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By John Dos Pasos
Illustrated by Reginald March
Boston: Hoiughton Mifflin Company, 1946
365 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2014

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.

  1. Mac, for the west coast, is a working class guy, deeply attracted to the IWW, Industrial Workers of the World and its flamboyant leader, the historical character, Big Bill Haywood. Mac is a drifter, a drinker, a good deal of a letcher, but afraid of nothing, and willing to drop everything and rush off to something new, even when the rushing off involves abandoning his wife and two children.
  2. Janey is a Washington D.C. girl from a working class family. She struggles at the lower level of the work world and is a secretary. Eventually she quits her job with a pro-German firm, not liking their anti-American stance, and she goes to New York, where she meets another main character, J. Ward Moorehouse and becomes his secretary.
  3. Janey’s brother, Joe, is another key character, but not as pronounced in this volume as the others. He is a drifter, brawler, and a drop out. He eventually joins navy before WWI breaks out, but eventually goes AWOL and lives his life on the outside of the world of respectability. He isn’t a key figure in this volume, but his character is set up to take a more important role in the following volume.
  4. J.Ward Morehouse is a key figure. He is educated and from a middle class family, but likes the high life. He first meets and marries a wealthy American woman who is completely free of most moral standards of the time. While they are on their honeymoon is Paris, it becomes clear that she isn’t going to be anything like a “normal” wife of the time and the two of them separate. J. Ward returns to the U.S. following a beginning career in journalism, and ends up in Pittsburgh. He remarries and begins his new business with a firm doing high level public relations, a world he sees as the mode of image-building in the future.
  5. Eleanor Stoddard is a young woman from Georgetown of a fairly well off upper middle class family. She has an artistic sensibility and with her friend Eveline Hutchins, she begins a life as decorator. Eventually she moves to New York and meets J. Ward Morehouse, now also there, and begins to do decorating work for him, eventually becoming his very close, but non-sexual friend, much to the displeasure of J. Ward’s wife.
  6. Finally, in a quite odd fashion, the entire last chapter is to introduce the character Charley Anderson. We follow him in his boyhood in upper Minnesota, to Minneapolis and becoming a mechanic and falling in love. It looks as though he will be a quiet figure, settled down to middle-class domesticity. Then his best friend gets his girlfriend pregnant. He loses faith in this domestic dream and splits, wandering the nation looking for whatever -- he just doesn’t know. In New Orleans he is down and out and meets Doc (William H Rogers) and they go to New York together on a ship, and end up enlisting in the ambulance corps in the Great War. His story is just getting interesting, and his new world is wide open, but the first volume ends. One is left waiting as one normally would for the next chapter, but in this strange case, one has to go the next volume, which I don’t plan to do at this time, though I have the other two volumes sitting on my shelf awaiting the continuation of these folks as soon as I’m ready.

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


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Bob Corbett