What I’m Reading Now

42nd

Another in the series and another in the effort to come up with something coherent to say about the “American voice” in literature. Marching down David Bowie’s Top 100 list, I came to The 42nd Parallel. John Dos Passos won accolades for the trilogy USA of which 42nd Parallel is the first volume.

Since it was published in 1930 I was surprised to see the use of stream of consciousness. The new media of newsreels and the “camera eye” insert world events into the lives of the characters. Very high tech for the era.

These people are in the throes of early female autonomy, economic disaster, and other upheavals. Dos Passos has a socialist bent but creates memorable characters, no matter how noble or venal. I kept thinking how sad it was that we’re still fighting many of the same battles more than eight-five years later.

The early sections made me wonder how much Dos Passos had influenced John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which was published in 1939. Although the themes differ, it feels as though Steinbeck had Mac (Fainy McCreary) and his fellow wanderers sitting on his shoulder as he wrote the story of Tom Joad and family.

Two notes:

  • Mac’s story begins in Middletown, Connecticut, interesting since Dos Passos sojourned in monocromatic Wallingford but placed his character in the larger multi-ethnic town nearby.
  • I found where my mother got the technique she used in The Narrows where she ran words together: “fullgrown, fullblown, … delicatelyshaped, moistlooking, thirstylooking.” Dos Passos did it first, though her renderings serve up more poetry.

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