John Dos Passos´s "The Big Money": Critical Perceptions of the United States during the 1920s

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

29 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. U.S.A.

3. Modes of Narration
3.1 Fictional Characters
3.2 Biographies
3.3 Newsreels
3.4 The Camera Eye

4. The Big Money
4.1 Historical Context
4.2 Fictional Characters
4.2.1 Charley Anderson
4.2.2 Margo Dowling
4.2.3 Mary French
4.2.4 Richard Ellsworth Savage

5. Themes

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

When the French philosopher, critic and writer Jean-Paul Sartre concluded an essay on the American novelist John Dos Passos in 1938 with the words “I regard Dos Passos as the greatest writer of our time” it was quite clear that the author of the trilogy U.S.A. had joined the class of the most important and influential writers in American literature.

The three novels of the trilogy are critical documents and portraits of the history and life of the American nation during the first three decades of the 20th century. U.S.A. is a social and political work that is shaped by the stylistic experimentation of the author who treats art in the service of history[1] and therefore leaves him in a literary outstanding position.

This term paper aims to explain and justify this position of Dos Passos by examining and analyzing The Big Money which was the final novel of U.S.A. First of all, this work will give an overview and assessment of the trilogy as a whole to facilitate an analytical insight into its meaning and purpose. Secondly, the four different styles of narration will be discussed. The third part of the paper will deal with The Big Money: What is the historical context of the novel? Who are the main characters? Finally, the themes of the novel will be shortly summarized in the fourth part of this paper.

2. U.S.A.

The American novelist, play writer, poet, writer of historical and political nonfiction, and self-styled “chronicler” John Dos Passos (1896-1970) wrote the three novels The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936) that make up the trilogy U.S.A. between 1927 and 1936[2]. This was the time of the Great Depression, the Roaring Twenties were over and American history of that period was now seen from a Thirties radical viewpoint. The Twenties were regarded as the nadir, the discredited decade, dominated by commercialism and materialism, suppression of Radicals and rising bull-marked absurdities pointing towards the economic crash.[3] Therefore, U.S.A. is a negative and pessimistic history that depicts a critical historical, social and moral development of the American nation by producing a montage of exemplary destinies, short biographies of famous Americans, autobiographical memories of the author and collages of texts – history and fiction are presented unseparated.

When the first two novels where published, Dos Passos who was publicly committed to the Radical Left was regarded as a Communist. With the publishing of the final novel it ultimately became clear that he was also critical of Communism.[4] Although there was a shift in his political judgement and opinion, the “despair of the fate of the single human being bent into service of the institutions of modern industrial society, whatever those institutions might be” was something that remained constant in Dos Passos works.[5]

The author “aimed to produce a satire on American life, permeated with popular songs, current events, and headlines, that would truly portray the whole of American culture and events” and “expresses Dos Passos´s view of the ill effects of capitalism on the American people.”[6] The trilogy is especially notable for the author’s use of various experimental techniques (Camera Eye, Newsreels, and biographies of typical or important people of the time) that are inserted throughout the chapters of the major 12 narrative characters. These techniques had been earlier developed in the novel Manhattan Transfer (1925) for which Dos Passos had received widespread readership and critical attention.[7] In U.S.A. the author almost brought them to perfection. The result of this method is a work of more than 1500 pages that interweaves every conceivable literary genre – the novel, the essay, biography, autobiography, journalism, song lyrics, and poetry.[8]

The work as Dos Passos puts it is a “collective” novel about “the march of history”, made up mostly of “the speech of the people”. There is no individual hero; furthermore the protagonist is a social group. “U.S.A. confronts class conflict, and it examines the trauma inflicted by rapid modernization on both the fabric of social life and the individual human psyche.”[9] The leading idea which is performed is that life is collective and individuals are neither heroes nor villains. Their destiny is controlled by the drift of society as a whole.[10]

In content the trilogy describes three phases of the declining history of the United States. The 42nd Parallel covers the years from 1900 until America’s war entry in 1917. This first novel presents twentieth-century hopes for the new nation and moves towards the rise of the progressive impulse and radical challenges to the capitalist system; it goes over to the European battlefields. In 1919 the war is the main concern; it is seen as “the plot of the big interest”, as a place of horror, debasement, new sexual opportunity, rising revolutionary momentum. It culminates in the Russian Revolution for which there is no western parallel (U.S.A. is not only concerned with internal affairs of the U.S. but also with those of international interest). The novel ends in the corrupted idealism of the Versailles conference while there is the general strike of 1 May 1919 in the U.S. that collapses into Red Scare. The path towards commercialism and superpower capitalism is opened. The Big Money is set in the 1920s. It portrays a society that is economically cohesive, socially divisive, emotionally and personally destructive. The emotional collapse of the main characters and the economic wasting of the system run parallel. The end of all progressive social hope is marked by the deaths of Sacco and Vanzetti.[11] The trilogy ends with the picture of “Vag”, a vagrant and someone who belongs to the side of the defeated and above whom successful people of the upper class are sitting in airplanes on transcontinental flights. The Vag is a symbol for the wreckage of broken promises and self-betrayals.[12]

