Thursday, February 11, 2016

The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos

Another book that's been hanging out on my shelves for years. I am tackling John Dos Passos' U.S.A. Trilogy of which this is the first volume.

    • The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos
    • Published in 1930
    • The other books in the trilogy: 1919 and The Big Money.

    • The main narrative of the U.S.A. Trilogy follows 12 characters over the first 3 decades of the 20th Century. The first book introduces 5 of them: Mac, Janey, Eleanor, Ward and Charley.
    • Each character's background is established from their childhoods and then follows them as adults as they make their way into the world during a period of great change: Victorian/Edwardian/Gilded Age into the "modern" world.
    • The 42nd parallel refers roughly to the location of New York City where most of the characters end up at some point in the story. 

    • Dos Passos uses 4 different types of prose:
      • The main narrative featuring the stories of the main 5 characters.
      • The Newsreels which feature a collection of headlines, newspaper article fragments and song lyrics. These are not necessarily presented in a straightforward way: some of the article fragments are run together in a stream-of-consciousness manner.
      • Short biographies of people famous in the first decades of the 20th Century. Eugene V. Debs, Andrew Carnegie, Luther Burbank, Minor Keith, Thomas Edison, William Jennings Bryan, Bill Haywood, Charles Steinmetz, and Robert La Follette. 
        • I only knew who 5 of these men were before I read this book!
          • For the record: Debs, Carnegie, Burbank (his home & gardens are 25 miles away from my house), Edison and Bryan. 
      • The Camera Eye which is stream-of-consciousness autobiography.

    • Dos Passos has a socialist bent at this point in his career (later in life he became a conservative) and writes with real feeling for the worker rather than the industrialists.
    • This is one of those books that makes more sense if you have a working knowledge of the era --- all the labor strife, the first world war, etc... --- but is not necessary. If you just want the story then you really only need to read the chapters about the characters, skipping the other three portions. I found it all fascinating, if weird sometimes.
    • There are a lot of instances of offensive terms and characters who are casual or overt racists in line with the times. I don't get the feeling that Dos Passos was a racist though. The more racist the character the more foolish he makes them.
    • Another candidate for the Great American Novel. I would say that for the period of 1900 to 1929 this is arguably a great choice.