Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

John Dos Passos’s statement at the beginning of U.S.A.—that America is, more than anything else, the sounds of its many voices—offers several insights into the style and content of the trilogy. The style, for example, reflects the author’s attempt to capture some sense of characteristically American voices, not only in the narration but also in what are called the “Newsreel,” “Biography,” and “Camera Eye” modes. These last three narrative modes reflect, respectively, the public voice of the media and popular culture, the oratorical and eulogistic voice of the biographies, and the personal and private voice of the artist. The most important voices in the trilogy, however, are those of the chronicles in which Dos Passos introduces a cross section of American voices ranging from the blue-collar worker to members of the professional and managerial classes and representing a variety of regional and ethnic backgrounds. Like the poet Walt Whitman, whose work profoundly influenced Dos Passos, Dos Passos takes all America as his subject matter as he tries to capture the sounds of the many voices that characterize its people.

Many scholars have associated the social, political, and economic views expressed in U.S.A. with Marxism. Leftists in the 1930’s liked to believe this important author had a common cause with them. It is the American economist Thorstein Veblen, however, rather than Karl Marx, who seems to have shaped Dos Passos’s thinking about the economic and political situation in the United States during the first part of the twentieth century. Dos Passos had read Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904), and other writings, and it was from these sources that his attack on the American business economy stemmed. The Big Money offers a biography of Veblen in which Dos Passos summarizes the economist’s theories of the domination of society by monopoly capitalism and the sabotage of workers’ human rights by business interests that are dominated by the profit motive. According to Dos Passos, Veblen saw two alternatives: a society strangled and its workers destroyed by the capitalists’ insatiable greed for profit or a society in which the needs of those who do the work is the prime consideration. Veblen held out hope that the workers might yet take control of the means of production before monopoly capitalism could plunge...

(The entire section is 1002 words.)