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U.S.A. (1938)

by John Dos Passos

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: U.S.A. Trilogy (omnibus 1-3)

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1,2051311,497 (4.04)81
Unique among American novels for its epic scope and panoramic and social sweep, John Dos Passos' U.S.A. has long been acknowledged as a monument of modern fiction. In the novels that make up the trilogy - The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936) - Dos Passos creates an unforgettable collective portrait of America, shot through with sardonic comedy and brilliant social observation. He interweaves the careers of his characters and the events of their time with a narrative verve and breathtaking technical skill that make U.S.A. among the most compulsively readable of modern classics. In his prologue Dos Passos writes: "U.S.A. is the slice of a continent. U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stock quotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a public library full of old newspapers and dogeared history books with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil...But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people." The trilogy is filled with American speech: labor radicals and advertising executives, sailors and stenographers, interior decorators and movie stars. The volume contains newly researched chronologies of Dos Passos' life and of world events cited in U.S.A., notes, and an essay on textual selection.… (more)
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English (11)  Italian (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (13)
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
My what a splendid book this is. Vast in its scope and magnanimous in its treatment of the varied strata that made up a nation coming to terms with the 20th century. I defy you to enjoy this, despite it being well over 1,000 pages long, a trilogy that follows 12 characters some related and others not. Not only is it written in a style that is incredibly accessible for such a long novel, it’s written in four styles that are incredibly accessible. Even the stream of consciousness episodes are so well crafted and (ahem) so short, that they fly by.

While I enjoyed the characters and what they got up to, what I most enjoyed was how I saw the nation of the US through their eyes and experiences. It was a promising time for the US and various ideals are put to the test including the spectral opposites of capitalism and socialism. Neither of them come off well, but I kind of felt, a bit like in Sinclair’s masterpiece The Jungle, that it was the ones who espoused a more societal basis for life that were painted with more touches of heroism. Certainly, you sympathised a lot more with those who fell victims to mass industry and the drive to industrialise at the sake of the common man.

Certainly Dos Passos here composed a classic but not just for his storytelling skills. It’s a nation analysed and put to the test of history. Interestingly, it shows how weak the ideals are, ideals that, even today are either praised or vilified in equal measure depending on which facet of US citizenry you talk to. I’m not sure that the US has really grown much more mature in its pursuit of an identity than it is portrayed in this novel. I wonder what the USAnians among you would respond to that.

For outsiders who want to know more of why the US is as it is, this is a good novel to reflect on. There’s such a vast amount here to consider there’s no way to do it justice. Even just one of the 12 character threads would provide book clubs with hours of discussion. For those of you on the inside, I think this is a good one to have under your belt to say you know where US literature is coming from and to provide food for thought as you continue to build on what those 12 characters built before you. ( )
  arukiyomi | Oct 11, 2015 |
The U.S.A. trilogy is a major work of American writer John Dos Passos, comprising the novels The 42nd Parallel (1930); 1919, (1932); and The Big Money (1936). The three books were first published together in a single volume titled U.S.A. by Harcourt Brace in January, 1938. Dos Passos had added a prologue with the title "U.S.A." to The Modern Library edition of The 42nd Parallel published the previous November, and the same plates were used by Harcourt Brace for the trilogy.[1] Houghton Mifflin issued two boxed three-volume sets in 1946 with color endpapers and illustrations by Reginald Marsh.[2] The first illustrated edition was limited to 365 copies, 350 signed by both Dos Passos and Marsh,[3] in a deluxe binding with leather labels and beveled boards.[4] The binding for the larger 1946 trade issue was tan buckram with red spine lettering and the trilogy designation "U.S.A." printed in red over a blue rectangle on both the spine and front cover.[5] This illustrated edition was reprinted in various bindings[4] until the Library of America edition appeared in 1996, 100 years after Dos Passos' birth.[5]

The trilogy employs an experimental technique, incorporating four narrative modes: fictional narratives telling the life stories of twelve characters; collages of newspaper clippings and song lyrics labeled "Newsreel"; individually labeled short biographies of public figures of the time such as Woodrow Wilson and Henry Ford and fragments of autobiographical stream of consciousness writing labeled "Camera Eye". The trilogy covers the historical development of American society during the first three decades of the twentieth century.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked U.S.A. Trilogy 23rd on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
  DeeringPublicLibrary | Aug 17, 2013 |
My reaction to reading the trilogy in 1997. Spoilers may follow.

I read this trilogy to get some appreciation of the style so successfully used by science fiction writers John Brunner and Joe Haldeman, and I found that style interesting. I liked the Camera Eye sections – impressionistic vignettes sometimes told from the point of view of some of the characters and sometimes they seem to feature viewpoint characters never seen elsewhere in the trilogy. The Newsreel sections were compelling, and the very best thing about the trilogy is a series of biographies of historical personages. Told in a variety of styles, a variety of tones, they sometimes approach prose-poems and are always interesting and very revealing in the large and small details of the people’s lives (cultural, political, scientific, and business figures).

