The 42nd Parallel, 1930

The first volume in what would become Dos Passos’s most famous work, the trilogy U.S.A., The 42nd Parallel introduces grand innovations in the form and content of American literature. The author chronicles the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, as the country angsts for attention on the world stage.

Across America, Dos Passos is troubled by how new institutions and movements—such as industrialization, imperialism, and materialism—stifle human freedom. His satire is born of hope for societal advancement through means consistent with the country’s democratic roots, as he perceives them.

He uses a fresh, multimedia style that mixes newsreels, song lyrics, biographies of major figures, semi-autobiographical prose poems, and standard narrative. This collage effect, as well as the accompanying social satire, shakes the literary establishment.

Books writes a favorable review, noting Dos Passos’s “stimulating courage that essays a synthesis of time, class, geography and social theory.” Critic Edmund Wilson calls the book “by far the most remarkable, the most encouraging American novel” since World War I. French poet Blaise Cendrars calls it “absolutely delightful.”

The New York Times perceives that the work is a “satire on the tremendous haphazardness of life in the expansionist America we all have known, the American which came into birth with the defeat of Jefferson’s dream of an agricultural democracy…It is an America ‘on the make’ that Mr. Dos Passos satirizes, an America filled with people with vague hopes of success—no matter what success.” Everyone is out for a buck before “the whole thing goes belly up.”

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