The 42nd Parallel: Volume 1 of the U.S.A. Trilogy (Dos Passos)

I saw a student carrying Ragtime the other day and thought it might be time to re-read that one again. Instead, I opted for another book describing that era – The 42nd Parallel – that features an introduction written, not coincidentally, by Doctorow himself. I’m glad I read the introduction. It gave me the confidence and framework I needed for reading the book, both of which I lacked the last time when I got stymied by the Newsreel and Camera Eye sections. This time, I had an idea about how to read those sections and, indeed, the whole book. Doctorow argues that it’s more a story of the US in the first twenty years of the 20th century than it is a story of a particular character. So we get these sometimes cryptic asides during which some sense of context sometimes leaks through. The characters and the way they intersect are amazing, as is the general depiction of the effort to get to the big cities of the time.

The last third or so of the book, as the US heads down the path to entering WW1, was difficult for me. It reminded me, in spirit, of the joy expressed in the film Cold Mountain, when the young men in the South learned that war had (in their minds) finally been declared. When you know how these things will end, particularly for many of those same young men, it’s hard not to feel sad about their beginnings.

But just as Dos Passos spent much time and energy on Mexico and labor issues in this first book, I’m sure the next one, entitled 1919, will bring us to Europe.

So, Mr. Doctorow, I will return to Ragtime. But first I have to finish this trilogy.


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