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Each novel is divided into four distinct ways of comprehending history. The Newsreel sections report on the public events of the day (wars, scandals, political trials, and the like). The Camera Eye sections are reflective of the author’s deeply personal experience and are written in a highly subjective and elusive manner that requires careful concentration. The episodic sections concern the biographies of individuals who are often alienated from the youthful hopes for their lives. Finally, highly condensed and brilliantly ironic biographies of famous figures (Woodrow Wilson, for example) are interspersed in the narrative to give examples of successful but gravely flawed Americans.

In THE 42ND PARALLEL, Dos Passos tells of the rise of characters such as J. Ward Moorehouse, a public relations executive, and Charley Anderson, a former aviator who becomes a wealthy airplane manufacturer, dramatizing the growth of both business and labor at the beginning of “the American Century,” as one of the Newsreel sections calls it.

1919 focuses on the political consequences of the development of capitalism and shifts attention away from inventors such as Edison featured in the first novel to radicals such as Joe Hill and John Reed.

THE BIG MONEY explores the enormous impact of the mass media and Hollywood in capsule biographies of Rudolph Valentino and William Randolph Hearst and in the lives of characters such as Margo Dowling, who enjoy only the brief success that a movie career usually affords.

A steady theme throughout the trilogy is the erosion of individual liberty. In war and at peace, the country seems increasingly corrupted by a mania for self-aggrandizement and a concentration of political and economic power that thwarts the integrity of individual lives.


Hook, Andrew, comp. Dos Passos: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. Explores political and social influences, theme, technique, and Dos Passos’ contradictory stylistic blend of romantic individualism and radical history.

Landsberg, Melvin. Dos Passos’ Path to “U.S.A.”: A Political Biography, 1912-1936. Boulder, Colo.: Associated University Press, 1972. Begins with Dos Passos’ parents’ background, describing the development of his political and social attitudes and tracing his literary influences.

Ludington, Townsend. John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980. Connects contradictions in Dos Passos’ personality and writings to his illegitimacy and to his role as an outsider. Includes planning notes for U.S.A., showing its historical influences.

Pizer, Donald. Dos Passos’ “U.S.A.”: A Critical Study. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988. Relates the novel to Dos Passos’ life and times. Examines theme and technique, using work plans, character lists, tables, and typescripts. Detailed analysis of the four modes: Camera Eye, Biography, Newsreel, and narrative.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Dos Passos: Artist as American. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. Discusses use of shifting panoramic view to re-create history, evaluating the effect of this technique on characterization. Traces the effect of American mythology and American political and economic realities on U.S.A.

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Critical Evaluation


Critical Overview