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U.S.A. trilogy

The U.S.A. Trilogy is the major work of American writer John Dos Passos, comprising the novels The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919, also known as Nineteen Nineteen (1932), and The Big Money (1936). The three books were first published together as a one-volume edition in 1938, to which Dos Passos added the prologue labeled "U.S.A." The trilogy employs an experimental technique, incorporating four different narrative modes: fictional narratives telling the life stories of twelve fictional characters; collages of newspaper clippings and song lyrics labeled Newsreel; individually labeled short biographies of public figures of the time such as Woodrow Wilson and Henry Ford; and fragments of an autobiographical stream of consciousness labeled Camera Eye. The trilogy covers the historical development of American society during the first three decades of the twentieth century.

The Four Narrative Modes

In the fictional narrative sections, the U.S.A. trilogy relates the lives of twelve different characters as they struggle to find a place in American society during the early part of the twentieth century. Each character is presented to the reader from their childhood on and in free indirect speech.
While their lives are quite separate and distinct, characters occasionally meet and interact with each other; also, some minor characters whose own point of view is never given crop up again and again in the background, forming a kind of bridge between the different characters.

The Camera Eye sections are written in stream-of-consciousness technique and add up to an autobiographical Künstlerroman of Dos Passos, tracing the author's development from a child to a politically committed writer. Camera Eye 50 arguably contains the most famous line of the whole trilogy, when Dos Passos states upon the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti: "alright we are two nations."

The Newsreels consist of first page headlines and article fragments taken from the Chicago Tribune for The 42nd Parallel and from the New York World for Nineteen Nineteen and The Big Money, as well as lyrics from popular songs of the time. Newsreel 66, immediately preceding Camera Eye 50 and announcing the Sacco and Vanzetti verdict, is noteworthy as it contains the lyrics of The Internationale.

The biographies are accounts of historical figures. The most famous and often anthologized of these biographies is The Body of an American that tells the story of an unknown American soldier who fell in World War I and which concludes Nineteen Nineteen.

However, the separation between these narrative modes is rather a stylistic than a thematic one. Thus, some critics have pointed out connections between the fictional character Mary French in The Big Money and journalist Mary Heaton Vorse, calling into question the strict separation between fictional characters and biographies; and coherent quotes from newspaper articles are often woven into the biographies as well, calling into question the strict separation between them and the Newsreel sections.

Politics in the trilogy

The book is written from a clearly left-wing perspective, and especially displays a deep sympathy for and identification with the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World/"Wobblies"), in which several of the characters are involved. His attitude to the Communist Party is far more cool, though some individual Communists are depicted sympathetically. The description of such incidents as the Centralia Massacre and the executions of Joe Hill and later of Sacco and Vanzetti leaves little doubt about where the writer stood.

Also highly partisan is the negative depiction of President Woodrow Wilson. While Wilson is in general remembered mainly for his post-WWI role in unsuccessfully trying to get the US invloved in the League of Nations, Dos Passos concentrates on various oppressive measures taken by his administration against the IWW and other radical, labour movement and antiwar groups, before and especially during the war as well as in the later Red Scare.

However, while reflecting the fact that Dos Passos was still on the political Left when the trilogy was written, it also reflects his growing pessimism; social change is essentially presented as desirable but unattainable. The IWW is in various passages mourned as a broken lost hope (in fact, it still existed at the time of writing - and at present - but had lost the momentum and mass support it had in the early 1910s).

This is clearly reflected in the careers of the trilogy's characters. Except for those who get killed off (often in stupid and senseless accidents), characters as they grow older almost invariably abandon or betray their principles, lose their vitality and become coopted into the lifeless capitalist system (or the scarcely better Communist bureaucracy). Seen in light of Dos Passos' later literary and political development, the trilogy seems to mark his last station on the Left before definitely crossing over to the other side of the spectrum.

Great American Novel

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