John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel

Dos Passos, John. The 42nd Parallel. Houghton Mifflin Co, 2000.

Summary of Work
This novel follows six characters through their lives in the first two decades of the twentieth century, ending just as World War I breaks out. The novel is structured with these different narratives stopping, starting, and intertwining with other characters’ narratives, even if they do not come in direct contact with one another. The novel is also broken up by newsreels, which are headlines and bits of news stories pulled from the Chicago Tribune during those years. The other section type is camera eye, which are autobiographical shots of Dos Passos’ life. The newsreels and camera eye sections do not follow any particular chronological order, and the stories of the lives of the characters also do not follow strict chronological time. Because of this, I am structuring this summary entry around the six characters rather than trying to chronologically summarize.

Mac, also known as Fainy McCreary, is from an immigrant family and is trained to work a printing press. He is a wanderer who won’t stick with one job for long, particularly because he is attracted to the ideologies of the Industrial Workers of the World and their leader, Big Bill Haywood. When he is in California and meets a woman and marries her, he settles down for a time and has two kids, but he feels like he is suffocating under the weight of poverty, work, and family responsibilities. When he hears about opportunities to help with the revolution in Mexico, he abandons his family and moves to Mexico to help where he can.

Janey Williams is from a poor working class family, and though she does well in school, she struggles in the working world as a secretary. She keeps trying to date different men to find love and finding that she dates rather terrible men. The firm that she finally gets a decent job at is pro-German, and although the pay is good, she cannot stand their anti-American statements and beliefs, so she quits the firm. Looking for work, she heads to New York City, and with some help she slips into what is first a temporary job to be a stenographer to J. Ward Moorehouse, and she does such a good job that she becomes his secretary. She takes trips with him all over the country, even down to Mexico.

Joe Williams, Janey’s brother, is a dropout and a fighter. He wanders from place to place intent on going to see new things around the world. He joins the Navy hoping to accomplish this goal further, and he sends Janey occasional letters and gifts from his travels. The Navy doesn’t work out so well for Joe, however, and he goes AWOL and goes back to his fighting, drifting ways.

J. Ward Moorehouse ties nearly all the characters in the story together in some way or another, even if it is just the other characters being in the same area. He is from a middle class family and well educated, but he aspires to be much more than a middle class working man. A writer, while he is working he meets and marries into a wealthy American family (the girl is pregnant), but upon his honeymoon trip to Paris, he realizes that she wants nothing to do with regular family life. She gets an abortion, and he quickly separates from her. He does make some contacts in Paris, and when he returns to the US, he begins a journalism career in Pittsburgh. From there, he marries again and starts his own public relations business with capital from his wife’s family.

Eleanor Stoddard is from Georgetown and part of a successful upper middle class family. She has artistic talent, particularly as an interior designer. She and her friend Eveline Hutchins, who have lived and worked together, quit their jobs and start up a decorator business of their own. They have the opportunity to do a costuming and design job for a play in New York, and eventually Eleanor decides to move there. She starts up her business there again, and J. Ward Moorehouse becomes one of her biggest clients. She also starts to become very close friends with Moorehouse, which even though a non-sexual relationship, angers Mrs. Moorehouse.

The final character introduced is Charley Anderson. He is a boy in Minnesota who ends up in Minneapolis as a mechanic. He falls in love with a girl about his age, and he has dreams of settling down to domestic life with her. However, when his best friend gets her pregnant, he is disenchanted with his dreams of domesticity and decides to leave and wander the nation to find something new to want. He gets stranded down in New Orleans and is lucky to not be beaten or killed from his terrible instrument playing, and he meets Doc William H Rogers, who buys the instrument off of him. They end up going to New York together on a ship and enlist in the ambulance corps for World War I. They are heading out to the front when the novel ends.

Brief Note on Themes
This work is unique in the way it deals with chronology and period representation through a mix of historical record and fiction. The book, as part of the USA Trilogy, is meant to give a picture or representation of the US during the early part of the twentieth century. The work itself deals heavily with attitudes about economics and racism during the time period, with racist sentiments abounding about Asians, African Americans, and Mexicans as well as immigrants. The narrative contains a lot of travel within it, ranging from the East Coast to the South to the Midwest to California and the West, all the way back down to Mexico. The idea of the American Dream seems embodied in the character of J. Ward Moorehouse.

Questions

  1. From Fainian making disastrous decisions time and time again to join in the communist movement and leave decent-paying jobs to Moorhouse’s consistent attempts to succeed through capitalism which leave him in debt or full of worry over risk, John Dos Passos’s work holds a healthy skepticism for both economic situations and economic “solutions.” Is there any indication in his work that he has a way out of the vicious cycle of economic ruin he illustrates throughout the novel?
  2. How does text placement and stylization affect the way we read the newsreel portions of this text? For example:

    TITANIC LARGEST SHIP IN THE WORLD SINKING
    Personally I am not sure that the twelvehour day is bad for employees
    especially when they insist on working that long in order to make more
    money

    Still all my song shall be
    Nearer My God to thee
    Nearer to thee
    (118)

    Those who know that the band on the Titanic played the song “Nearer My God to Thee” as the ship sunk can pull the importance of the connection to the music there, both for time period and beliefs. The text in between headline and song is almost like text from a different article out of the newspaper on the same day or the same year. When looked at in this way, is sound being captured in the sense that we’re getting the “noise” from the time period?

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