Between 1930 and 1933, John Dos Passos published his three-part novel called “U.S.A.,” which is often referred to as the U.S.A. trilogy.
In order, the three books are “The 42nd Parallel,” “1919” and “The Big Money.” Together, they tell the story of our country from 1900 until about 1928, but they tell it in a truly unique way.
Often, I believe, readers skip forewords and introductions, seeing them as unnecessary to the enjoyment of the story to follow. I think this is especially true in works of fiction as opposed to non-fiction pieces where readers may make the time to read introductions to glean extra bits of information about the topic. In reading this trilogy, however, it is wise to read the accompanying introductory passages.
While the trilogy is a work of fiction, it also contains much that could be called non-fiction, and it is written and arranged in such a way that the more prepared you are to understand its structure, the more you will get from reading the three novels.
Essentially, Dos Passos used four styles of writing in these books. In two of my copies (which are Mariner Books), E.L. Doctorow provides a handy foreword that best explains how to read the trilogy. In the other copy (a Signet Classic), Alfred Kazin icludes a lengthy introduction that adds depth to a reader’s understanding of the trilogy.
In the three books, you will find Newsreels that contain snippets from actual news pieces of the years. They are presented in a chronological fashion through the three novels.
The second type of writing in each is something Dos Passos called “The Camera Eye,” and those pieces are fragmented memories that Dos Passos, himself, had during the timeframes covered.
As Doctorow explains, “A third mode is the minute biography, the periodic insertion into the text of highly editorialized brief lives of some of the paramount figures of each of the decades he covers.”
I actually enjoyed these mini biographies the best because I learned a lot about important people in the history of this nation in short, easy to digest, bursts of reading. For example, I found it especially interesting that John (Jack) Reed, a war correspondent who wrote “Ten Days that Shook the World,” is only one of three Americans who are buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis in Moscow.
The bulk of the books are fictionalized narratives of characters who represent the type of people who lived in the U.S.A. from 1900-1928. Some of their stories do intertwine, not only with each other’s stories but also with the stories of the real historical figures of the era. Their stories also crisscross the three books that comprise the U.S.A. trilogy.
This trilogy is certainly not a light summer vacation read, but with July being our country’s independence month, it is a worthy read for the season.
John Dos Passos was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction. He also wrote plays and poetry, so even if you don’t want to tackle his U.S.A. trilogy like I did, there is certainly something among his writings that you could read to sample this largely unknown (or, perhaps, forgotten) and underappreciated American author.
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Next month’s reading selection is “The Professor and the Madman” by Simon Winchester.