Home » USA » John Dos Passos » U.S.A. (The 42nd Parallel (1930); Nineteen Nineteen (1932); The Big Money (1936))

John Dos Passos: U.S.A. (The 42nd Parallel (1930); Nineteen Nineteen (1932); The Big Money (1936))

Having set the stage in Manhattan Transfer, Dos Passos went one stage further in his trilogy and, in doing so, produced one of the great American novels of the twentieth century. The three books cover approximately the first thirty years of the twentieth century, i.e. up to the beginning of the Depression. Dos Passos uses four main techniques. The first are his Newsreels. They use actual newspaper headlines, bits of popular songs and other items that indicate what it happening at that time. Secondly, he uses what he calls The Camera Eye, which immediately calls to mind Dziga Vertov’s Man with Movie Camera. These are impressionistic but personal sketches of what he, the author, has seen. Thirdly, he gives us biographical sketches of many real people, from Rudolph Valentino to Thorstein Veblen, one of his main influences.

There is a fictional element and various characters come and go throughout the novels. The main one is the capitalist J Ward Moorehouse, born on 4 July. He is, in fact a public relations expert and works to become successful, with access to the top corporations. We follow his rise and his fall. Dos Passos clearly does not like him. Other characters include Fenian McCreary, a working class lad who joins the labor movement but fades away, Charley Anderson, another working class lad who becomes a pilot but is too ambitious and flies too high, Margo Dowling, an empty-headed actress, also a target of Dos Passos, Ben Compton and Mary French, two left-wingers fighting for the cause but not too successfully, Eleanor Stoddard, who is ambitious and comes to work with J Ward Moorehouse and who also crashes, and poor Janey Williams, a stenographer who works for and is exploited by Moorehouse. But, as in Manhattan Transfer, the characters are part of the city and part of the Zeitgeist Dos Passos is portraying, part of the grand kaleidoscope of New York and the New America. Their fall is not too important for there are others to take their place. The story ends with the Depression about to start and most of the main characters dead or miserable but we are left with a great novel.

Publishing history

42nd Parallel
First published 1930 by Harper
Nineteen Nineteen
First published 1932 by Harcourt Brace
The Big Money
First published 1936 by Harcourt Brace