“USA” Dos Passos: A Short Summary
The trilogy includes the novels “42 parallel”, “1919” and “Big money”. They give a generalized picture of American life in the first three decades of the 20th century: “42 parallel” – the rise of the labor movement in the United States; “1919” – the first world war and the impact of the October Revolution; “Big money” – the global crisis of 1929
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Each novel consists of four elements, alternating in a certain sequence – portraits of literary heroes, biographies of historical figures, “News of the Day” and “Camera Obscura”. The development of the plot is not driven by the fate of a hero, but by the course of history embodied in documentary material and in biographies of historical figures. Together, this reveals the main trends in the development of American civilization, which, according to the author, is going to a crisis.
While working on the trilogy, Dos Passos was sympathetic to democratic and communist ideas, in which he later became disappointed. His works are an attempt to create an American epic of the XX century. with a strong share of criticism of the American path, from the Spanish-American war of 1898 to the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927.
The trilogy has twelve characters representing various sectors of society: the working class, the intelligentsia, and businessmen.
A critical attitude to 20th-century American reality, which crossed out the “American dream,” a sense of crisis in a country that claims to be a symbol of the new century, is already present in the title of the first novel. Its meaning is revealed by the epigraph from the American Climatology by E.W. Hodgins, where it is said that the 42nd parallel of the north latitude crossing the USA is the central axis of the movement of hurricanes following from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.
By analogy, Dos Passos depicts how hurricanes originate in American social life, however, like the author of Climatology, who did not dare to predict the weather, the trilogy does not undertake to explain the nature of the hurricanes of history and predict their direction.
Nevertheless, the chaos of the world, the embodiment of which is a large bourgeois city, is for Dos Passos a sign that this civilization is heading to ruin.
The novel is opened by “News of the Day” – it is an outwardly messy set of headings, excerpts from articles breaking off in the middle of a phrase. Such a montage, first used by a writer in American literature, represents a stream of consciousness of a newspaper reader whose eyes cross from one headline to another.
The author tries to create the impression that he is not involved in the selection of these historical realities, but, in fact, he introduces the reader into the atmosphere of a certain historical period. “News of the Day” conveys the movement of time, captures certain milestones in the development of American society. The conquest of Cuba after the victory in the Spanish-American war, the suppression of the uprising in the Philippines, the Boer War, the glee of US success in the colonial war against Spain, expressed in the words of Senator Albert J.
“The twentieth century will be the century of America. The thought of America will dominate it. America’s progress will show him the way. The deeds of America will immortalize him. ”
Such is the historical background of the beginning of the trilogy, the entire content of which refutes the words of the senator. Newspaper reports report stocks dropping, Wall Street “shocked,” and so on.
At the center of the first novel is the fate of Mack – he begins his working life with traveling around the country together with a certain Bingham, a wandering charlatan, hiding behind advanced degrees and selling books, a very characteristic figure for America at the beginning of the century. Then Mac becomes an activist in the labor movement, but he acts not so much out of beliefs as under the influence of mood. Having quarreled with his wife, he goes to Mexico to see the revolution with his own eyes.
Mack is not a convinced revolutionary and acts cautiously, without publicizing his participation in the trade union Industrial Workers of the World so as not to lose his job.
Arriving in Mexico to “see” the revolution, he only first communicates with the workers and peons, and then finds a place in a safer and more attractive bourgeois environment for him. The revolutionary events themselves pass by him, although Mack claims to want to join Zapata’s army.
Emiliano Salata and Pancho Villa are the leaders of the revolutionary army, who, after the overthrow of the dictator Porfirio Diaz in 1910, led the radical wing of the revolution. They were opposed by representatives of various groups of the national bourgeoisie – President Madero, General Huerta, President Carranza, who was killed by officers of his headquarters.
At the time of the Carranza government’s flight from Mexico and the advance of the revolutionary army on the city, Mack is in the capital. However, by this time he had already become a bookseller and he did not want to leave his bookstore and go into revolution.
More consistently subjugates the revolution to his life Ben Compton. A smart boy who graduated from school with an award for an essay on the American political system, eventually begins to feel the hostility of this system to a simple person. Ben becomes an agitator, goes to jail. Subjugating his life to the service of the working class, he suppresses personal feelings in himself, shows callousness to his relatives.
It is symbolic that he celebrates his birthday in handcuffs on a train with a policeman accompanying him to the place of detention.
The representative of America, which the author does not accept, is the prudent businessman John Ward Moorhouse. If Ben Compton subordinates everything to the service of the revolution, then Murhouse – to his career, the desire to take a higher place in society. The son of a railroad storekeeper, he begins his “way up” as a book distribution agent, then studies at the University of Philadelphia and works in a real estate sales office. Moving forward, Murkhauz marries a rich woman, divorces her, then marries another rich woman and occupies a prominent position in society, becoming a propaganda specialist and an active fighter against the trade union movement.
