Readers interested in early 20th century American literature have undoubtedly heard the name ‘Dos Passos’ amongst their rummaging. Notary no doubt derives from his many friendships with the giants of the time: a strange murder with Hemingway, criticism from friend Upton Sinclair, finally a late move to conservative political theory found him a home at William F. Buckley’s National Review – and effectively against everything the author ever stood for. Published in 1930, The 42nd Parallel contains none of the latter Right leaning ideology. Instead, the first entry of the ‘U.S.A.’ trilogy is a left-leaning, dazzle paced read detailing the socio-political world of the Jazz Age.
Set against America’s recently concluded 20’s, The 42nd Parallel follows a winding omnibus of five central characters: working socialist rebel Mac, budding stenographer Janey, marketing whiz J Ward Moorehouse, blue collar mechanic Charley Anderson, and the social climbing Eleanor Stoddard. Located across the country – as to promote an adequate social sample – these five characters all share similar working class origins. Randomly filtered throughout the novel – and divided with the author’s ‘Camera Eye’ and ‘Newsreel’ techniques – the characters build up to periphery contact, but never fully intertwine. As the first section of the Trilogy concludes, their separate story arcs (and social standings) prepare for US entry into World War I.
Mentioned above, Dos Passos employs two techniques to divide character narratives: the ‘Camera Eye’ and ‘Newsreel’. Each of these sections care little about cohesive subject and serve better for atmospheric purpose. The former offers “autobiography in the bildungsroman stream of consciousness” and an American spin on Joycean prose (or so my Introduction tells me.) Certainly not the easiest literature for the casual reader. The latter technique’s title carries inherent understanding, yet is equally confusing on first read. “The Newsreels offer newspaper copy, advertisements, and popular song lyrics to narrate the history and zeitgeist of the period.” Essentially, Dos Passos rattles off snippets of headlines not necessarily meant for comprehension. It should also be mentioned the author crafts marginalized biographies of contemporary historical figures like Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, and Bob La Folette, to name a few. (Notice the persons featured in these short histories do not come under the author’s then left-leaning scrutiny):
The Camera Eye (5)
“and we palyed the battle of Port Arthur in the bathtub and the water leaked down through the drawing room ceiling and it was altogether too bad but in Kew Gardens old Mr. Garnet who was still hale and hearty although so very old came to tea and we saw him first through the window with his red face and John Bull whiskers and aunty said it was a sailor’s rolling gait and he was carrying a box under his arm and Bickie and Pompon barked and here was Mr. Garnet come to tea and he took a gramophone out of a black box and put a cylinder on the gramophone and they pushed back the teathings of the corner of the table. Be careful not to drop it now they scratch heasy. Why a hordinary sewin’ needle would do maaam but I’ave special needles
and we got to talking about Hadmiral Togo and the Banyan and how the Roosians drank so much vodka and killed all those poor fisherlads in the North Sea and he wound it up very carefully so as not to break the spring and the needle went rasp rasp. Yes I was a bluejacket miself miboy from the time I was a little shayver not much bigger’n you rose to be bosun’s mite on the first British hironclad the ‘Warrior’ and I can dance an ‘ornpipe yet maam and he had a mariner’s compass in red and blue on the back of hs head and his nails looked black and thick as he fumbled with the needle and the needle went rasp rasp and far away a band played and out of a grindy noise in the little black horn came ‘God Save the King’ and the little dogs howled”
Unlike the intentionally obtuse ‘Camera Eye’ and ‘Newsreel’ sections, Dos Passos wields a unadorned colloquial style in the character threads. This is where and why the novel succeeds. “The prose is constantly moving and descriptive, almost making the reading cinematic.” Surely anyone can adequately comprehend not only the language employed in 42nd Parallel, but thematic essence. Imbued with proletarian fervor, Dos Passos is most lucid while presenting the reasons for labor reform:
“They worked for the C.P.R. all summer and by the first of October they were in Vancouver. They had new suitcases and new suits. Ike had fortynine dollars and fiftycents and Mac had eightythree fifteen in a brandnew pigskin wallet. Mac had more because he didn’t play poker. They took a dollar and a half room between them and lay in bed like princes their first free morning. They were tanned and toughened and their hands were horny. After the smell of rank pipes and unwashed feet and the bedbugs in the railroad bunkhouses the small cleanboarded hotel room with its clean beds seemed like a palace.”
Dos Passos forces his creations to endure the dizzying world of the 1930’s in this first book of the U.S.A. Readers, much in the same way, are compelled to comprehend the ‘Camera Eye’ and ‘Newsreel’ sections, ambiguous or not. In retrospect, more rigorous curation of these technique heavy interludes would improve the novel’s entertainment – but possibly sacrifice the eccentric energy of the author and overall intent. We can attribute highest praise to the scope and spectrum of Dos Passos. The novel effectively merges observation, experience and personal theory into pleasant little packages – as if manufactured with the precision on a Ford assembly lines. This is seen best in the working class take on Jazz Age prose and varying national vernacular of the characters. The final product – and the reason 42nd Parallel is necessarily relevant – is a well written compendium of thought leading up to World War I and social reform on a national scale.