The first volume in John Dos Passos U.S.A. trilogy, 42nd Parallel, takes its name from a line of latitude that passes through Chicago, the Northwest United States, Iowa, the New York-Pennsylvania border, and Connecticut–not necessarily in that order. Yes, some of the characters come from or travel to these locales. Some of the action takes place in Paris, which is somewhat close to the line, while a healthy section lies in Mexico, nowhere near the titular line. In the end, the title of the novel has nothing clear to do with the material within, but then the stuff within has little to hold it together.
The novel revolves around a cluster of characters. Mac, a boy who wanders, Kerouac-style, from situation to situation, from Chicago, into Michigan, to Canada, the Pacific Northwest, San Francisco, and then to Mexico, leads off, dominating the opening third of the book. The remaining two thirds introduce Janey and Eleanor Stoddard, a pair of women who prove that Dos Passos has no gift for creating female characters. In fact, his most significant women are those who are abandoned after getting pregnant and threatening to interrupt the exciting peregrinations of the males. We also meet J. Ward Moorehouse, an apparently clueless but ambitious young man who transforms without any explanation from a credulous fool to an influential labor consultant. Finally, a scarce forty pages from the book’s close we meet Charley Anderson, who seems a bit too much like Mac to be a coincidence. Charley leaves town young, looking for work. Charley has a profession, auto mechanics, to match Mac’s printing. Charley leaves a pregnant girlfriend, although in his case the child is apparently not his. Like Mac, Charley espouses the gospel of the I.W.W., yet he seems as likely to uphold the opinion of those who refer to the union as “I Won’t Work” as to be seen as a genuine man of ideas.
To call 42nd Parallel a novel is generous. It is less novelistic than Joyce’s Dubliners. Granted, the five characters eventually cross paths, but they do so in largely insignificant ways. Janey winds up working as a doting secretary for Moorehouse who establishes a chaste(?) relationship with Eleanor, but even these convergences don’t seem to have much meat to them.
The one common factor that all the characters share is something that I doubt Dos Passos intended to foreground. No one in this book can stay home. Mac and Charley, the two young men who bookend the story, seem to have no ability to stay put. Janey and Eleanor both sacrifice stability and family in order to chase dreams of dubious value. Moorehouse cannot seem to get away from Wilmington, Delaware quickly enough at the top of his story. Even as he chases ambitions that never seem entirely concrete, he finds himself in constant motion.
This novel, following its title, is an arbitrary place, a line on a map, rather than a locale with roots and community. It ends, like the line of latitude where it began, with a directionless but mobile character. As Charley sails toward France and service in the ambulance corps for World War One at the book’s close, we remark on the forces that took him there. Charley, who will work just as hard as he needs to, does not head to France out of patriotism or a sense of loyalty to family. He finds himself on that ship because of a conversation with a drunk he met in New Orleans. One wonders if Dos Passos, still mired in his socialist phase, had begun to see the vanity of human wishes.