Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*New York City

*New York City. Largest city in the United States and the second largest city in the world during the 1920’s, the period in which the novel is set. In the first section of the novel, John Dos Passos places New York among some of the great cities of history: While Babylon and Nineveh were made of brick, Athens had gold marble columns, and Constantinople’s minarets were like candle flames around the Golden Horn, New York City’s stark pyramids are made of steel, glass, tile, and concrete.

Setting his novel in the 1920’s, when American mores and values are changing, Dos Passos uses the city both as a symbol of the possibilities and dreams of those who left failure behind, and as a realistic environment that is either hostile or indifferent to their dreams and aspirations. The novel uses the city as a character, an architect that molds and shapes the strong, or a mechanical monster that crunches and consumes the weak. The one-word titles of the chapters—“Metropolis,” “Tracks,” “Steamroller,” “Fire Engine,” “Rollercoaster,” “Revolving Doors,” “Skyscraper”—give the major role in the novel to the city and the steel parts that bring it to life.

New York City’s streets, docksides, and tenements are peopled with thousands of migrants from America’s rural farmlands and hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have fled the old cities of Europe for the land of opportunity. People appearing in the novel’s snapshots and vignettes are much like stock characters who show types, rather than individuals with whom readers can develop...

(The entire section is 663 words.)