finally tackle John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, which had appeared on pretty much every list of canonical American literature I had ever seen, but which had never appeared on the syllabus of any English class I had ever taken or audited. Hell, I'd never even heard anyone say a single word about it. But the sheer audacity of naming a literary work U.S.A. — "Here is a country of over 100 million people, in book form, written by me!" — always had me vaguely curious about it, especially given that I am particularly interested in stories that deal with how the currents of history shape individual human lives. So after wrapping up my article on Herbert Hoover I thought I'd finally take a look.
As it turns out, the first volume, The 42nd Parallel, may have been published during the Hoover administration, but it actually covers the period from the turn of the 20th century up to America's entry into World War I. The structure of the book is unusual. Initially, it alternates irregularly among four different types of chapters:
"The Camera Eye": Stream of consciousness with no connection to the story other than chronological. Sample excerpt: "she was a very fashionable lady and there were white lilies in the hall No my dear I can't bear the scent of them in the room and the bullterriers bit the tradespeople and the little newsy No my dear they never bit nice people and they're quite topping with Billy and his friends". I found these chapters unreadable, and skipped them.
"Newsreel": Take a bunch of newspapers, throw them into a wood chipper, and tape the pieces together at random. These chapters provide a sort of aerial view of historical events that the characters only see at ground level, and so are useful, but because of their chaotic nature, I skimmed them.
Biographies: Every so often Dos Passos throws in a short prose poem about one historical figure or another — Eugene Debs, Minor Keith, Thomas Edison. I read these with interest, but they did feel distinctly ancillary.
"Mac": These chapters, written in the style of a conventional novel, tell the story of Fenian McCreary, from his birth, to his family's move from Connecticut to Chicago following his mother's death, to his stint as an apprentice to a shady traveling salesman, to his days drifting around North America taking odd jobs — working on the railroad in western Canada, setting type at a socialist newspaper in a Nevada mining town, settling down for a while with a wife and children in San Diego, then bailing out to become a revolutionary in Mexico. This standard storytelling is clearly the strongest material in the book, and it was very interesting to get a look at life in so many different places a hundred years ago, but Mac is a pretty unsympathetic character and I wasn't sure I would continue on to volume two. But then, after the seventh Mac chapter, and the tenth Newsreel, and the thirteenth Camera Eye, I turned the page and there was a new heading:
A new main character! For it turns out that The 42nd Parallel is a bit like Cloud Atlas in structure: every so often it shifts to a new story, and we spend several chapters with that new protagonist. And then, near the end, the pendulum starts swinging back. The characters start to meet one another. What's interesting to me about the way Dos Passos structures this novel is that we get to know all these characters separately, from childhood on, without knowing what roles they will play in each other's lives, or even that they'll meet at all. (The book is already weird enough structurally that I actually thought it was entirely possible that none of their paths would ever cross.) Most novels, I suspect, would offer some sort of framing story that would give us a glimpse of the "present day" before flashing back to the characters' childhoods. For instance, it turns out that one of the male characters becomes rich and famous doing public relations for captains of industry, and one of the female characters becomes his secretary. This is an example of what I was talking about above, when I mentioned "the currents of history": this guy could not have worked his way to the top of the advertising industry before the turn of the 20th century, because it was only with the dawn of the new century that the advertising industry even became a thing. Similarly, it was right around that time that secretarial work shifted from being an overwhelmingly male to an overwhelmingly female profession: this young woman might not see herself as a locus of historical forces playing themselves out, but she is, as are we all — which to me is basically the single most fascinating thing about human existence. But in any case, Dos Passos lets us watch this boy grow into a man without us having any inkling that he's going to be the one to make it to the big time. And as we watch this girl grow into a woman, she is the hero of her own chapters — our view of her is not colored by foreknowledge of her role in the "present day" of the book, so we don't think of her as a supporting character in someone else's story.
And then the book ends very abruptly, because it turns out that Dos Passos clearly intended the trilogy to be read as a whole and did not write the novels within it to stand on their own. So be it — this was good enough that I will be continuing on to volume two. Eventually.