Paul McIntier on “John Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel: Literary Cubism”
John Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel chronicles the lives of five individuals who have grown disheartened with their places in society. Book One of the U.S.A. trilogy, The 42nd Parallel deals with issues such as the dissatisfaction of one’s home life, a woman’s place in a male-centric world, and the pursuit of status up the societal staircase. However, Dos Passos’ characters are not the only ones trying to find their way. Beginning with Manhattan Transfer, an earlier novel centering on New York City’s subway, Dos Passos experiments with various styles, eschewing the traditional linear narrative and taking on Ezra Pound’s famous challenge to “make it new” by attempting a type of literary cubism.
In The 42nd Parallel, Dos Passos breaks his characters’ narratives into sections, rather than a single beginning-to-end style of biography, and intertwines them with the others. As if the storyline changes were not interruption enough, Dos Passos inserts unrelated glimpses of early 20th - century life via what he terms the “Newsreel.” These fragmentary shorts consist of actual headlines, portions of headlines, and bits of song lyrics and poetry arranged in a piebald manner that, when read like typical prose, produce a nonsensical writing. These clips, a form of stream-of-consciousness that is one of the hallmarks of modernist literature, move the reader from the fictional biographies to the factual news of the day and back again.
In yet another example of experimentation with literary cubism, Dos Passos employs the “Camera Eye,” a series of literary “selfies” that recount his own life from early childhood to present. These vignettes also read as stream-of-consciousness, as if he must write down all that he remembers before an imaginary timer goes off. In this sense, even The 42nd Parallel itself struggles with a sense of place, never knowing if the text is fact or fiction, free flying or grounded. As Townsend Ludington notes, “The devices of … the Newsreels, and the longer narratives about a variety of representative characters … interspersed as they are, became his method of achieving a cubistic effect to the degree that the written page will permit” (574-575). These “Camera Eye” passages offer a voyeuristic peek into Dos Passos’ identity.
For Dos Passos, the question of “Who am I?” is no mere literary technique. Robert Davis writes that Dos Passos’ “problem of identity was more than a popular literary theme … he always felt homeless, different from other boys” (475). This homelessness is reflected in the story of Mac, one of the five individuals of The 42nd Parallel, as he moves from Chicago to California and finally to Mexico, taking up residence at various towns along the way, if only briefly.
Each of the book’s characters struggle for a sense of place, and the parallel to Dos Passos’ own life is evident. A seasoned world traveler by age of 13, and later one of “the greatest traveler(s) in a generation of ambulant writers” (Cowley 292), Dos Passos uses those journeys – and the rest of his life experiences – to transform his writing.
Cowley, Malcolm. Exile’s Return. New York: Penguin Group, 1994. Print.
Davis, Robert Gorham. “John Dos Passos 1896-1970.” American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. (1974): 474-496. Gale. Web. 30 Oct. 2014
Ludington, Townsend. “John Dos Passos, 1896-1970: Modernist Recorder of the American Scene.” The Virginia Quarterly Review. 72(4). (1996): 565-580. Web. ProQuest. 30 Oct. 2014.
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