Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*United States

*United States. The United States of America of Dos Passos’s trilogy is an ironic analogue to the free country of popular history, illustrating the difference between what America should be and what America is. Popular histories tend to view the United States as a promised land open to all, a country built by and for immigrants, a country in which all people are equal. Dos Passos’s realism shows an America in which a working person who falls ill or is injured loses everything, and in which attempts to improve the lot of workers are seen as dangerous, “foreign” influences. It is also an America in which dissent is often met with immediate arrest; labor union organizers are imprisoned and deported, framed by the police, and even executed; men can be jailed for the crime of being unemployed; and a woman (Margaret Sanger) can be jailed for teaching other women about birth control.

The America of the trilogy is an isolationist, xenophobic nation, filling rapidly with a flood of European immigrants, ready to exploit the strength of their bodies in its mines and mills, but fearful of the radical ideas (Marxism, socialism, and anarchism) they bring with them from a rebellious continent. Everywhere the landscape is the same: Big companies owned by the rich use the poor as if they were parts of a machine. Workers who speak out, or who wear themselves out through overwork, are replaced. The reality of America as portrayed by Dos Passos contrasts sharply with the idea of America as envisioned by the nation’s Founders or as imagined by average citizens.


*Goldfield. Nevada mining town where labor organizer Fainy “Mac” McCreary works for a socialist newspaper, the Nevada Workman. There is no romantic Wild West here; rather, the town is the scene of one of the great “free speech” fights that erupted between mine workers and owners throughout the West in the early years of the...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Wobblies
The Industrial Workers of the World was founded in 1905 in Chicago at a convention of two hundred socialists,...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Experimental Techniques
A notable feature of U.S.A. is its experimental sections, the “Camera Eye,” “Newsreel,”...

(The entire section is 875 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1938: German dictator Adolf Hitler begins his expansion throughout Europe with his occupation of Austria. In November, 191 synagogues...

(The entire section is 297 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

The trilogy ends on the eve of the Great Depression. Find a person who lived through the Great Depression and ask what life was like during...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

One Man’s Initiation (1917), Dos Passos’s first novel, tells about his experiences on the Western Front during World War I.


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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Aaron, Daniel, “U.S.A.,” in American Heritage, July– August, 1996, p. 63.

Beach, Joseph...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.