The trilogy included novels “42 parallel”, “1919” and “Big Money” (1936, not translated into Russian). They give a general picture of America’s life in the first three decades of the twentieth century: “42 parallel” – the rise of the labor movement in the United States; “1919” – the First World War and the impact of the October Revolution; “Big money” – the world crisis of 1929.
Each novel consists of four elements, alternating in a certain sequence – portraits of literary heroes, biographies of historical personalities, “News of the Day” (newspaper reports) and “Camera obscura” (author’s digressions). The development of the plot is not motivated by the fate of this or that hero, but the course of history embodied in the documentary material (“News of the Day” recreates the historical background of the era on the basis of documents) and in biographies of historical figures. Together, this reveals the main trends in the development of American civilization, which, according to the author, is leading to a crisis.
During the work on the trilogy, Dos Passos was sympathetic to democratic and communist ideas, which later became disillusioned. His works are an attempt to create an American epic of the XX century. with a strong criticism of the American way, from the Spanish-American War of 1898 to the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. In the trilogy, there are twelve characters representing different sections of society: the working class, the intelligentsia, and businessmen.
Critical attitude to the American reality of the 20th century, which crossed out the “American dream”, the sense of crisis in the country claiming to become a symbol of the new century, are already present in the title of the first novel. Its meaning is revealed by the epigraph from the “American Climatology” by EW Hodgins, where it is said that the 42nd parallel of the northern latitude, crossing the USA, is the central axis of the hurricane movement from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. By analogy, Dos Passos depicts how the hurricanes in the social life of America (the growth of the labor movement, strikes, the fall in the share price), however, like the author of Climatology, who did not dare to predict the weather, the author of the trilogy does not undertake
to explain the nature of the history hurricanes and predict them direction. And yet the chaos of the world, the embodiment of which is a large bourgeois city,
The novel is opened with “News of the Day” – it’s outwardly a messy set of headlines, excerpts from articles that come to an end in the middle of a phrase. This montage, first used by the writer in American literature, is a stream of consciousness for the reader of a newspaper whose eyes are shifted from one title to another. The author tries to create the impression that he is not involved in the selection of these historical realities, but, in fact, he introduces the reader into the atmosphere of a certain historical period. “News of the Day” conveys the movement of time, fixes certain time marks in the development of American society. The acquisition of Cuba after the victory in the Spanish-American war, the suppression of the uprising in the Philippines, the Anglo-Boer war, rejoicing over the successes of the United States in the colonial war against Spain, expressed in the words of Senator Albert J. Beveridge: The twentieth century will be the century of America. The thought of America will dominate it. The progress of America will show him the way. The actions of America will immortalize him. “This is the historical backdrop of the trilogy’s beginning, the whole content of which is refuted by the senator’s words. In the newspaper reports there are reports of a fall in shares, that Wall Street is” shocked, “and so on.
At the center of the first novel, the fate of Mack – he begins his working life from traveling around the country together with a certain Bingham, a wandering charlatan, hiding behind academic degrees and trading books, a very characteristic figure for America at the beginning of the century. Then Mack becomes an activist of the labor movement, but he acts not so much from his convictions as under the influence of his mood. After quarreling with his wife, he goes to Mexico to see the revolution with his own eyes. Mack is not a convinced revolutionary and acts cautiously, not advertising his participation in the trade union organization “Industrial workers of the world” in order not to lose his job.
Arriving in Mexico to “see” the revolution, he only communicates with the workers and peons at first, and then finds himself in a safer and more attractive environment for the philistine. The revolutionary events themselves pass by him, although Mack declares that he wants to join the army of Zapata. Emiliano Salata and Pancho Villa are leaders of the revolutionary army, who, after the overthrow of dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1910, led the radical wing of the revolution. They were opposed by representatives of various groups of the national bourgeoisie – President Madeero, General Huerta, President Carranza, killed by the officers of his staff. At the time of the flight from Mexico City to the government of Carranza and the offensive on the city of the revolutionary army, Mack is in the capital. However, by this time he had already become a bookseller and he did not want to leave his bookshop and go to the revolution.
Benfort Compton, his life is more subordinate to the revolution. A clever boy, who graduated from school with a reward for writing about the American state system, eventually begins to feel the hostility of this system to the common man. Ben becomes an agitator, gets to prison. Subordinating his life to serving the working class, he suppresses in himself personal feelings, shows a callousness to his loved ones. It is symbolic that he meets his birthday on handcuffs on the train together with the policeman who accompanies him to the place of detention.