In technical terms the trilogy is a result of experimentation inspired by cinematic influences - Eisenstein’s and Griffith understanding of montage. Elements of reportage and documentary are included in the Newsreels. Minute biographies and a large range of fictional characters give an objective frame to the Camera Eye which adds a subjective element to the novels. Intersections between documentary matter and naturalistic materials are used to create a massive modernist epic.[13] The composition of the four modes of narration forms among themselves an elaborate dialogic relation.[14] The presentation of these modes is not an attempt to produce a clear plot but it depicts only the movement forward in U.S.A.; history is seen as a process.[15] Therefore, meanings in the trilogy are generated by the thematic and structural tensions among its compositional blocks and by the complex and various compositions of its four styles[16] which finally is an expression of the damaged coherence of twentieth-century America.[17] Obviously, Dos Passos was convinced of the idea of multiple perspectives (as in Ulysses) and he was able to employ his own techniques and his own balance of elements that stamp him “as the last of the great inventors in the field of the social novel.”[18]

3. Modes of Narration

3.1 Fictional Characters

The trilogy U.S.A. contains dozens of characters whose lives are not systematically woven into a main plot but float incessantly within the process of a certain phase of history. None of the characters is a typical hero or individual protagonist of a novel. None of them dominates the picture, no single force drives toward a conclusion.[19] Some of them occur in all three novels but the importance of the role they play may differ from novel to novel.

The characters are ordinary citizens who represent the American society of that time, they are average Americans. Their individual stories are “tales of types”. Some of these tales intersect, others run parallel, some continue for the entire sequence and others drop out from sight.[20] In The Big Money these people are ex-war aces, movie stars, promoters from Wall Street, social workers, reformers, Communist leaders, United States Senators. They are all influenced by the kind of living that demands the quick reward and by the millions that are made today and lost tomorrow.[21] Although these people are typical Americans they do not compose a representative picture of all kinds of people in this society – Dos Passos made a limited selection of fictional characters. Some social groups are not included at all or only play a minor role, such as Non-White Americans or people in rural areas. The occurring characters belong to the broad middle class.

As in satire the fictional characters are always seen from above. There is no chance for the reader to identify with them, to be touched by their lives or to develop sympathies for them. The reason for that lies in the characters´ lack of ideas – there is no reflection or consequential thought that is not connected with their appetites. These people are almost entirely occupied with their sensations and their longings.[22] The narration sections do not contain much of deep emotion. Furthermore, the characters are only a depiction of “motor and verbal behavior”. The characters in U.S.A. are hollow and without depth, they are “automatons” who do not feel and who are not affected by any intellectual values since they exist in a world without moral content or complication. They are not stimulated by anything aesthetic or depressed by anything spiritual – all the pleasures and pains pass them by.[23] For example, Mary French’s abortion is described only within a few sentences.[24] The fact that Charley Anderson loses custody of his children is also presented with only a few words and does not evoke any sympathy.


[1] John H. Wrenn, “U.S.A,” John Dos Passos (Twayne: 1999) quoted in: “Themes of Memory, Language, Tragedy, Doubt and Affirmation,” (04/02/2005).

[2] Robert Dowling, “John Dos Passos,“The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, ed. Jay Parini (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): 394.

[3] Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern American Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) 108.

[4] Henning Thies, Hauptwerke der amerikanischen Literatur: Einzeldarstellungen und Interpretationen. (München: Kindler Verlag, 1995) 317.

[5] E.L. Doctorow, “Foreword,“The Big Money (Boston: Mariner Books, 2000) IX.

[6] Kelly Winters, “Critical Essay on U.S.A,., Novels for Students (The Gale Group, 2002), (04/02/2005).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Parini, Oxford Encyclopedia, 395.

[9] David Minter, A Cultural History of the American Novel: Henry James to William Faulkner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 132-133.

[10] Malcolm Cowley, “The End of a Trilogy,“John Dos Passos: A Critical Heritage, ed. Barry Maine (London: Routledge, 1988): 138.

[11] Bradbury, Modern American Novel, 108-109.

[12] Minter, Cultural History, 166.

[13] Bradbury, Modern American Novel, 108.

[14] Janet Galligani Casey, Dos Passos and the Ideology of the Feminine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 132.

[15] Doctorow, Big Money, IX.

[16] Charles Marz, “Dos Passos´s U.S.A.: Chronicle and Performance,“American Fiction 1914-1945, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987): 180.

[17] Bradbury, Modern American Novel, 82.

[18] George J. Becker, “Visions…,“John Dos Passos (Ungar, 1974) 58-79, in (04/02/2005).

[19] Horace Gregory, “Dos Passos Completes His Modern Trilogy,“Critical Heritage, 132.

[20] Bradbury, Modern American Novel, 109.

[21] Gregory, Critical Heritage, 131.

[22] Doctorow, Big Money, XI.

[23] Bernard de Voto, “John Dos Passos: Anatomist of Our Time,“Critical Heritage, 126-127.

[24] “In the end she had an abortion but she had to write her mother again for money to pay for it.” John Dos Passos, The Big Money (Boston: Mariner Books, 2000) 359.

Excerpt out of 29 pages


John Dos Passos´s "The Big Money": Critical Perceptions of the United States during the 1920s
Martin Luther University  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Modernism and Its Others: U.S.-American Literature and Culture in the 1920s
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John, Passos´s, Money, Critical, Perceptions, United, States, Modernism, Others, Literature, Culture
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Julia Schubert (Author), 2005, John Dos Passos´s "The Big Money": Critical Perceptions of the United States during the 1920s , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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