StoryThoughts: “USA” — “42nd Parallel”/”1919″/”The Big Money” (novel trilogy) by John Dos Passos

U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel/1919/The Big Money

A Must-Read, Both as Fiction and as History

With the USA trilogy, John Dos Passos attempted to paint a comprehensive portrait of the United States through the entire first three decades of the 20th century, by means of an extremely creative range of techniques. This trilogy can very rightfully be compared beside other extremely ambitious works like The Grapes of Wrath or Atlas Shrugged–and in fact, in sheer ambition and scope, and especially in even-handedness, it surpasses both by a wide margin. Though his name has slipped into relative obscurity, in storytelling power, Dos Passos is very much in the league of his contemporaries Steinbeck, Hemingway, or Fitzgerald.

Norman Mailer once called this trilogy the most important American work of the 20th century (though the century was still far from over when he said this). A piece of work this huge and this ambitious is bound to be uneven in some ways, and any given reader is likely to connect with certain storylines more than others; as far as pure enjoyment goes, I’d probably rate the USA trilogy four stars, a little below The Grapes of Wrath (but vastly above Atlas Shrugged). I think, though, that Dos Passos’ ambition and stunning synthesis of storytelling techniques have to be given their due: in these books he tried to capture the entire American experience, using the full range of techniques available to him and some uniquely his own–and he largely succeeded at this seemingly impossible task. Amazing, amazing work.

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