Dos Passos, a Poet Who Didn't Know It?

I’ve only just begun The 42nd Parallel, but my initial sense is that U.S.A. will be a fascinating, awe-inspiring, and somewhat tedious work. There’s a good chance I won’t finish it. Indeed, my main aim at this point is merely to complete the first book.

Part of it is that, having read the foreword, I know it’s not going anywhere in the traditional narrative sense. There’s no mystery that will be solved, no plot mechanisms that will drop satisfyingly into place. It’ll just go on, alternating, as it does, between scraps of news, episodic reports on varied lives, and impressionistic word-mess.

Because the book is so controlled in its formal methods, and because it deals more in imagistic fragments than in traditional narrative arcs, it almost seems to have more in common with poetry than with fiction. Indeed, I’m barely 50 pages in, but I already sense a fair bit of connection to poets who were Dos Passos’ contemporaries, broadly speaking. The Camera Eye bits are Joycean, of course, but I’m also reminded of Gertrude Stein, whose self-consciously broken word jumbles seemed designed to test — and break — the limits of language. The “story” bits, meanwhile, resemble reported pieces to some extent, but they also strike me as similar to the poetry of William Carlos Williams: Dos Passos uses simple language to describe simple scenes of life; there are few stylistic flourishes or references to anything beyond the present place and time.

Yet by interweaving the stories of the individuals with the news fragments and the impressionistic babble, Dos Passos hints at something larger: a national experiencing not just expanding, but breaking apart; a population in the throes of an event-driven, anxiety-inducing identity crisis; and a web of individuals who, caught up in it all, get by the only way they can — one small moment at a time.