The first book in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, The 42nd Parallel takes a widescreen approach to the early years of the 20th century. Instead of focusing on a single character or family or even town or city, Dos Passos writes of a variety of apparently disconnected Americans—what connections exist between them do not appear until late in the book. There’s Mac, the wandering printer and sometime crusader for the working man. There’s Janey, a young stenographer in DC; Eleanor, who works in a Chicago laceshop; marketing man Johnny Moorehouse, and mechanic Charley Anderson. All of these characters differ in life situations but are united in their working-class roots and a longing for something else, something more. The stories of how they go about getting it (or not) make up the bulk of the book.
Interspersed among the chapters on the central characters are short, experimental segments that add flavor and broaden the world of the novel. The “Newsreels” offer soundbites and images from actual newsreels of the time—sort of like historical montages in a film set in the past. More real-life history is offered in the short biographical portraits of such men as Thomas Edison and Eugene V. Debs. And the stream-of-consciousness “The Camera Eye” passages take readers into what is apparently the mind of the author as he narrates bits of his own life story.
Teresa: One of the things that struck me when reading The 42nd Parallel is how modern it feels. As far as the setting goes, it’s thoroughly immersed in the early 20th century, of course, but stylistically, it could be written now. Interlocking stories seem to be the going thing in fiction these days, and the more experimental bits employ techniques that still feel inventive today. That, I suppose, speaks to just how influential Dos Passos has been and how ahead of his time he was as a writer. I can’t say that I loved the book, but I thought Dos Passos was doing pretty interesting things in this book.
Jenny: I agree, it did feel modern. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this. It wasn’t exactly a narrative, though parts of it were narrative, and for me, it never really achieved cohesion. I think I give Dos Passos enough credit as a writer, though, to be fairly sure that that lack of cohesion is on purpose. It felt to me like Dos Passos was trying to show a slice of the United States, the atmosphere in which certain movements could prosper or certain resentments could grow, and so all the different parts were meant to fit together to give impressions more than to tell a story. The 42nd parallel referred to in the title is a meteorological phenomenon, in which storms move from east to west, and it passes through New York, Chicago, and Michigan — all important places in this nonlinear book. I could certainly feel the storms brewing as I read.
Teresa: I often feel that novels with interlocking stories lack cohesion, but I think you’re right that it’s intentional here (even if it kept me from enjoying the novel as much as I might have otherwise). One of the things I did like is how Dos Passos draws attention to some of the class-based injustices of the time without letting the characters totally off the hook for their failures. Mac, for instance, has the disadvantages of poverty and lack of education, but when he gets some good luck or a good job, he blows it by giving in to some impulse, whether for sex or fine clothes or even the noble desire to pursue justice for workers. But then you get Johnny (later J. Ward) Moorehouse, who doesn’t start off with any more advantages and makes as many stupid choices, but finds a completely different fate, thanks to slightly better instincts, luck, and persistence—and a willingness to accept the system for what it is and work within it.
Jenny: That was interesting to me, too. I threaded that kind of thing in with the little biographies he included — some of the most interesting material of the book, to me — Luther Burbank, Andrew Carnegie, Charles Steinmetz. These were people who all came from working-class backgrounds, and who “made good,” as it were, either for the good of working people or against them. I was wondering how much of this ambition, this acceptance of the system, or lack thereof we were supposed to understand as “good” or “bad” behavior. Dos Passos’s own politics changed throughout his life, but when he wrote the U.S.A. trilogy, he was still a socialist. He repeats Eugene Debs’s mantra several times, in the mouth of several different characters: “I want to rise with the ranks, not from the ranks.” So is J. Ward Moorehouse supposed to be admirable, or not? Is Mac a bum or a working-class hero of sorts?
Despite the fact that this book travels to several American cities, to Paris, and to Mexico, I felt it was a little narrow for a book that was meant to give a broad view of American life. I was impressed that it included several women’s points of view (though all the women seemed to have a complete distaste for sexuality), but it appears from this novel that all Americans live in cities, that no one except Jews have any religious practice, and that everyone is white. This fits in pretty neatly with socialist concerns of the time, of course, but it was still interesting to observe.
Teresa: I rather liked the ambiguity in the characterizations, but I wonder if some of that is tied up more neatly in the other books. I hadn’t really made note of the narrowness that you mention, but that is an interesting point. We get a glimpse of rural life early in the book, when Mac is on the road, but the America depicted here is mostly urban and white. Are there any people of color other than the Mexicans? I was glad Dos Passos did include some women among his main characters because I found the early depictions of women in Mac’s story more than a little off-putting. But Eleanor and Janey are at least as three-dimensional as the men.
I wonder, too, if the other books in the trilogy expand the world of the novel further. It looks like some of the supporting characters in this book (Eveline, Joe) will become central characters in later novels, so I suspect the social world of the novel won’t change that much. The World War I setting, however, may give 1919 a more cohesive feel. I’m not sure whether I’m going to read further, though. I appreciated what Dos Passos was doing here, but I didn’t enjoy it enough to be wanting more, at least not just yet. How about you?
Jenny: I felt the same way. I’m glad I got the chance to read such an interesting, experimental, and influential author, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a narrative that affected me quite so much like a poem by e.e. cummings, but I’m not sure it was something that grabbed me so much that I wanted to go on with it. That was partly because of the lack of cohesion we mentioned — I felt yanked from one experience to another. I think the thing I appreciate most about reading this is having such a vivid slice of the life of that time, the passions of that generation, the hard life of a working man (or woman) at the turn of the century. If those were the concerns of the Lost Generation, I’m very glad I got to read more about them.
We read this book as part of the Classics Circuit tour celebrating the literature of the Lost Generation. Look for the itinerary of the rest of the tour and for sign-ups for future tours at the Classics Circuit website!