Fall of the U.S.A.

At some point in our recent talk of books and the literary canon, commenter Sanjay mentioned in passing the epic U.S.A. Trilogy of John Dos Passos. It reminded me that back when I was a teenager burning through the interwar classics, I kept running across references to Dos Passos as a sort of invisible patron to writers like Hemingway or Fitzgerald. “I’ll read that eventually,” I thought. Sanjay’s comment brought those old intentions to mind, and it seems that I’m not alone.

What We’re Doing

This fall, we will use The American Scene as a platform for the collective reading and discussion of U.S.A. Labor Day seems a politically and seasonally appropriate time to begin what we’re calling, in a tip of the hat to the Infinite Summer Project, the Fall of the U.S.A. There will be no explicit deadlines, but we will also brook no acrimony over “spoilers.” Comment as you progress through the books, and follow along at your own risk. You will see some contributions from friends of the Scene, some of whom you might already know from elsewhere.

This being The American Scene, we encourage a generous hermeneutic toward the books. They are obviously ambitious, and might fall short on certain counts. Let’s think first about what works, and then consider whatever flaws afflict them.

We live in the era of survival analysis, so we welcome any readers who want to participate without committing to the whole trilogy. Reality intrudes sometimes. Even if you might not make it the whole way, give it a try.

I hope to collect reference materials online somewhere (the Sanborn fire insurance maps, for instance, would be a great resource). Any readers who’d like to help are encouraged to do so once we decide on a framework. Maybe we’ll serve as a slow-burning flashmob on the wikipedia entry.

Themes for Consideration

I’ve only started the first book, so I’d make a lousy guide, but already a few themes are apparent. Here are some ideas to keep in mind as you read, and I’d love to see some other ideas in the comments thread (again, we might decide on a new technical approach to this in time).

The Law

When and where does the force of law manifest in the action of the novels and in the lives of the characters?

Media and the Information Economy

Reading this in hindsight, where, if anywhere, do we see hints of the emerging “knowledge economy?”


We hear about it a lot today, mostly in embarrassingly glib terms. Muslim kids go into one end of a madrassa, and radicals pour out the other end. But what actually happens to make some people and not others receptive to radical solutions and life missions? I’ve always thought that notions of manhood had a lot to do with it, and Dos Passos appears to agree.

What’s the Matter with Kansas?

To what extent do direct economic interests shape political orientation? Should they? The book presents solidarity as something ephemeral that takes constant energy input to avoid dissipation.


As we are discovering in the era of “food miles” and “too big to fail,” scale is an under-theorized element of political economy that carries a lot of intuitive weight. To what extent does Dos Passos present scale as a normative dimension?

I hope this proves worthwhile, and that everybody gets something out of the books, if not the discussion. Good luck and Godspeed.

UPDATE: Posts will be collected here: http://theamericanscene.com/category/FOTUSA/