1. Archive

Dos Passos' opus reissued

Published Sep. 16, 2005


By John Dos Passos

Library of America, $40


In 1925, young John Dos Passos delivered in Manhattan Transfer a device altogether original in fiction. He alternated impressionistic descriptive writing with his "story" passages; "stories," actually, for there are millions of lives in the naked city.

Several New Yorkers were characterized in individual vignettes. Although his subjects were isolated from one another, their lives eventually intertwined. The technique was widely applauded, and Dos Passos _ already classified as promising on the basis of Three Soldiers (1921) _ became an "important" American author.

Accepting that distinction, Dos Passos in 1929 announced an audaciously ambitious project. What he had done for Manhattan, he would do for the full breadth of his country, and it would require three books. His trilogy was fully outlined and bore an awesome collective title: U.S.A.

Exploiting an approach revolutionary in both structure and style(s), Dos Passos labored seven years, during which the component parts of U.S.A. appeared incrementally.

First came The 49th Parallel (1930), covering the years just prior to the First World War. 1919 arrived two years later, focusing on American participation in the war and on its aftermath, particularly the Paris Peace Conference. The concluding third installment, deferred until 1936, was The Big Money, kaleidoscoping the boom 1920s and ending with the onset of the Great Depression.

All three books employed a provocative technique of four narrative modes. Most innovative were the Newsreel and the Camera Eye. The former offered an objective look at events of the day in a barrage of headlines, subheadings and brief commentary suggesting the voice-over newsreel soundtrack. The Camera Eye also focused on current events and personalities, but subjectively, probing detail while shunning the big picture.

Then, interspersed throughout the trilogy, are brief, incisive biographies of king-sized personalities of the era _ Andrew Carnegie, William Randolph Hearst, Big Bill Heywood, et al. Irony is the most common thread in these sketches.

The fourth element is the narrative proper, following the lives and careers of a dozen principal characters _ six men, six women. The males range from tycoon J. Ward Moorehouse to common sailor Joe Williams. Feany McCreary, Charlie Anderson and Ben Compton are variably involved in labor union agitation or the developing American Communist Party. Richard Ellsworth Savage, child of privilege and pure at the start, is corrupted by success.

Eleanor Stoddard and Eveline Hutchins are friends and career-woman associates; Janey Williams is Joe's unworldly sister, her story told separately from his; and Margo Dowling, Mary French and Alice Trent are substantially characterized before meeting up with the men in the above paragraph; and all are unlucky or profoundly disappointed in love.

The narrative mood, and the resolution of most of the stories, is pessimistic. At this stage of his career, Dos Passos was powerfully influenced by Marxist doctrine, which he later rejected. He disowned some of the substance of U.S.A. but never its technique.

Sixty years after its completion, U.S.A. is a great and singular work, now also valuable as a throbbing period piece. For me, the story-line entries are the least captivating. The dozen principals, representing various national regions and economic backgrounds, are types more than individuals. Newsreel and Camera Eye still seem new and exciting, and the latter shows a poetic power not easily referenced to John Dos Passos.

The good news is that U.S.A. in its entirety is newly published as a single volume in the superb Library of America series. Let us hope the same people will also honor another imposing trilogy, James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan.

Larry Swindell is books editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where this review originally appeared.

New York Times News Service.