During the Mexican revolution, Murhouse, acting on behalf of major US financiers, is trying to find out about the situation with Mexican oil, which is a matter of general interest, and to find out the reasons for Carranza’s opposition to American investors.
Representatives of different walks of life are shown by Dos Passos with encyclopedic completeness: Janey Williams – daughter of a retired captain, stenographer, works as secretary of Murhouse; Elinor Stoddard – the daughter of a worker from Chicago slaughterhouses, becomes a decorator, is together with Murhouse in the organization of the Red Cross; Charlie Anderson begins his life as a car mechanic, serves in the army and there he becomes a pilot, fights in France.
Returning to America, makes a fortune in the aircraft industry, dies in a car accident; Evelyn Hatchins – the daughter of a Protestant priest, who, like Elinor Stoddard, is a decorator, works in the Red Cross in Paris, commits suicide by taking a large dose of sleeping pills; Richard Ellsworth Savage – attorney, renounces leftist views, serves at Moorhouse; Joe Williams, brother of Janie Williams, serves as a sailor in the navy, deserts; Margot Dowling, from a family of actors, becomes a movie star in Hollywood; Mary French is a member of the labor movement that is being thrown into prison for speaking out against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.
The construction of a biography of each of the literary heroes, despite some differences, strictly follows a certain pattern reminiscent of a sociological questionnaire: the place and date of birth, parenting, education, hobbies, marital status are indicated.
This desire to systematize factual material, to the impartiality embodied in documenting, becomes an end in itself for Dos Passos, and, despite the difference in lifestyle and social position, his characters are almost no different from each other – their individuality is not disclosed, although they are taken into account and the smallest details of their biographies are described. The most important milestones in the development of American society are given in portraits of historical figures. There are twenty-five in all, and they represent the labor movement, the world of business, science, art, print.
The gallery of historical portraits opens with Eugene Debs, a worker of the labor movement who, together with Bill Heywood, founded in 1905 the trade union organization Industrial Workers of the World. The author writes about him with great warmth, calling him “Friend of mankind”.
The chapter “The Wizard of Botany” tells the story of the famous breeder Luther Burbank, who “made a pipe dream in winter about green grass, seedless plums, seedless berries … a cactus without thorns”. The author outlines a parallel with Burbank’s hybridization: “America is also a hybrid. America could use natural selection ”- perhaps as a counterweight to social chaos.
The Big Bill chapter talks about Bill Heywood, one of the founders of the American Communist Party.
Chapter “The Board Speaker Boy” is an ironic tale of William Jennigs Brian, a politician who has run for president repeatedly. As a boy, he won a prize in rhetoric, and his “silver voice” “enchanted the farmers of the great prairies” – Brian preached bimetallism, that is, unlimited coinage of cheap silver coins. Thus, the ruined farmers hoped to pay their debts to banks that, on the contrary, were interested in a monetary unit of gold. Soon, a new method of mining gold from ore was invented, and there was no “more need for the prophet of silver,” – Brian’s demagogic campaign failed.
However, “Silver tongue continued to ring in the big mouth, causing pacifism, fundamentalism, sobriety” – Brian switched to preaching morality and demanded that Darwin’s theory should not be taught in schools.
The chapter “The Great Peacemaker” is dedicated to steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who “believed in oil, believed in steel, always saved money.” The image of the philanthropist and pacifist is debunked with a laconic ending – it turns out that the peacemaker, who donated millions to the cause of peace, to libraries and science, did this “always, but not during the war”. Thus, Carnegie, who always saved up “on trifles” and put every dollar into circulation, profits from war and peace …
“The Wizard of Electricity” is a story about the outstanding inventor Edison, the creator of the light bulb, who managed to take his place in the business world.
“Proteus” is the story of the inventor, worldly helpless scientist Karl Steinmets, a mathematician and an electrical engineer. Although he is “allowed” a lot – “to be a socialist,” for example, to write letters to Lenin, but he is completely dependent on the owners, “General Electric”, being “the most valuable part of the equipment” of this company.
The author’s lyrical digressions, “Obscura Cameras,” are also important in the narrative — the stream of consciousness, personal commentary on the events of the era, and an appeal to the reader. An internal monologue reveals the author’s point of view on the American path in history, which led to the collapse of the illusion of universal justice and brotherhood, the “American dream” remains a dream. The country is split into two nations, technological progress is not yet a guarantee of universal happiness.
Against the backdrop of the successes of urbanization, Dos Passos’s thoughts are becoming more and more dismal: a society created by the efforts of millions of people, but setting as its goal not human well-being, but “big money” profit, is heading for collapse. The trilogy ends with such a collapse, America’s greatest failure – the crisis of 1929. A hurricane sweeps over the 42nd parallel, a person is not able to cope with the elements, he is just a toy in the hands of blind forces that dominate the world and essentially make history.