The Structural Devices in Dos Passos' U.S.A. FSU
in the Limelight
Vol. 7, No. 1
Feb 2000

The Structural Devices
in Dos Passos' U.S.A.

Danu Wahyono


John Dos Passos's statement at the beginning of U.S.A. that America is, more than anything else, the sounds of its many voices, offers several insight into the technique of the trilogy that reflects the author's attempt to capture some sense of characteristically American "voices", not just in the novel sections, but in newsreel, biographies, and the camera eye as well.

These sections reflect, respectively, the public voice of the media and popular culture, the oratorical voice of the biographies, and the personal and private voice of the artist, but the most important voices in trilogy are those of the chronicles. Wagner described him that "enthusiastic as Dos Passos was about being the chronicler of American life" (Wagner, 1979:xiii), in which Dos Passos introduces a cross section of American voices ranging from the blue collar workers to the professional and managerial classes.

Apparently, Dos Passos is profoundly influenced by Walt Whitman, "the positive hope of U.S.A. comes from Walt Whitman" (Rideout, 1956:162). Whitman's love of the American spoken words lies behind Dos Passos own colloquial style in the stories. Like the poet, the novelist has tried to include all America in his work. He takes all America as his subject matter as he tries to capture through the sounds of the many voices which characterize its people and institutions the meaning of U.S.A. By using what did exist, he could infuse his work with power, as had Walt Whitman, the man Dos Passos considered America's only great poet.

U.S.A. is, most critics state, technically one of the finest creations in the modern American novel. In this novel, Dos Passos has extended his method of projecting the caleidoscope, "a pattern that always changes and never repeats because the possible combinations and permitations are endless" (Walcutt, 1956:280), to the point where he fashions his pattern out of three elaborately contrived elements which interrupt and supplement the central narrative. He had also introduced several new structural devices and reduced the importance of anyone character in the interest of giving a dead level equality of attention to all of them.

The elaborate formal technique Dos Passos has used here aims to bring out the leading theme of his collective novel, a vision of American success. Wagenknecht defines a collective novels as "a type of fiction in which the emphasis is not upon the life story of a single individual but rather upon the life of a social group" (1962:383). Anatomically, this schematization can be recognized as follows.


The first of these devices called the narrative proper concerns itself with the individual life stories of the many characters compromising the social structure. The novelist tells reader the doings of the characters, not in a proper sequence, from life to death, but with lapses of time, interruptions of the life of them to get at another. He will take up one of his people, then forget him for a while, only to pursue his course later on. The result is sometimes of the confus-ion, but reading well into the novels, the life of one character can be seen wholly. Apparently, by merging his people, and by portraying them at significant moments in their lives, the novelist wants to show that all these lives are subordinate to a cosmic, collective whole. This extraordinary technique displayed by moving character through large areas and epochs seems to suggest the rootlessness that characterizes man's existence in modern civilization.

For this device, the majority of U.S.A. consists of the narrative of fictional characters. The narrative of three novels occupies the bulk of 1,500 pages in the third style of writing. Alfred Kazin correctly stresses the importance of Dos Passos' narrative style:

The success of Dos Passos' method does not rest primarily on his schematization of the novel into four panels, four levels of American experience .... The book lives by its narrative style, its wonderfully concrete yet elliptical prose which bears along and winds around the life stories of the book (Kazin, 1982: 353).

In applying this device, here Dos Passos uses a terse direct prose, and identifies each character's story with his or her name: Mac, Janey, J. Ward Moorehouse, Eleanor Stoddard, Charley Anderson, Mary French, and others. As the narrative develops, Dos Passos creates a composite of diverse national character. Although the national character appears to be different from the narrative, it is in fact similar. It substitutes a stylized impressionistic selectivity for fully extended narrative. As in the narrative, the principal mode of the national character is ironic in order to show the presumed great of American life revealed to be betrayers of American values. The detail explanation of the national character can be found in later section.

The narratives in U.S.A., both because of their relative length within the trilogy as a whole and because of the inherent nature of narrative, are the expression of Dos Passos's ironic method. His technique is to use a version of indirect discourse to reveal the underlying nature of his narrative figure and thus to reveal as well the important similarities among these figures. The fact that the narrative is intended to describe a character's habitual modes of thought and expression. The narrative in U.S.A. contain remarkably little dialogue or dramatic scene because the author's narrative voice is itself essentially a dramatic rendering of character.

