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The 42nd Parallel - John Dos Passos Andrew Carnegie started out buying Adams Express and Pullman stock when they were in a slump;
he had confidence in railroads,
he had confidence in communications,
he had confidence in transportation,
he believed in iron.
Andrew Carnegie believed in iron, built bridges Bessemer plants blast furnaces rolling mills;
Andrew Carnegie believed in oil;
Andrew Carnegie believed in steel;
always saved his money
whenever he had a million dollars he invested it.
Andrew Carnegie became the richest man in the world
and died.

Andrew Carnegie

John Dos Passos had problems with his father. His father also had issues with him given that he had the audacity to swell the belly of his mistress. The elder Dos Passos was a distinguished lawyer friendly with the industrial capitalists. He made out their trusts, advised them, and made a heap of cabbage doing so. When his wife died he did marry John’s mother, but did not acknowledge John until he was 16. Needless to say this put a burr under the young Dos Passos’s saddle.

The 42nd Parallel is the first of three novels that make up the U.S.A. Trilogy. Dos Passos used his first few novels to rail against capitalism and showed sympathy for communism which did not have the stigma associated with it that came into play in the 1940s. I’m sure people would classify this as an anti-capitalist novel, but to me I thought it was balanced in showing what good people can do in a capitalist system and also showing why communism was of such interest to American workers.

This novel had twelve characters that each get a chance to tell their story. I’m going to cheat and copy the explanation of the devices utilized by Dos Passos to construct this novel from Wikipedia.

The four narrative modes

In the fictional narrative sections, the U.S.A. trilogy relates the lives of twelve characters as they struggle to find a place in American society during the early part of the twentieth century. Each character is presented to the reader from their childhood on and in free indirect speech. While their lives are separate, characters occasionally meet. Some minor characters whose point of view is never given crop up in the background, forming a kind of bridge between the characters.

"The Camera Eye" sections are written in 'stream of consciousness' and are an autobiographical Künstlerroman of Dos Passos, tracing the author's development from a child to a politically committed writer. Camera Eye 50 arguably contains the most famous line of the trilogy, when Dos Passos states upon the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti: "all right we are two nations."

The "Newsreels" consist of front page headlines and article fragments from the Chicago Tribune for The 42nd Parallel, the New York World for Nineteen Nineteen and The Big Money, as well as lyrics from popular songs. Newsreel 66, preceding Camera Eye 50, announcing the Sacco and Vanzetti verdict, contains the lyrics of "The Internationale."

The biographies are accounts of historical figures. The most often anthologized of these biographies is "The Body of an American", which tells the story of an unknown soldier who was killed in World War I which concludes Nineteen Nineteen.

The blending of these modes is where Dos Passos brilliance really shines. I did not feel irritated at the switches between narratives, but read each new section with equal fascination. It was really a precursor to TV with, in this case, informative commercial breaks between sections of storyline.


This book is really about twelve people trying to make it in America. Some of them are capitalist and some are self proclaimed communists, but at the end of the day all the characters are concerned primarily about keeping a roof over their head and food in their mouth. To me a blending of communist and capitalist ideas comes as close to a perfect society as we can get. When I first discovered in Star Trek, as a young pup, that they didn’t use money anymore it was an intriguing concept to think about; an evolutionary thought. Contrary to what I had been taught, in an anti-communist environment, the will of the individual would be tempered under such a concept, and yet; on Star Trek these people I admired were individualistic and motivated to be successful. I also liked a world that would allow me to succeed even though I didn’t have any money because...well...I didn’t have any.


”Thomas Edison only went to school for three months because the teacher thought he wasn’t RIGHT bright. His mother taught him what she knew at home and read eighteenth century writers with him, Gibbon and Hume and Newton, and let him rig up a laboratory in the cellar.

Whenever he read about anything he went down in the cellar and tried it out.”

Thomas Edison

During the time period of this novel the labor unions were gaining strength helped of course by the horrible working conditions and low pay that the industrial tycoons of the day imposed upon the people. The concept of a happy worker is a productive worker was not even a sparkle in the eye of Carnegie or Rockefeller. They were more concerned about who could pile up the most money and labor, though necessary for them to become rich, was only notated on the deficit side of the ledger. There is such an anti-union sentiment in the country today, forgetting what wonderful advancements unions gave us, and also completely ignoring that the tycoons of today are the same as the tycoons of the 19th century. If unions are destroyed and laws are struck from the books intended to modify what seems to be the natural tendency of corporations (we learned they are people TOO) to exploit workers for the unmitigated ability to shower more money on the top 1%, the middle class as we know it is frankly doomed. For the sake of huge profits NOW corporations forget that people have to have money to buy the products they are producing. Paying people a wage that insures that they have money beyond just what they need to pay rent, food, and utilities means they can buy clothes they don’t necessarily need, impulsively buy Twenty Shades of Grey at the checkout stand, go to the movies, and buy that latest thingamagig. The money goes down and then it comes back up. Everybody needs skin in the game. If workers are merely subsisting it doesn’t take long for them to become disgruntled workers. Viva la Revolucion!


”The young man walks by himself, fast but not fast enough, far but not far enough (faces slide out of sight, talk trails into tattered scraps, footsteps tap fainter in alleys); he must catch the last subway, the streetcar, the bus, run up the gangplanks of all the steamboats, register at all the hotels, work in the cities, answer the wantads, learn the trades, take up the jobs, live in all the boardinghouses, sleep in all the beds. One bed is not enough, one job is not enough, one life is not enough. At night, head swimming with wants, he walks by himself alone.”

I remember when I felt that way. I was naive enough to feel that I could do everything. I didn’t have to choose. The world was my oyster to paraphrase some hack writer from England. To be successful of course, something I was also eventually concerned about which also jettisoned me out of the halycyon days of the book business, it did become necessary to choose, make concessions, and pick of path that would allow me to achieve some semblance of security. I got married and had kids and suddenly any reckless thought was carefully weighed and generally rejected in favor of the decision with less risk.

The Wobblies are coming!

One of the characters Mac finds himself caught on the treadmill trying to make more and more money to please his wife and kids. He enjoys his life despite the stress. His wife is pretty and the way she smells and feels when she is in his arms provides a comfort. His kids put a smile on his face. Money drives a wedge in his marriage and after one particularly bad fight he chooses to chuck it all and heed the call of the communist movement. He finds the cause exhilarating for a while, but ultimately discovers that trading his family for a larger cause is not as fulfilling as he hoped.

Dos Passos does play with the concept of “free love”, relationships between women, and the consuming passions of lust.

”After he’d given her a last rough kiss, feeling her tongue in his mouth and his nostrils full of her hair and the taste of her mouth in his mouth he’d walk home with his ears ringing, feeling sick and weak; when he got to bed he couldn’t sleep but would toss around all night thinking he was going MAD.”


Watching these characters succeed and fail was actually inspiring to me. They are all hard working people trying to find their place in this world. The stream of conscious writing is not difficult to follow. The influence Dos Passos must have had on a whole host of writers before he was duck walked off stage in the growing anti-communist sentiment of the 1940s and 1950s, would make an interesting PHD paper for some earnest young person. I will continue with the rest of the trilogy in the early months of 2013 with great anticipation.

John Dos Passos

”While there is a lower class I am of it, while there is a criminal class I am of it, while there is a soul in prison I am not free.” Gene Debs