The roadside of my mind is piled with books I have tossed aside because I couldn’t push through them. “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth is a classic example. I’ve picked up the book three times and most recently made it to page 100 before tossing it out the window. I was on my third try before finishing “Ulysses” by James Joyce. In the case of “American Pastoral” the book never hooked me in and the story always seemed to drag. In the case of “Ulysses” it was a matter of finding the patience and courage to navigate my way to the end. I’ve since reread Joyce’s work and my hope is upon trying Roth’s opus again I will find my way through it.
It’s this way with books sometimes. They are cold and spiteful and mean, often needing the right place and time to open themselves to us. But there are times when I think we as readers must power through, ignoring the urge to succumb to the boredom or ire. Of course the opposite applies, since life is too short to waste our time on bad books.
The first try
On my first try, I made it through the first two books of John Dos Passos‘ “USA trilogy”—”The 42nd Parallel” and “1919″—before crapping out halfway through “The Big Money.” I don’t have a legitimate excuse. Often I have the attention span of a child in a toy store and to stay focused through 1300-pages isn’t the easiest of tasks. Looking back I should’ve broken the books up into three, tackling each after a rest. But I envisioned the three as a series and so I wanted to finish the them consecutively.
I say this because when I finally picked the book up again—my copy contains all three of the novels—I decided to start from the beginning. My mind can sometimes be harder to understand than the themes of a David Markson novel. Why wouldn’t I simply read “The Big Money” and call it a day?
But I didn’t do that and picked up from the beginning of “The 42nd Parallel,” the first in the trilogy. It starts at the beginning of 20th c. America and leads up the beginning of World War I. It follows five characters, the two most interesting probably being Mac, a rail-riding adventurer who is working for the labor movement, and Janey, a stenographer whose brother, Joe, plays a prominent role in “1919.” Essentially the story line follows these characters in their somewhat mundane lives, giving background to what America was like during this time.
“Never forget the importance of putting up a fine front to the world.” —”The 42nd Parallel”
Perhaps this is the best part of “The 42nd Parallel,” the glimpse into the attitudes and culture of America before the First Great War, a war that Dos Passos was vehemently against. As the reader moves into “1919″—the second volume in the trilogy and hands down my favorite—the antiwar sentiment takes center stage.
“The world’s no fun anymore
only machinegunfire and arson
starvation lice bedbugs cholera typhus.” —”1919″
There seems to be a desperation from every character, a growing sense that the world is descending into madness and nothing is going to save them. Joe joined the war but almost immediately regrets the decision. “This ain’t a war,” he says, “it’s a goddamn whorehouse.”
Dos Passos seemed to hit his stride in this book. Where “The 42nd Parallel” seemed to drag, perhaps it is best read as a set up for the momentum of “1919.” There are too many notes and passages I’d like to share with you. There are few books that have struck me as “powerful” but this book would be one of those. Having read it twice, I can honestly say it’s one of the best antiwar books ever written. This revolutionary writer bullies his way to the front of the town hall and shouts in a voice so loud and full of passion it’s hard not to stand at attention and take in every word.
At one point he calls the war “the greatest conspiracy in history” and looking back it’s hard not to consider what he’s saying as truth. Though I’d argue at parties—when no one is listening and I’ve had half a bottle of Wild Turkey—that all wars were fought for greed and power and money, at least “they” could frame them so the war seems just and righteous. World War I was nothing more than murder and slaughter, some sick Malthusian experiment gone awry. Of course that’s just my warped opinion.
“It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.” —”1919″
I don’t want it to sound as if “The Big Money” isn’t worth reading, but it certainly is anti-climatic after the power and fury of “1919.” And a great many of the story lines end somewhat melodramatically. But the ideas and themes are what makes this entire trilogy worth it. Reading one without the other would be a tragedy, like watching only one movie in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. You have to complete the circle.
Structure and techniques
In between the narrative Dos Passos includes “passages” before each chapter. These passages include: “The Camera Eye,” written in a stream of consciousness which tracks Dos Passos’ life as a writer; “Newsreels,” which are actual headlines from newspapers of the time; and biographies of historical figures.
“The Camera Eye” is obviously a post-modern technique before it was en vogue to do so. The “Newsreels” offer, as I said above, a glimpse into American culture at the time. The factual world interwoven with the fictional world is another po-mo technique, one I think for the 1930s was extraordinary and doesn’t get nearly enough attention.
It could probably be argued these sections take away from the narrative and make it harder to read. To some extent I agree with that take. No one wants to be interrupted mid-story, but there’s a deeper meaning behind the techniques. The Wikipedia page touches on some of the meaning, though I find the amount of information available on these three books to be woefully limited online.
The author and his ideas
It could be that Dos Passos’ political ideas simply overshadowed his writing career. No one mentions him in the same breath as Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner, but this trilogy has stood the test of time. It appears on Modern Library’s “greatest novels of the century list” and how could you not trust a bunch of elitist pedants at a random publishing company?
Dos Passos wrote most of these three books with a socialist axe—or would it be sickle?—to grind. As one character states, “The only man who gets anything out of capitalism is the crook.” Dos Passos later would change his stance on socialism, due in part to a friend being killed in the Spanish Civil War (the same event, by the way, would result in him severing ties with Hemingway.) Dos Passos would later become a conservative, campaigning for Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.
But I’ve longed believed that political standing means nothing in the face of knowing what is just and unjust. And Dos Passos wrote more than one antiwar themed book, a just cause indeed. In all honesty one the major reasons this trilogy appears on this list, aside from my self-satisfaction for finally finishing all three books, is Dos Passos’ penchant for stepping out against war. For that alone people should read this trilogy.