These techniques, together with straight fictional prose, create, as they do in sf novels, a definite sense of place and time – here America in the first approximately 25 years of the 20th Century. Unfortunately, while this book evokes a time and place, it doesn’t work as drama. Many of the characters blurred together in my mind. All were on the make – at least in The Big Money. Unplanned pregnancies play a major part in the plot (as they probably did in the real lives of people during the time of this trilogy since artificial contraception was often illegal) and, for that reason, I probably confused the female characters more often than the male, but all the characters suffered from lack of memorable distinctions.

However, I’m glad I read this book to examine Dos Passos’ wonderful, groundbreaking, influential style and the history I learned. ( )
1 vote RandyStafford | Jul 25, 2013 |
Rated: C+ ( )
  jmcdbooks | Jan 29, 2013 |
The theme of "U.S.A." was Dos Passos’ topic of choice- social injustice. Book 1, "The 42nd Parallel" - takes place between 1900 and 1914. Book 2, "1919" - covers World War I, and book 3, titled "Big Money" - ends in the 1930’s. Each of the three volumes can be read individually, but none are of significant importance on their own. The complete set however, makes an epic masterpiece that is rated number 23 on Modern Library’s 100 greatest novels. Leaning strongly towards socialism at the onset of writing "U.S.A"., Dos Passos writes about labor organizers, socialist rebels, union strikes and working conditions that are a stark reminder of why labor unions were invented in the first place.

"The 42nd Parallel" is the story of seven primary characters including several very modern progressive-thinking women. It is difficult to determine through most of this volume exactly where Dos Passos is going with his story because, although some of the characters are acquainted with each other, there is no clear connection between them. In addition, Dos Passos has the habit of starting a narrative about a particular character, filling the reader in on their history, family and background, describing their intimate feelings and motivation, taking the character to a point in time... then abruptly dropping them and moving on to the next character from a totally different background. In some instances he never returns to that character... leaving them hanging in unexplained limbo.

Told from a position of an unemotional and purely objective outsider, the lack of feeling often carries over to the reader. Inevitably, just as you become interested in a character, poof... they disappear and the story changes direction. Not to mislead you, some of the characters do coincidentally meet up later in the 2nd and 3rd books of the trilogy, but with a total count of 1240 pages, by the time the character resurfaces, it is like running into an old acquaintance you barely remember and are not sure you ever really knew at all.

One thing all the characters seemed to have in common was being raised in families that faced a daily struggle. Surrounded by poverty, they all have a strong will to succeed in a society that demands hard labor just to survive... a society having no sympathy for slackers. It was not uncommon for children in their early teens to drop out of school and leave home in search of a job with one change of clothes in a sack and no idea where they would eventually end up.

Dos Passos’ unique writing style is mesmerizing: simple, down-to-earth, to the point, using local dialects, down-home jargon, street slang, and old fashioned sayings like, “that’s swell” and “I lied like a fish” (page 419). Dos Passos has the habit of running words together like: cigarsmoky, shinydark, greenslimy, stillwarm, returnedhero, eveningclothes, and afterthetheater. Descriptions titillate the senses and are for any aspiring writer to envy: nuns were “dripping in black”. “a small grayhaired pigeonbreasted woman” (page 133). “a stout redfaced man who smoked many cigars and cleared his throat a great deal and had a very oldtimey Southern Godblessmysoul way of talking” (page 137).

One of the most memorable scenes of "The 42nd Parallel" is descriptions of how the general public reacted when the announcement came that the United States had entered World War I. The overwhelming enthusiasm was cause for celebration like the 4th of July and New Years Eve all rolled into one. War is nothing to glorify, but the overwhelming sense of patriotism was beautiful.

"1919" carries the reader through the turbulent years of World War I. Following the lives of four characters introduced in "The 42nd Parallel" and two additional principal characters, Dos Passos passionately paints a picture of an era of industrial expansion and the creation of wealth for the fortunate few... with back-breaking labor and sacrifice for the masses. An atmosphere of despondency saturates the pages... prostitutes, promiscuity, shot-gun-weddings, social diseases, striking workers, and Marxist revolutionaries spouting communist doctrine.

World War I is in full bloom but there are no scenes of combat. Instead, we view a high school dropout taking a job for less than minimum wage as a Merchant Marine and the story of his struggle to survive a lonely dismal life at sea, two girlfriends who share an apartment and interior decorating business in New York City, a professional Marxist striker who travels the country in support of union employees, and a well-to-do spoiled “wanna-be socialist” young woman who is prejudiced, bigoted, and too prissy to get her hands dirty. The closest we get to the war is through an American volunteer serving as an ambulance driver in France and Italy prior to the United States entrance in the war.

