Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A People's History: "42nd Parallel" by John Dos Passos

Even in 2012, one of the more striking traits about John Dos Passos was his tendency to write about the American immigrant experience in a complete circle, unafraid to explore the negative sides of poverty, racism, and hardships. These notions are all too familiar today, but in the early 20th century, one can only imagine the emotional impact of his words, especially when they so freely go against blind and unquestioning patriotism. These notions first came to me in college, when, for a course on American Literature, I was assigned his 1925 novel Manhattan Transfer. In addition to its gritty, almost musical prose, I was also enamored with his dialogue, which was realistic and contained a stunning ear for accents and dialects. It's been years since I last read it, and while I've planned to reread it, I only recently got around to reading another one of his works. The 42nd Parallel is the first novel in his U.S.A. trilogy, and I'm not sure if the same themes listed above are even more prevalent, or if this is merely a case of having them refreshed in my memory. The beauty of The 42nd Parallel, in addition to being an invaluable fiction of American life, is its structural layout, working as a straightforward novel complete with interludes, asides, and recreations of newsreel items from the time period. In Dos Passos' era, this type of writing would have likely been viewed as wildly experimental. That holds true today, but in my mind, it's an early form of hypertext. I generally shy away from assumptions about how a given piece of art would have been experienced in its debut, but given how this text is still fresh and open to format interpretations, it's impossible not to make those comparisons and hypotheses. With today's political and economic turmoil, this text is a reminder that some problems have never gone away.

The narrative of The 42nd Parallel follows the singular and intersecting lives of five characters: Mac, a printer with revolutionary ideals; Janey, a stenographer; Eleanor, a department store worker and designer; Ward, a hopeful songwriter turned public relations executive; and Charley, a small-town auto mechanic. Their lives and travels take them, in various times and situations, from the United States to Mexico to Europe. Their personal lives are blended with a bigger picture, effectively showing how individual lives can serve as examples of how the world works, for better and for worse. In his foreword to the latest publication, E.L. Doctorow offers a phrase about Jazz Age writers that can serve as an imaginary subtitle to this work: the characters "entangle themselves in the crises of civilization."

The early works of Dos Passos are full of political explorations that were radical at the time. The book opens with Mac, who quickly becomes a champion of workers' rights, leading to passages of dialogue that are still lively and stunning today:

"'...I read Bellamy's Looking Backward, though: that's what made me a Socialist.' 'Tell me about it; I'd just start readin' it when I left home.' 'It's about a galoot that goes to sleep an' wakes up in the year two thousand and the social revolution's all happened and everything's socialistic an' there's no way anybody can get to be a rich bondholder or capitalist and life's pretty slick for the working class.' 'That's what I always thought...It's the workers who create wealth and they ought to have it instead of a lot of drones.' 'If you could do away with the capitalist system and the big trusts and Wall Street things 'ud be like that.'
'All you'd need would be a general strike and have the workers refuse to work for a boss any longer...God damn it, if people only realized how friggin' easy it would be. The interests own all the press and keep knowledge and education from the workin'men (Dos Passos 49)."

Dos Passos was also ahead of the time socially as well as politically:

"In Salem, Ike found that he had a dose and Mac couldn't sleep nights worrying for fear he might have it too. They tried to go to a doctor in Salem. He was a big roundfaced man with a hearty laugh. When they said they didn't have any money he guessed it was all right and that they could do some chores to pay for the consultation, but when he heard it was a venereal disease he threw them out with a hot lecture on the wages of sin (Dos Passos 61)."

"...and the fact that Maurice didn't like Eveline the way Eveline liked him make Eveline very unhappy, but Maurice and Eric seemed to be thoroughly happy. They slept in the same bed and were always together. Eleanor used to wonder about them sometimes but it was so nice to know boys who weren't horrid about women (Dos Passos 174)."

Occasionally, the passages are still worthwhile, but show their age. In this passage from Janey's childhood, Dos Passos attempts racial tolerance in the form of Janey's mother, but there's still a hint of racism. I'm not projecting these views onto Dos Passos, but while I'm only partially familiar with his biography, I'm not sure if the follow passage was meant merely for the character or if it projected his own views. The passage loses none of its fictional intensity, but the reader has to take it from two potential points of view: 1.) Dos Passos critiquing literal white supremacy (i.e. respecting black people but holding them in a lesser light) or 2.) Dos Passos projecting his own views in the passage, which would case today's reader to pause:

"Janey stood in front of her mother shaking her head about so that the two stiff sandy pigtails lashed from side to side. 'Stand still, child, for gracious sake...Jane, I want to talk to you about something. That little colored girl you brought in this afternoon...' Janey's heart was dropping. She had a sick feeling and felt herself blushing, she hardly knew why. 'Now, don't misunderstand me; I like and respect the colored people; some of them are find self-respecting people in their place...But you mustn't bring that little colored girl in the house again. Treating colored people kindly with respect is one of the signs of good breeding...(Dos Passos 107).'"

