Unique among American novels for its epic scope and panoramic and social sweep, John Dos Passos' U.S.A. has long been acknowledged as a monument of modern fiction. In the novels that make up the trilogy - The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936) - Dos Passos creates an unforgettable collective portrait of America, shot through with sardonic comedy and brilliant social observation. He interweaves the careers of his characters and the events of their time with a narrative verve and breathtaking technical skill that make U.S.A. among the most compulsively readable of modern classics. In his prologue Dos Passos writes: "U.S.A. is the slice of a continent. U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stock quotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a public library full of old newspapers and dogeared history books with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil...But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people." The trilogy is filled with American speech: labor radicals and advertising executives, sailors and stenographers, interior decorators and movie stars. The volume contains newly researched chronologies of Dos Passos' life and of world events cited in U.S.A., notes, and an essay on textual selection.
The USA Trilogy has often been described as a "put-downable" book. And while I didn't find it so, it is better to be forewarned than disappointed. Sample it before you buy.
I consider it one of the Great books of the 20th Century. An almost forgotten masterpiece, and I wish it had been one of my countrymen who had written it.
Some years later when I was picking the best book read in 1949 I chose it as such. I don't think I re-read my diary entries about the book when I made that selection. Looking at the books I read that year, I think now The Grapes of Wrath was a more memorable book..Is that cause I've seen the movie?
I read this trilogy to get some appreciation of the style so successfully used by science fiction writersJohn Brunner and Joe Haldeman, and I found that style interesting. I liked the Camera Eye sections – impressionistic vignettes sometimes told from the point of view of some of the characters and sometimes they seem to feature viewpoint characters never seen elsewhere in the trilogy. The Newsreel sections were compelling, and the very best thing about the trilogy is a series of biographies of historical personages. Told in a variety of styles, a variety of tones, they sometimes approach prose-poems and are always interesting and very revealing in the large and small details of the people’s lives (cultural, political, scientific, and business figures).
These techniques, together with straight fictional prose, create, as they do in sf novels, a definite sense of place and time – here America in the first approximately 25 years of the 20th Century. Unfortunately, while this book evokes a time and place, it doesn’t work as drama. Many of the characters blurred together in my mind. All were on the make – at least in The Big Money. Unplanned pregnancies play a major part in the plot (as they probably did in the real lives of people during the time of this trilogy since artificial contraception was often illegal) and, for that reason, I probably confused the female characters more often than the male, but all the characters suffered from lack of memorable distinctions.
However, I’m glad I read this book to examine Dos Passos’ wonderful, groundbreaking, influential style and the history I learned.
They decided that Dos Passos' typographic design could be ignored - and therefore the old Signet paperbacks are still more reliable editions than their new 'definitive' Library of America version. Idiots.
The trilogy employs an experimental technique, incorporating four narrative modes: fictional narratives telling the life stories of twelve characters; collages of newspaper clippings and song lyrics labeled "Newsreel"; individually labeled short biographies of public figures of the time such as Woodrow Wilson and Henry Ford and fragments of autobiographical stream of consciousness writing labeled "Camera Eye". The trilogy covers the historical development of American society during the first three decades of the twentieth century.
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked U.S.A. Trilogy 23rd on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.