Since Dos Passos did volunteer for an ambulance crew during those years and in those exact countries (along with is friend Ernest Hemingway), there is apparent authenticity in the telling... and it’s not a pretty picture. Always assuming the American volunteer ambulance drivers were conscientious heroic people, it was shocking to learn that in this case, it was quite the opposite - a cowardly pacifist looking for a good adventurous party and a way to avoid the American draft. This is where the prostitutes and whores come in.

Dos Passos can tell a dynamic story. He’s an excellent communicator writing in fast paced, startlingly crisp, short staccato sentences... volleying the conversation back and forth effortlessly. Dos Passos’ historic eye-witness illuminating account of what life was like during the World War I years definitely qualifies the book as an American literary classic. Unfortunately, most of the characters were not very likable people; petty, small-minded, superficial, self-centered, and looking for instant gratification. Didn’t Dos Passos know any nice people? Or perhaps, the nice people just didn’t make for entertaining reading.

The third and final book of the "U.S.A." Trilogy is by far the best of the set. By this time in the collective story, World War I is over, and Dos Passos’ is clearly becoming disillusioned with the socialist doctrine... leaning more towards free market enterprise. This is clearly reflected in his writing.

Returning to the story with some of the characters from the first book, "The 42nd Parallel", Dos Passos takes us through the 1920’s and into the 1930’s. The war is over and it’s time to get serious about making money. Notice the book is called "Big Money" and not "Easy Money". Regardless of if-and-how any of the characters become wealthy, it doesn’t come easy and there is a heavy price to pay.

Dos Passos’ characters include a returning soldier who expects to ride the wave of his heroic war reputation, an aspiring actress with big blue eyes and a heart of gold but no talent, a collection of independent self-supporting women who thought they had everything going for them but find they are now “old maids”, and socialist revolutionaries who realize they are nothing more than aging rabble-rousers fighting for a lost cause.

As the story unfolds it is like watching a train wreck in the making. It is so obvious what is coming... the one way trip down the path to personal destruction. Yet you are mesmerized - you can’t turn your back. And as it happens - just like you knew it would, you realize that it could not end in any other way. But oh, why? Just why?

This is the beauty of Dos Passos’ writing. He was a realist. He may have had dreams of the ideal society, but as time passed he came to realize that there is good and bad, strength and weakness, in every human. Even the die-hard socialists who claimed to be working for the good of mankind could be coldhearted, cruel, selfish, ego maniacs. And human nature often dictates that people live through decisions of the heart- not by logical evaluation of their options. And when things go bad, everyone around them is nodding and saying, “What were they thinking?” ( )
  LadyLo | Oct 16, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dos Passos, Johnprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Marsh, ReginaldIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This work is titled U.S.A. by the publisher (Library of America) and contains "The 42nd Parallel", "1919", and "The Big Money". Each of these titles also appear as separate works by the author, John Dos Passos, which should NOT be combined with this omnibus entry.
This is the main work - dos Passos's "1919" (unabridged). Please do not combine this unabridged work with the Library of America omnibus called "U.S.A." or any other omnibus/anthology/combined edition setup as a separate work on LT. Abridged editions are also considered separate works on LT.
Combining an unabridged "1919" listed as a separate work from the publisher's omnibus "U.S.A" is acceptable, as long as the work is clearly identified by the owner as the work "1919" (even though bound with, or published with, other works) and not as the combined work or omnibus. So, for example, "1919 (bound w/The 42nd Parallel; The Big Money)", by John Dos Passos, is the same work as "1919" by John Dos Passos, and should be combined with this work. However, "U.S.A" (containing "1919") by John Dos Passos is NOT the same work as "1919" by John Dos Passos, and should NOT be combined with this work.
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Unique among American novels for its epic scope and panoramic and social sweep, John Dos Passos' U.S.A. has long been acknowledged as a monument of modern fiction. In the novels that make up the trilogy - The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936) - Dos Passos creates an unforgettable collective portrait of America, shot through with sardonic comedy and brilliant social observation. He interweaves the careers of his characters and the events of their time with a narrative verve and breathtaking technical skill that make U.S.A. among the most compulsively readable of modern classics. In his prologue Dos Passos writes: "U.S.A. is the slice of a continent. U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stock quotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a public library full of old newspapers and dogeared history books with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil...But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people." The trilogy is filled with American speech: labor radicals and advertising executives, sailors and stenographers, interior decorators and movie stars. The volume contains newly researched chronologies of Dos Passos' life and of world events cited in U.S.A., notes, and an essay on textual selection.

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Contains: The 42nd parallel -- 1919 -- The big money
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