For that purpose, Dos Passos supplies several verbal keys to remind readers occasionally that they are reading the author's rhetorical reshaping of a character's habitual voice. One is to place eye-catching colloquialisms in his third-person prose, for example "ud" for "would". Another is to run together words or phrases that are spoken as a single word, for example "officeboy". A third is to open a narrative which depicts the childhood of a character in a prose style which is obviously childlike. Here, for example, is most of the first paragraph of Eveline Hutchins' narrative:

Little Eveline and Arget and Lade and Gogo lived on the top floor of a yellow brick house on the North Shore Drive. Arget and Lade were little Eveline's sisters. Gogo was her little brother littler than Eveline; he had such a nice blue eyes but Miss Mathilda had horrid blue eyes. On the floor below was Dr. Hutchins' study where Yourfather mustn't be disturbed, and Dearmother's room where he stayed all morning painting dressed in a lavender smock. On the ground floor was the drawingroom and the diningroom, where parishioners came and little children must be seen and not heard, and at dinnertime you could smell good things to eat and hear and Yourfather's booming scary voice ... (N N, 121-122).

The irony in this passage is readily apparent but gentle. Far more characteristic of Dos Passos' use of indirect discourse for ironic effect are the many occasions in the narrative when a character's thoughts are rendered in a blatantly cliched verbal style which clearly reflects the painful inadequacy of his stereotyped beliefs. So, for example, when Joe Williams is arrested in wartime Liverpool for drunkenness, Dos Passos' account of the magistrate's lecture to him and his comrades captures both Joe's Colloquial idiom and the magistrate's hackneyed jingoism.

And the magistrate in the little wig gave 'em a hell of a talking to about how this was wartime and they had no right being drunk and disorderly on British soil but had ought to be fighting shoulder to shoulder with their brothers, Englishmen of their own blood and to whom the Americans owed everything, even their existence as a great nation, to defend civilization and free institutions and plucky little Belgium against the invading huns who were raping women and sinking peaceful merchantmen (N N, 49).

In fact, however, the narrative prose style in U.S.A. is generally far less blatant than these examples in its indirect-discourse rendering of the platitudes and cliches which guide the lives of the characters. Apparently, in a narrative style that is often reportorial, harsh, clipped, yet also poetic and vital, Dos Passos has unravelled the dismal progress of his characters. He has made reader see the chaos of their lives, and he holds them interested, stimulated. He accomplishes this without the use of the standard tricks of suspense, climax, and a plot with a beginning and end. He does this without the use of successive dramatic issues which are to be resolved as in standard novels. His art is naturalistic here. He seems to refuse to compromise his art by lying about life, and in many ways, he struggles to force his materialistic philosophy into a fictional structure. "Literature produced at that period is a presentation of verifiable picture of society. American novelist of 1930s often wrote in naturalistic manner" (Cowley, 1978: 98).


Along with the narratives is his use of the newsreel device introducing a section with bits of newspaper headlines, features articles of a date that corresponds to the particular actions of the characters described, and phases of news, interwoven with lines of poetry which presumably represent some of the emotions being experienced at that time. It uses here also popular songs, advertisements, and slogans that suggest the general atmosphere at that time of the episode related.

It places the private action in the calendar of history, reminding the reader of what things were of concern to the world at largest the moment when such an individual was dealing with such an item in his obscure life. There is no comment, no reference from public to private. But as the thing repeats itself over and over, there is a growing sense that private and public must be related in the order of things: that the capture of Mafeking or the execution of Ferrer must have its bearing upon the career of Mac; that Polish pogroms are of concern to Richard Ellsworth Savage; that the appointment of Daughtery has its long-range significance for Margo Dowling; and the landing of American marines in Nicaragua has its importance for Charley Anderson. Thus the story of private people with their private lives is set over against the story of the public world. Often the news events are directly related to an event in the main narrative, sometimes not.

Still more, there is the growing sense that private life is of a piece with the culture complex in which it is embedded, and that the spirit of the citizen is deeply colored by the world in which he lives. The topics featured in the newsreel are not chosen at random. They are in exact reproduction of what one reads in the most widely circulated newssheets: disaster, scandal, politics, society, finance, and labor. These items are placed more or less helter-skelter in the newsreel as they appear in the newspaper. In the newsreel they are often given in fragments, running into one another. Thus they make a perfect symbol of the average mentality as it concerned with public affairs. But gradually the accurate reading will make one aware that the choice and arrangement of topic and their very confusion are not so planless and haphazard as one might suppose. Disaster, scandal, and society are the screen behind which the serious business of the world is carried on. The dope with which the public mind is put to sleep; political news is seldom unaccompanied by the news of industry and finance and the organization or suppression of labor (Beach, 1941: 58-9).