The representative of that America, which the author does not accept, is the calculating businessman John Ward Moorhouse. If Ben Compton subordinates everything to the service of the revolution, then Murhouse is a career, a desire to occupy a higher place in society. The storekeeper’s son on the railway, he begins his “way up” as an agent for the distribution of books, then studies at the University of Philadelphia, works in an office for the sale of real estate. Advancing in the service, Moorhouse marries a wealthy woman, divorces her, then marries another rich man and takes a prominent position in society, becoming a propaganda specialist and an active fighter against the trade union movement. During the revolution in Mexico, Murhouse, acting on behalf of the major US financiers, is trying to find out about the state of affairs of Mexican oil, which is the subject of general interest,
Representatives of different strata of society are shown by Dos Passos with encyclopedic completeness: Janey Williams is the daughter of a retired captain, a stenographer, works as a secretary for Moorhouse; Elinor Stoddard – the daughter of a worker from the Chicago slaughterhouses, becomes an artist-decorator, is with Murhouse in the organization of the Red Cross; Charlie Anderson begins his life as an auto mechanic, serves in the army and becomes a pilot there, fighting in France. Returning to America, makes a fortune in the aircraft industry, dies in a car accident; Evelyn Hatchins is the daughter of a Protestant priest who, like Elinor Stoddard, is an artist-decorator, works at the Red Cross in Paris, commits suicide by taking a large dose of sleeping pills; Richard Elsworth Savage is a lawyer, renounces leftist views, serves at Moorhouse; Joe Williams, brother of Janey Williams, serves as a sailor in the navy, desertes; Margo Dowling, from the family of actors, becomes a movie star in Hollywood; Mary Franch is a member of the labor movement who is thrown into prison for speaking out against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.
The construction of the biography of each of the literary heroes, despite some differences, strictly follows a certain scheme that resembles a sociological questionnaire: the place and date of birth, parents’ occupations, education, hobbies, marital status are indicated. This desire for the systematization of factual material, for impartiality embodied in documentary, becomes Dos Passos an end in itself, and, despite the difference in lifestyle and social status, his characters almost do not differ from each other – their individuality is not disclosed, although they are taken into account described the smallest details of their biographies. The most important milestones in the development of American society are given in portraits of historical personalities. In all there are twenty-five, and they represent the labor movement, the world of business, science, art, and the press. Opens the gallery of historical portraits of Eugene Debs, an activist of the working-class movement, who, together with Bill Heywood, founded in 1905 the trade union organization “Industrial workers of the world”. The author writes about him with great warmth, calling him “Friend of Mankind”.
The chapter “The Wizard of Botany” narrates about the famous breeder Luther Burbank, who “made an unrealizable dream about green grass in winter, plums without seeds, berries without seeds… cactus without thorns.” The author outlines a parallel with the hybridization of Burbank: “America is also a hybrid, America could use natural selection” – perhaps as a counterbalance to social chaos.
The head of “Big Bill” talks about Bill Heywood, one of the founders of the American Communist Party.
The chapter “The Boy Speaker from the Plata” is an ironic story about William Jennings Bryan, a politician who repeatedly ran for presidency. As a boy he took a prize in rhetoric, and his “silver voice” “enchanted farmers of the great prairies” – Bryan preached bimetallism, that is, unrestricted coinage of cheap silver. Thus, the ruined farmers hoped to pay their debts to banks, which, on the contrary, were interested in a monetary unit of gold. Soon a new way of extracting gold from ore was invented, and there was “no more need for a silver prophet,” – Brian’s demagogic campaign failed. However, “Silver language continued to ring in the big mouth, provoking pacifism, fundamentalism, sobriety”
The chapter “The Great Peacemaker” is dedicated to the steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, who “believed in oil, believed in steel, always saved money.” The image of the philanthropist and pacifist was debunked by a concise ending, it turns out, the peacekeeper who donated millions to the cause of the world, to libraries and science, did this “always, only not during the war.” Thus, Carnegie, who always copied “in small things” and every dollar that went into circulation, makes profit on the war and on the world…
“Electric Wizard” is a story about the great inventor Edison, the creator of an electric bulb that managed to take its place in the business world.
“Proteus” – the story of the inventor, the worldly helpless scientist Karl Steinmetz, mathematics and electrical engineering. Although he is “allowed” a lot by “being a socialist”, for example, writing letters to Lenin, but he is completely dependent on the owners, “General Electric”, being “the most valuable piece of equipment” of this firm.
Important in the narrative are the author’s lyrical digressions – “Camera obscura” – a stream of consciousness, a personal commentary on the events of the era, an appeal to the reader. The internal monologue reveals the author’s point of view on the American path in history, which led to the collapse of the illusion of universal justice and brotherhood, the “American dream” is still a dream. The country is split into two nations, technological progress is not yet a guarantee of universal happiness. Against the backdrop of the success of urbanization, the Dos Passos’ reflections are becoming increasingly dysfunctional: a society created by the efforts of millions of people, but whose goal is not the well-being of a person, but the gain – “big money”, is heading to collapse. The trilogy ends with such a collapse, America’s greatest failure – the crisis of 1929. Hurricane sweeps above the 42nd parallel,