Hooray for USA

Surprisingly enough, John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy was the 15th-best-selling title in the Library of America series, out of some 240 titles. He’s right up there with Tennessee Williams, Dashiell Hammett, James Baldwin, and Walt Whitman.

Also of note: Dos Passos didn’t even make the top 15 last year, so maybe there’s a resurgence of interest?

I’m guessing he got a bit of a boost because there’s no other handy, one-volume edition of the trilogy on the market, while many other LOA authors are readily available in much cheaper editions, but still. Impressive.


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I’d like to think that sensible readers became united in their contempt for cut-and-paste Philistines like Ted Gioia. :) But you raise an interesting point, Scott. Are people drawn to Dos Passos not only because it is a snazzy single volume to bide vast chunks of time, but because they are looking for some fictional epic which explains how our nation went off the rails? Where is America’s answer to Marias or Knausgaard?

Hey Ed,

Speaking for myself, I got my copy of USA as a single volume, but I had to go to the UK to do it! I do much prefer that to having the three separate volumes.

“Where is America’s answer to Marias or Knausgaard?” is a very good question. It’s one I’ve asked myself at various points, and I’m not sure there’s a good answer . . .

The Trilogy still awaits me . . . but I want to put in a plug for MANHATTAN TRANSFER, which contains some really fine writing. Here’s a tiny taste:

Once out on Broadway again she felt very merry. She stood in the middle of the street waiting for the uptown car. An occasional taxi whizzed by her. From the river on the warm wind came the long moan of a steamboat whistle. In the pit inside her thousands of gnomes were building tall brittle glittering towers. The car swooped ringing along the rails, stopped. As she climbed in she remembered the smell of Stan’s body sweating in her arms. She let herself drop into a seat, biting her lips to keep from crying out. God it’s terrible to be in love. Opposite two men with chinless bluefish faces were talking hilariously, slapping fat knees.

IN THE PIT INSIDE HER THOUSANDS OF GNOMES WERE BUILDING TALL BRITTLE GLITTERING TOWERS. Woman on the street after sex. Wow.

I know I’ve long appreciated the hell out of the trilogy. I understand it doesn’t quite accomplish what it sets out to do, but it fulfills a promise of American literature very few other books have, plus the chunked journalism and mini-bios combine for a project our writers have fled from, either into the onanism of Roth and Updike, the confused paranoia of DeLillo and Pynchon, or the dirty miniatures of Raymond Carver.

You really don’t have this anymore, and I think we need it. I’m a bit irked how few editions have the Reginald Marsh illustrations, however.

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