Study Guide

U.S.A.

by John Dos Passos

U.S.A. Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Spanish-American War is over. Politicians with mustaches say that America is now ready to lead the world. Mac McCreary is a printer for a fly-by-night publisher in Chicago. Later he works his way to the West Coast, where he gets work as a printer in Sacramento and marries Maisie Spencer, who can never understand his radical views. They quarrel, and he leaves for Mexico to work in the revolutionary movement there.

Janey Williams, who has grown up in Washington, D.C., becomes a stenographer. She is always ashamed when her sailor brother, Joe, appears in her life, and she is even more ashamed of him after she becomes secretary to J. Ward Moorehouse. Of all Moorehouse’s female acquaintances, she is the only one who never becomes his mistress. Moorehouse’s boyish manner and blue eyes are the secrets of his success. They attract Annabelle Strang, a wealthy nymphomaniac whom he marries and later divorces. Gertrude Staple, his second wife, helps to make him a prominent public relations expert. His shrewdness makes him an ideal man for government service in France during World War I. After the war, he becomes one of the leading advertising executives in the United States.

Eleanor Stoddard hates the sordid environment of her childhood, and her delicate, arty tastes lead her naturally into partnership with Eveline Hutchins in the decorating business and eventually to New York and acquaintanceship with J. Ward Moorehouse. In Europe with the Red Cross during the war, she lives with Moorehouse. Back in New York in the 1920’s she uses her connections in fashion and becomes engaged to a member of the Russian nobility.

Charley Anderson, who had been an aviator in the war, becomes a wealthy airplane manufacturer thanks to a successful invention and astute opportunism. He marries a woman who has little sympathy for his interest in mechanics. In Florida, after a plane crash, he meets Margo Dowling, a young woman actor. Anderson’s series of drunken escapades ends in a grade-crossing accident.

Joe Williams, a sailor, meets Della in Norfolk, and she urges him to give up seafaring and settle down. Unable to hold a job, he ships out again and almost loses his life when the ship he is on is sunk by a German submarine. When Joe gets his third mate’s license, he and Della are married. Over the course of time he suffers illness in the East Indies, is arrested in New York for not carrying a draft card, and is torpedoed once more off the coast of Spain. Della is unfaithful to him. Treated coldly the few times he looks up his sister Janey, he ships for Europe once more. One night in St. Nazaire he attacks a huge Senegalese who is dancing with a girl he knows. His skull is crushed when he is hit over the head with a bottle.

Teachers encourage Dick Savage in his literary talents. During his teens, he works at a summer hotel, and there he sleeps with a minister’s wife...

(The entire section is 1187 words.)

U.S.A. Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The three volumes that make up U.S.A. were originally published separately; the trilogy was published as a single novel in 1937. The themes introduced in the first volume run throughout the others: the corrupting influence of wealth and the desire for money, the humiliation and penury inflicted by American society on those who occupy the lower levels of that society, the pretentious fakery of most of those who profess to have artistic talent or inclinations, and the heroism of a few dedicated souls whose lives are ground down in the effort to serve others.

The techniques employed by Dos Passos in U.S.A. develop and expand upon those he used in Manhattan Transfer. A dozen different characters from various parts of the United States and different levels of society are given one or more episodes during the course of the novel, and numerous other characters appear and disappear at various stages of the action. Frequently the paths of different characters intersect and run together. The narrative segments occupy less space than they do in Manhattan Transfer, as three other methods are given great significance.

In The 42nd Parallel there are nineteen sections of the “Newsreel,” in which Dos Passos skillfully blends together newspaper headlines, snippets of popular songs, brief quotations from political speeches, and other material from the years between 1900 and 1917, when the novel ends. The “Newsreel” sections provide the authenticity of historical background. There are also, in this first volume, twenty-seven segments of “The Camera Eye,” in which individuals experiences are presented in a stream-of-consciousness technique, representing one perspective on the events of the passing years.

Finally, there are in this first volume nine brief portraits of prominent individuals from the same period of time: Eugene V. Debs, Socialist leader and frequent presidential candidate who was later imprisoned for opposing American participation in World War I; Luther Burbank, “The Plant Wizard” who hybridized numerous vegetables and trees to the benefit of American agriculture; “Big Bill” Haywood, a radical labor organizer who moved from the Western Federation of Miners to the International Workers of the World (the IWW, or “Wobblies”); William Jennings Bryan, “the boy orator of the Platte,” famous for what was called his “cross of gold” speech, leader of the Populist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and several others prominent in one field or another.

Dos Passos’s sympathies in these portraits are clearly with the rebels and the innovators. He is much more ironic and dismissive in calling the section on steel magnate Andrew Carnegie “Prince of Peace.” He is also somewhat scornful of the idealistic inventor Charles Steinmetz, who allowed himself and his inventions to be exploited by General Electric.

The same devices are used throughout U.S.A., but there is a subtle shift in tone between 1919 and The Big Money, noticeable in all four of the devices used by Dos Passos. The subject of the narrative sections changes from “Mac,” a journeyman printer and part-time rebel, who disappears at the end of The 42nd Parallel, to Charley Anderson, a midwesterner with skills as a mechanic who flies in World War I, rises with the system in The Big Money, and is eventually crushed by it. The sleazy public relations expert, I. Ward Moorehouse, becomes more important, as do the women who are involved with him, the neurotic decorators...

(The entire section is 1478 words.)

U.S.A. Summary

U.S.A. does not have a conventional plot. Dos Passos follows twelve major characters and hundreds of minor ones through the first...

(The entire section is 731 words.)