Superficially, this device represents a world of fraud and sophistication, violence and treachery. It is carefully calculated one that either complements the story itself or provides period atmosphere. Effective as this section is, the cumulative ironies are easier to achieve than those within the other kinds of sections. More critical comments exist within the newsreel passages than in the other styles of writing, stressing the irony inherent in the juxtaposition of elements from songs, news, headlines, and overheard conversation. Here is one of newsreel examples that may be seen in the section of Newsreel VI of The 42nd Parallel.


(6) We were sailing along
On moonlight bay
You can hear the voices ringing
They seem to say
You have stolen my heart, now don't go away
Just as we sang
On moonlight bay
(8) when the metal poured out of the furnace I saw
the men running to a place of safety. To the right
of the furnace I saw a party of ten men all of
them running wildly and their clothes a mass of
flames. Apparently some of them had been injured
when the explosion occured and several of them
tripped and fell. The hot metal ran over the poor
men in a moment.
(10) Industrial foes work for peace at Mrs. Potter
(11) love's
We are sailing along
on moonlight bay ( F P, 100-101)
[item numbers added]

In this Newsreel, the apparent triumph of moral responsiveness asserted in lines 1 and 3 is undercut by the depravity voiced in line 7. The images of prosperity and strength of lines 2, 4 and 9 are sharply contrasted with the images of discomfort and helplessness of lines 5 and 8. Vision of love and peace that emerge in items 6, 10, and 11 are exploded by the instances of hate and violence in lines 7 and 8. These ironic juxtapositions seem to force the reader to experience the gaps between rhetoric and reality, between things "as people were told they ought to be" and "things as they are".

Camera Eye

One further device is camera eye, a section that presents the author's point of view toward the subject matter he is discussing the notion that Camera Eye is merely a device to "drain off" the subjective from the creative process and thus somehow ensure the greater objectivity of thew remainder of the novel. Or it has been taken to be a device which seeks to demonstrate the ability of the private consciousness to survive in the modern world. That is why, this device is carried out by impressionistic writing by use of stream-of-consciousness prose poetry.

The stream-of-consciousness material is not pure interior monologue as in Molly's Ullyses but consists of the constant intertwining of exterior event and interior reflection, in which "the world outside" plays an important role in the world consciousness. On the other case, the consciousness depicted in Camera Eye is not static. The fifty-one episodes form a kind of novel of development in which the protagonist comes to see his proper role in life and begins to understand it. As a result, punctuation and capitalization are lacking. The camera eye is also autobiographical for the most part, and illuminates phases of the author's life.

Camera Eye (3), for example, remembers the author's childish fright at seeing from a train window the smoke and flame of potteries at night, his mother's telling him that people "work there all night.... Workingmen and people like that laborers travailleurs greaser", and her account of shooting of a "greaser" in Mexico.

After the phrase "shouting a greaser", one is quickly confronted with the words "Lover of Mankind", a perfect example of Dos Passos' ironic juxta-positions. The lover of mankind is the great Socialist Eugene Debs, the subject of the first of the biographies. Setting up his lines in the manner of a Whitman poem, Dos Passos tells the story of Deb's desire to create "a world brothers might own/where everybody would split even", and of his betrayal not only by the bosses but by his own proletarian followers (FP:30-31).

The prose, or poetry really, first seems out of step with the rest of realistic prose, the harsh overtones of the writing. But it seems that this section succeeds in expressing the author's innermost feeling about life and people which he could not do in his narrative proper. It is a complement, like the newsreel, of the lives of characters in the main narrative.

It occurs fifty-one times through the trilogy, revealing the character, interest, and life history of the artist. In The 42nd Parallel, one sees him as a child in Tidewater Virginia, traveling in Europe, at school in England, his "four years under the ether cone" at Harvard, his presence at protest meetings and cafes in New York on the night of the entrance into the war. In 1919, one has glimpses of him in the ambulance service in France and Italy, emptying slop-pails in the medical corps, and finally in Paris, a civilian going to concerts and witnessing riots of working men in protest against the Versailles Treaty. In The Big Money, one sees him making a precarious living as a newspaperman, protesting the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and raging against the injustice sentence imposed on striking miners in the South.

Apparently, Dos Passos is very sensitive and fastidious, recalling from the grubby masses and yet seeing in them the backbone and heart of the America which "the great sweep of his novel shows being corrupted, debauched, and enslaved by the forces of commercial rapacity" (Walcutt, 1956: 287). Dos Passos sees America through the lens of poetic tradition which impels him to identify the physical elements of his nation with the dream of greatness and individual realization.

