Friday, September 29, 2006


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A couple of bloggers recently mentioned that they felt they should go back and read some of the books they didn't read in school. Hope it works out for ya!

When I was in high school and college, I avoided reading the USA trilogy by John Dos Passos, and I wondered if I would enjoy reading it now. So I did read it. And, frankly, I think the Great Literature parade has passed me by.

USA is touted on the blurb as a "masterpiece of modern fiction," some of "America's best and most significant writing." It goes on to say that "Dos Passos creates an unforgettable collective portrait of America in the first half of this century, shot through with sardonic comedy and brilliant social observation."

And, all of that is true. I have read a lot of the literature of that era, and it was all unforgettable and filled with social observation, and depressing as hell.

Dos Passos uses some very interesting devices to capture the dialogues, sounds, and textures of life in the early 20th century. He writes what amounts to snapshots of several characters, interspersed with headlines of the day, which serve to move the reader through the years, and follows up with a page or two of stream of consciousness, sometimes followed by a short biography of a prominent man of that time. I thought it tended to break one's train of thought, and often, he didn't go back to the same character for several chapters.

His characters, male and female, are in a constant struggle to live day to day. They are mostly heavy drinkers and partyers (the "Roaring Twenties, don'tcha know") and never seem to be able to succeed for long at anything. Even if they do succeed, temporarily, they usually manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of success, and end up penniless, having to start all over. But, they never give up. Which, I suppose is the whole point. Times were hard, and these people just kept slogging away.

For a while, I tried to figure out if he was describing people whose real names would be recognizable, but since his characters never did make it big for long, I gave that up. One of the characters managed to amass a lot of money, but was still not what you could call successful, because he led such a dissipated liftstyle.

Dos Passos doesn't introduce his characters all at once, because most of them don't really know one another, except as ships that pass in the night. The way he does introduce them makes each one a main character for a while. For instance, he introduces a brand new character on page 1137, in the last book of the trilogy. It's an interesting technique, but you can't get too involved in the story of one person because he might disappear until chapters later, and by then, you don't care any more. Maybe you aren't supposed to get caught up in any one character. I suspect you are supposed to take the trilogy as a whole, and see the characters as examples of men and women in general during those years.

Many of his characters are involved to some degree in the union movement of that time. Some of his characters are Communists, some Socialists, and there's a lot of talk about Eugene Debs, and unions.

Taken as a whole, it painted a very powerful picture of the times. Even the fact that it didn't flow smoothly gave the feeling that the times were "choppy", too. The three books were all together in one book - almost 2000 pages .

I had forgotten how dismal all the books of that period were, and this brought it all back to me. All the characters were downtrodden, as I'm sure the workers of that day were, and the literature of the time reflected the dreariness.

I am compelled to mention, apropos of nothing in particular, that our little library has this book filed under Non-Fiction. (sigh)

All in all, I think I'll just stick to my cozies.


patsy said...

i don't think i will try that book. some of the books i read as a child were written in the late 1800's and were very simple. the pictures a life that we have never known. did you ever read Jean Straten Porter's books? just for an example.

Annie said...

I found it interesting that three bloggers I read have today spoken about books they've read or books that are meaningful to them Patsy, above, and you and also Squire at

You tackled a massive read in Dos Passos ' work. I applaud your idea to read the classics and I had that as an idea of my own once. But after reading Moby Dick I just decided I'd stick with contemporary fiction which might someday be considered classic.

Let me recommend Don Harington's novel, The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks(or any of his works, really). If you haven't already read him, do give him a try. Every Ozarker is likely to highly appreciate his work.

Betty said...

Annie, I keep meaning to try one of his, but when I get on, I end up with the tried and true. I'll remember him next time. Thanks.

Kell said...

Non-fiction? Sheesh.

You are so far ahead of me. I haven't gone back to read any "classics" because I'm too busy with the John Dunning books. Oh well, at least the main character is a book collector.

F&W said...

I just had a quick look at the Library of Congress online catalogue and Dos Passos' work is, indeed, supposed to be catalogued as non-fiction. It looks as though your lil' library was doing their job but it still strikes me a weird.

Sounds a waaaay too daunting for me to read. Good for you!

Betty said...

chelle p: I guess there is just enough accurate history in the book to be classified that way. Still seems strange, though, when the publisher calls it fiction. Oh, well.

Kell: I have two Dunning books to read and I'll give them to you when you get here if you haven't already read them.

saz said...

A Dos Passos book passed thru my hands on it's way to be sold on Ebay and I considered reading was one of those "shoulds" but it just sounded so dreary.

Arkansawyer said...

"cozies"?? Do you know you YumYum and KoKo are?

Betty said...

arkansawyer: Yes, I know Lillian Jackson Braun's books, although I haven't read any of them for a while. I get a little tired of YumYum and KoKo's owner's mustache fetish. :-)

Arkansawyer said...