Literary scholar Lisa Nanney, author of John
Like so many other readers, I first read Dos Passos in a course—a graduate seminar in Politics and the Novel. There, in the 1980s, I discovered in U.S.A. novels that confronted issues urgent to my generation since our early college days in the late 1960s and 1970s, issues whose immediacy had not waned since the 1930s: America’s wars abroad, economic inequality at home, diminishing opportunities for the working class, the allure and hollowness of American versions of success. Equally as remarkable, those vital concerns in the narrative were constructed by cinematic visual methods that also seemed completely contemporary. Presciently, Dos Passos’s modes in the novel reflected the visual vernacular of the cinema as it had evolved from the relative sophistication of the montage editing innovations of Griffiths and Eisenstein, techniques that had since been adapted verbatim to the medium of television, then forged into the kinetic creativity and political engagement of American film of the experimental 1970s—jump cuts, split screens, hand-held cameras, anti-heroes. Discovering Dos Passos’s own painting, to which I was introduced by the seminar’s professor, Dos Passos biographer Townsend Ludington, added a further level of artistic intersection and intertextuality that situated the U.S.A. novels in the critical space between modernism and postmodernity.
U.S.A. seemed as much an expression of the cultural, political, and theoretical ferment of the 1960s and beyond as it did a product of the 1920s and 1930s. These novels are still immediate, fresh, and contemporary—history that stands up off the page, as Dos Passos characterized the dynamics of modernist narrative, and walks into the present.