Worldviews aside, it's easy to lose track of Dos Passos' gift as a writer of everyday passages. For all of his audacious examples of social and political ideas, he presents the smaller moments with equal vividness. In a similar fashion to Manhattan Transfer, The 42nd Parallel even the most normal scenes are rendered with an almost musical energy, therefore (to use a tired phrase) making them come alive. The prose is constantly moving and descriptive, almost making the reading cinematic. With any novel, a reader visualizes the actions; with a Dos Passos novel, the internal visualization tends to be more more expansive, since there are so many accompanying details:

"The roadhouse was kept by a French couple, and Ward talked French to them and ordered a chicken dinner and red wine and hot whisky toddies to warm them up while they were waiting. There was no one else in the roadhouse and he had a table placed right in front of the gaslogs at the end of a pink and yellow diningroom, dimly lit, a long ghostly series of empty tables and long windows blocked with snow. Through dinner he told Gertrude about his plans to form an agency of his own and said he was only waiting to find a suitable partner and he was sure that he could make it the biggest in the country, especially with this new unexploited angle of the relation between capital and labor (Dos Passos 202)."

As I mentioned before, I couldn't help but mentally classify The 42nd Parallel as a form of literary hypertext. This definition might not be literally accurate, but there are "links" to the aforementioned social and political messages, and interspersed with the character narratives are recurring sections: "The Camera Eye" and "Newsreel." After doing some outside research, I learned that "The Camera Eye" pieces are collections of semi-autobiographic sketches, and the "Newsreel" pieces were taken from actual newspaper headlines. Together, they form part of the overall collage of The 42nd Parallel. The news items present a dizzying account of the era's happenings, and are both timely and sometimes hilarious:

"the mannequin who is such a feature of the Paris racecourse surpasses herself in the launching of novelties. She will put on the most amazing costume and carry it with perfect sangfroid. Inconsistency is her watchword
Three German staff officers who passed nearby were nearly mobbed by enthusiastic people who insisted on shaking their hands

Girl Steps On Match; Dress Ignited; Dies (Dos Passos 206)."

"The Camera Eye" sections read like free verse and are among my favorite sections in the novel. They tie into the plot occasionally, and sometimes not at all, but Dos Passos writes with an almost experiment edge. These are poetic, moving, and stylistically years ahead of other literary experimenters. Even in their randomness, there's no doubt that, even on their own, they're essential to the overall arc:

"in the mouth of the Schuykill Mr. Pierce came on board ninety-six years old and sound as a dollar He'd been officeboy in Mr. Pierce's office about the time He'd enlisted and missed the battle of Antietam on account of having dysentery so bad and Mr. Pierce's daughter Mrs. Black called Him Jack and smoked little brown cigarettes and we played Fra Diavolo on the phonograph and everybody was very jolly when Mr. Pierce tugged at his dundrearies and took a toddy and Mrs. Black lit cigarettes one after another and they talked about old days and how His father had wanted Him to be a priest and His poor mother had had such trouble getting together enough to eat for that family of greedy boys and His father was a silent man and spoke mostly Portugee and when he didn't like the way a dish was cooked that came on the table he'd pick it up and sling it out the window...(Dos Passos 131-132)."

According to Doctorow's introduction, Dos Passos grew much more conservative as he got older, but as readers today, we're lucky that he put his early social passions into literary form (this would be the basis for another article, but much has been made about why conservative art is nearly nonexistent). While I've given only a passing summary of the plot, the samples I've cited are perfect examples of the myriad of forms Dos Passos worked with in the confines of a single text. He's still not as immediately famous as Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I personally find his prose to be much more timely. In today's climate, even the mere suggestion of fixing social problems can be branded by some as "un-American," so in a time of such intense patriotic fervor, Dos Passos was more daring than any political writer of today. He took a lot of risks to even explore some of his subjects, let alone explore them with sympathy and understanding. Discussions about the immediacy of the social novel abound today, and The 42nd Parallel works as both historical fiction as well as a model for our current world. There is so much packed into this text, with so much diversity in its forms. One can agree or disagree with its messages, but it succeeds as an art form, being entertaining, almost literally timeless, and a voicing so many ideas.

Work Cited:
Dos Passos, John. The 42nd Parallel. Copyright 1930, 1958 by John Dos Passos.


danyulengelke said...


Great review.

Will be citing a passage in my upcoming review at


James Yates said...

I haven't checked this in awhile. Thank you for citing my review! Glad you found it helpful.

Unknown said...

I've been reading USA, a monumental task. Because of the continuous racial slurs I'm concerned that Dos Passos was a racist. But I was born in the '40s and remember hearing many of the expressions such as, "that's white of you." At the same time, I'm disturbed that the N word has been removed from Huckleberry Finn. Those were different times and that should be acknowledged. It's the way white people talked.

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