Here the characteristics attributed to American idealism become increasingly evident in the notions that "virtue is in the people, waste is in the natural expression of the exploiters, and wealth is in a long term conspiracy to sabotage labor and destroy the resources" (Walcutt, 1956: 287). It is perhaps not extravagant to identify the perfectly expressive form of this work with the final division of the great stream of American idealism. The form expresses a chaos. It is a fractured world pictured in a novel fractured into four parts through four styles from four points of view. This division of the subject combines with the range and variety of the materials treated to give the impression that nothing can be done because the problem is too complex to take hold of. It can be watched in the frantic samples that Dos Passos gives.

It seems difficult to get a sense of comprehensible process that might be analysed and controlled by the scientific method, because it is a moral deterioration that Dos Passos depicts. Dos Passos felt that, properly used, the Camera Eye can perceive, record, and communicate in full unattered power.


There are the precious biographies of prominent period of time. These are the Representative Men of the country and day. They more or less sum up the national achievement, official contribution to modern culture. There are twenty-five of these figures scattered through the three volumes: seven from the business world, five from politics, four from applied science and invention, three from the leaders of labor, three from the arts (Isodora Duncan, Rudolph Valen-tino, Frank Lloyd Wright), two from journalism (the Radical John Reed and the liberal Paxton Hibben), and one from social science.

These men who are the national contribution to American culture show a fact which explains the author's interpretation of American life. They are set forth ironically and bitterly, for the businessmen are greedy and unscrupulous, the entertainers are victims of their public as well as panders to its lusts and vanities. The liberal politicians are confused by their ambitions and inadequacies of the idealism, and the efficiency expert (F.W. Taylor) is an inhuman machine who dies with a stop watch in his hand. If these figures are regarded as the public heroes who are representative and masterpieces of their kind, the image of greatness which they portray for the common man-through the jittery glittering newsreel-show that the "storybook democracy", in Dos Passos's eyes, has not come true.

The proportion from the several categories indicates the author's general estimate of the cultural effort that literature appears in the form of journalism, not in pure science at all. These sketches are for the most part masterpieces of incisive and tendencious writing. They seem to give the author his best chance to indicate his attitudes and bias. The businessmen-Carnegie, the Prince of Peace; Hearst, Poor Little Rich Boy; Insull, Power Superpower-are most uniformly the object of his irony. Frederick Winslow Taylor, the American Plan, gives him his chance to suggest the social wastefulness of American efficiency and the speed up. Minor C. Keith, Emperor of the Caribbean, gives him his text on American imperialism. His political figures are all liberals-spurious and stupid (Bryan), playboy (Theodore Roosevelt), doctrinairane mis-guided (Wilson), sincere and forceful but relatively ineffectual (La Follette), and simply heroic (Debs). The one serious thinker presented by Dos Passos with a devotion approaching reverence is Thorstein Veblen, whose analysis of bourgeois mentality and bourgeois economics is the greatest single influence on the work of Dos Passos's U.S.A.

Taken together, the twenty-five short biographies inserted into the novel are considered as an attempt to buttress the general historical accuracy of the whole. They have, in fact, a much more complex function in terms of the novel's overall structure and vision. Each is carefully composed portrait designed to illuminate one or other of the two faces of American civilization.

With this invention it seems that Dos Passos seeks to find styles that are appropriate to the various types of material treated. With these devices, as most critics say, Dos Passos has succeeded in giving readers a collective novel of great scope and value.

Dos Passos, in short, could not limit himself to traditional technique because it employs only people-individuals-as raw material or pawns, so he interwove the stories centered on people, which constitute the narrative thread of his books, with literary fragments of an entirely new form. The rigorously expressive devices are made to serve a particular end, in this case the presentation of a truth that is massive yet easy to overlook, simple in itself but complex in its ramifications. Interesting as Dos Passos's various styles are, the openness of his text left readers bewildered. They can decipher neither relationships among the kinds of writing nor his intention in composing the trilogy as a whole.


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Horton, R.W. and H.W. Edward. 1974. Background of American Literary Thought. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, Inc.

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Wahyono, Danu. 1995. "The Working Class' Struggles for a Better Life in Dos Passos' U.S.A.". Buletin Pasca Sarjana-UGM 8(4A), November.

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Danu Wahyono, a lecturer at the Faculty of Letters, 17 Agustus 1945 University, Surabaya.