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Dos Passos, John

(US, 1896–1970)

U.S.A., first published as three books then in one volume in 1938, is on an epic scale. It includes contemporary newspaper extracts, and ‘stream-of-consciousness’ sections which reveal glimpses of the author's autobiography, interwoven with conventional narrative, making a collage of early twentieth-century America. The stories of hundreds of characters are set against vividly described cities and landscapes. Dos Passos' theme is hatred of capitalism and the ‘elderly swag-bellied gentlemen’ who control the working man's destiny. The use of interior monologue shows the influence of James Joyce and the characterizations have been compared with Dickens's, though some critics suggest that they are pawns in a technical experiment and lack depth. Dos Passos was accused by Edmund Wilson of damning ‘the sufferers [from capitalism] along with the disease’.

Start with the shorter Manhattan Transfer (1925), a novel drawing impressionistic portraits of the inhabitants and the city. Again the theme is the dehumanizing effect of capitalism and of urban living. Sinclair Lewis said of it: ‘[Dos Passos] presents the panorama, the sense, the smell, the sound, the soul of New York, [in] the technique of the movie, flashes, cut-backs, speed.’ The plot of this earlier book is more coherent, although the narrative is also fragmented and contains multiple perspectives. Jimmy Herf, working dispiritedly as a reporter, and Ellen Thatcher, an actress, are two of the many characters who live in the city; but Manhattan itself is the main character, revealed in all its grubby, soul-destroying, opportunistic glory.

Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, Tom Wolfe, John Steinbeck  FS

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionBooks & Authors: Award-Winning Fiction (Co-Fi)