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Comments by Bob Corbett
The 42nd Parallel is the first volume of Dos Passos’ famous U.S.A. Trilogy. This is structurally one of the most challenging of forms. It is the story of the U.S.A. from about the early days of the 20th century until about late 1918, centering toward the end of the war in Europe. In this first volume we follow the lives of six main fictional characters. The life of each is told in a very creative manner, and eventually all six of them merge in one form or another.
The work was originally published as a three volume trilogy and the separation of volumes is not as clear as most multi-volume works. At the very end of The 42nd Parallel we are introduced to the last of the main characters, Charley Anderson, but his story is simply left hanging and not directly tied to the other five main characters. Thus one ends the last chapter and is simply looking for the next chapter, which will take one to volume two, a totally different volume in most modes of publishing these books in later years.
The point of the six characters seems to be two-fold: to introduce six very different ways of living and seeing the world in the period under discussion.
The point of the fictional characters is to give a very broad view of life in the United States in the pre-war and First World War years. This is done quite successfully with this variety of personalities and roles, and one comes away with a fairly strong sense of the times and ways of living.
However, there is another whole side of the book which is radically different from what one finds in most novels – wholes section of non-fiction interjections, bits and pieces of things that are going on in the news and world of the U.S. at the time.
Dos Passos does this with sections interjected here and there and called “The Camera Eye” and “Newsreel,” bits and pieces of what’s going on in the world around them. Given that we follow these various different fictional characters, the news items are not necessarily in date order from beginning to end, but only for the period of the fictional characters at that time, so the novel bounces back and forth in time. It’s often a bit difficult to know what time period we are in. Nonetheless, these non-fictional interjections are very useful and informative giving us more an impression and feeling of the time than any sort of consistent or ordered history.
I enjoyed these interjections very much. I couldn’t help wonder if John Dos Passos might not have been influenced in these devices by something rather similar in Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 novel, Babbitt. In that novel the son of Babbitt frequently injects long piece of pop culture into the novel, taken straight out of newspapers or magazines he’s been reading. Dos Passos seems to me to take this strategy, dramatically lengthen and deepen the process, yet, on the other hand, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Lewis may not have been an influence on Dos Passos’ structure for this trilogy.
The 42nd Parallel is a “big” book. Not that it is particularly long at 365 pages, but in the scope of what it tackles. It is to be a picture of the U.S.A., in this first volume from the early part of the century up to the latter part of World War I. The second volume clearly picks up where this volume leaves of, carrying the name 1919.
We can look ahead to where they will go by noting the final volume is titled, The Big Money, and it is fairly easy to predict we will be into the roaring twenties and it will all end by or before the Depression brings a very new direction to the story of the U.S.A.
This is an important volume and trilogy. I highly recommend it to all. It is gripping, well written, intelligent and intelligible. There are challenges of keeping dates in mind and knowing just where one is since we jump from fictional character to fictional character, and follow the time line of the character we are reading about at the moment. Perhaps that seeming confusion is useful in that it makes one a bit more conscious of the nature of development within the period than might otherwise be the case.Bob Corbett email@example.com
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