• The Modern Library Giant of Dos Passos' U.S.A. Trilogy (1938)


  • Author:  John Dos Passos  (1896-1970)
  • Rank:  #94
  • Published:  1930 (The 42nd Parallel), 1932 (1919), 1936 (The Big Money), 1938 (U.S.A.)
  • Publisher:  Harcourt, Brace and Company
  • Pages:  1449 (ML Giant)
  • First Line:  “The young man walks fast by himself through the crowd that thins into the night streets; feet are tired from hours of walking; eyes greedy for warm curve of faces, answering flicker of eyes, the set of a head, the lift of a shoulder, the way hands spread and clench; blood tingles with wants; mind is a beehive of hopes buzzing and stinging; muscles ache for the knowledge of jobs, for the roadmender’s pick and shovel work, the fisherman’s knack with a hook when he hauls on the slithery net from the rail of the lurching trawler, the swing of the bridgeman’s arm as he slings down the whitehot rivet, the engineer’s slow grip wise on the throttle, the dirtfarmer’s use of his whole body when, whoaing the mules, he yanks the plow from the furrow.”
  • Last Line:  “A hundred miles down the road.”
  • ML Edition:  ML Giant #44  (1950)
  • Film:  none
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (#23)
  • Read:  Fall, 2000

The Novel:  When the Modern Library’s list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century appeared in 1998, some of it was a delight.  After all, I am a list person.  And here, clearly, was a list in need of conquering.  There were certain books that I had to slog my way through and certain other ones which I already had been through and would never touch again.  But finding others was a sheer delight.  U.S.A., the amazing trilogy by John Dos Passos was one of only two titles in the top 25 that I had not only never read, but had never even heard of (The Way of All Flesh was the other).  It was weird to come upon someone who, in the thirties, was among the giants of literature, up there with Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe as one of the leaders in American literature.  And it’s not too hard to understand why if you look at this trilogy, a bold, sweeping look at the first 30 years of America in the twentieth century.  Reading it, it was easy to see how he belonged.

“He kissed her.  That’s how Hemingway would have put it.  He kissed her.  The kiss was soft.  When the kiss was done he longed for another.  Wolfe would have said it differently; in such a time as this in the history of Santiago Oaks came these two, the young man looking for what is in front of him, the young woman running from what has been behind her and in this history there came such a kiss between them that they both felt the sweep of time and the river moving them along.  But that’s perhaps too broad a stroke for my tastes.  Faulkner would internalize it, something like he kissed her, felt the longing, remembering times gone by being twelve and running across a field back through to his house full of hope this is so new so what I want so what I have never had but now it is so old and I can’t run like this anymore.  Then Dos Passos, discussing the headlines of the day, the social movements, making our kiss seem like a part of history, not a personal history caught in a place like Wolfe, but a social history and interweaving through the entire fabric of social history.  Which is nothing compared to Joyce who would have the kiss symbolize everything about our lives and have it all take place within an hour.  Hugo would digress for fifty pages finding a backtrack way of explaining the entire history of everything that possibly might converge with the story.  Or I could go with Roth, always following Thoreau’s advice to simplify, simplify.  He kissed her and all he could think about was how good it be to be inside her.  That might be the best description yet.”

So there is Dos Passos’ place in literature, as symbolized by one of my characters, written not too terribly long after I first read U.S.A..  That is exactly what Dos Passos does.  He takes characters, individual characters (some twelve of them, throughout the trilogy) and, while sweeping them along through the tides of history, never-the-less, finds the individual moments that make up their lives.  But what makes Dos Passos his own writer is that he is almost in the forefront of what would later be called the New Journalism.  For his fiction contains two other parts: NEWSREEL and The Camera Eye.  The NEWSREELS are little pieces of history.  They manage to convey a sense of time and place and let you know where these characters fit in.  They are almost the blueprint for what E.L. Doctorow would later do so well in Ragtime.  They are a part of history that ground the fiction.  The Camera Eye pieces are stream-of-consciousness writing, the influence of Joyce and Woolf and almost seem to be internalized aspects of Dos Passos’ own story-telling.

I can understand why no one has ever attempted a film version.  While the external history is a vital part of Ragtime, it is a grounding of what is essentially two stories.  But U.S.A. is all about that history, how the tides sweep the characters along.  The only way you could ever possibly attempt it would be in the way that Warren Beatty interspersed the interviews throughout Reds, and even then, to do it any kind of justice, you would have to do it as a mini-series.  No one film could convey all this scope.  That’s what big long novels are for, after all.