75 years ago this month, Harcourt Brace reissued John Dos Passos’s three previous books under the name the U.S.A. Trilogy in a calculated bid to position them as the Great American Novel. Can this ambitious, sprawling work still live up to that title today?
DO AUTHORS STILL ASPIRE to writing the Great American Novel? Certainly critics still enjoy debating which books might merit that heavy mantle. In the last year Michael Gorra (in The Daily Beast), Maria Konnikova (in Slate), Julia Ingalls (in Salon), and other arbiters of literary taste have weighed in on the subject. And if no agreement is in sight on which book deserves the title, fans of American fiction at least have some worthy candidates.
Many of the most likely aspirants to the throne have a quirk or flaw that threatens to disqualify them from consideration. Even as Michael Gorra makes a case for Henry James’s A Portrait of a Lady as the Great American Novel, he needs to point out that the book is set in Europe. I agree that James may be the best American novelist, although I prefer his later works The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, and (my favorite American novel) The Ambassadors — but these also take place mostly in the Old World. My backup choice is Moby-Dick, but it too transpires beyond US national limits. The same geographical concern plagues Hemingway’s candidacy. On the other hand, The Great Gatsby is brilliant and entirely based on native soil, but clocking in at under 50,000 words it’s far too short for such a lofty title as Great American Novel. What’s left? Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece … well, at least until Twain fumbled the ending. Faulkner’s too dark, Pynchon’s too hard. On and on the faultfinding goes.
Then we come to John Dos Passos’s entry in the race, a series of three novels originally published separately — The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936) — but eventually combined into a single imposing 1,200 page edition entitled U.S.A. Seventy-five years ago this month, in January 1938, Dos Passos’s publisher put out the first edition under this new name, and with the addition of a grandiloquent prologue by the author:
U.S.A. is the slice of a continent. […] U.S.A. is the world’s greatest rivervalley fringed with mountains and hills, U.S.A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bank accounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men in their uniforms buried in Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.
Mr. Dos Passos (and his publisher) clearly had their eyes on the prize. But no dice.
To give this writer his due: no author in the history of the U.S. worked harder to construct a literary work that would meet all the requirements of the Great American Novel. The whole co...read more