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0511 | U.S.A. | John Dos Passos

0511 | U.S.A. | John Dos Passos post image

Context: Read this while visiting Lisbon on a trip that turned out to be an expensive waste of time.

My what a splendid book this is. Vast in its scope and magnanimous in its treatment of the varied strata that made up a nation coming to terms with the 20th century. I defy you not to enjoy this, despite it being well over 1,000 pages long, a trilogy that follows 12 characters some related and others not. Not only is it written in a style that is incredibly accessible for such a long novel, it’s written in four styles that are incredibly accessible. Even the stream of consciousness episodes are so well crafted and (ahem) so short, that they fly by.

While I enjoyed the characters and what they got up to, what I most enjoyed was how I saw the nation of the US through their eyes and experiences. It was a promising time for the US and various ideals are put to the test including the spectral opposites of capitalism and socialism. Neither of them come off well, but I kind of felt, a bit like in Sinclair’s masterpiece The Jungle, that it was the ones who espoused a more societal basis for life that were painted with more touches of heroism. Certainly, you sympathised a lot more with those who fell victims to mass industry and the drive to industrialise at the sake of the common man.

Certainly Dos Passos here composed a classic but not just for his storytelling skills. It’s a nation analysed and put to the test of history. Interestingly, it shows how weak the ideals are, ideals that, even today are either praised or vilified in equal measure depending on which facet of US citizenry you talk to. I’m not sure that the US has really grown much more mature in its pursuit of an identity than it is portrayed in this novel. I wonder what the USAnians among you would respond to that.

For outsiders who want to know more of why the US is as it is, this is a good novel to reflect on. There’s such a vast amount here to consider there’s no way to do it justice. Even just one of the 12 character threads would provide book clubs with hours of discussion. For those of you on the inside, I think this is a good one to have under your belt to say you know where US literature is coming from and to provide food for thought as you continue to build on what those 12 characters built before you.


The young man walks fast by himself through the crowd that thins into the night streets; feet are tired from hours of walking; eyes greedy for warm curve of faces, answering flicker of eyes, the set of a head, the lift of a shoulder, the way hands spread and clench; blood tingles with wants; mind is a beehive of hopes buzzing and stinging; muscles ache for the knowledge of jobs, for the roadmender’s pick and shovel work, the fisherman’s knack with a hook when he hauls on the slithery net from the rail of the lurching trawler, the swing of the bridgeman’s arm as he slings down the whitehot rivet, the engineer’s slow grip wise on the throttle, the dirtfarmer’s use of his whole body when, whoaing the mules, he yanks the plow from the furrow.


This might reveal the ending. If you want to see the quote, click show

RATING usarKey: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement | StyleRead more about how I come up with my ratings
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