Places: U.S.A.

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1937: The 42nd Parallel, 1930; 1919, 1932; The Big Money, 1936

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: 1900-1935

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*United States

*United U.S.A.States. The United States of America of Dos Passos’s trilogy is an ironic analogue to the free country of popular history, illustrating the difference between what America should be and what America is. Popular histories tend to view the United States as a promised land open to all, a country built by and for immigrants, a country in which all people are equal. Dos Passos’s realism shows an America in which a working person who falls ill or is injured loses everything, and in which attempts to improve the lot of workers are seen as dangerous, “foreign” influences. It is also an America in which dissent is often met with immediate arrest; labor union organizers are imprisoned and deported, framed by the police, and even executed; men can be jailed for the crime of being unemployed; and a woman (Margaret Sanger) can be jailed for teaching other women about birth control.

The America of the trilogy is an isolationist, xenophobic nation, filling rapidly with a flood of European immigrants, ready to exploit the strength of their bodies in its mines and mills, but fearful of the radical ideas (Marxism, socialism, and anarchism) they bring with them from a rebellious continent. Everywhere the landscape is the same: Big companies owned by the rich use the poor as if they were parts of a machine. Workers who speak out, or who wear themselves out through overwork, are replaced. The reality of America as portrayed by Dos Passos contrasts sharply with the idea of America as envisioned by the nation’s Founders or as imagined by average citizens.


*Goldfield. Nevada mining town where labor organizer Fainy “Mac” McCreary works for a socialist newspaper, the Nevada Workman. There is no romantic Wild West here; rather, the town is the scene of one of the great “free speech” fights that erupted between mine workers and owners throughout the West in the early years of the twentieth century. Although free speech is guaranteed to every citizen by the Bill of Rights, Mac and the other members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) are frequently jailed for voicing unpopular ideas about the need for workers to organize to secure for themselves fundamental human rights. The sites of strikes or struggles between management and labor are the famous “battles” of Dos Passos’s second American Revolution.

Mac’s bookstore

Mac’s bookstore. Mexico City shop that illustrates how easily even a class rebel like Mac McCreary can slip into the comfortable life of the petty bourgeoisie. Mac owns the store, but Concha, the Mexican woman with whom he cohabits, actually runs it, leaving him little to do besides read and discuss politics with his cronies. The bookstore is a microcosm of capitalism at work, and it has made him–without his even realizing it–a small-time caricature of the capitalists he professes to hate. The small bit of money he has invested in the business allows him to exploit Concha, who here represents three groups that have historically been exploited in America: foreigners, the poor, and women. Mac himself lives on the labor of others, and when the bookstore fails and he is forced to flee, he discards the unfortunate Concha in the same way that wealthier capitalists discard superfluous workers.

Ocean City

Ocean City. Largely undeveloped Maryland coastal town where young J. Ward Moorehouse begins his career working for Colonel Wedgewood’s Ocean City Improvement and Realty Company. Ocean City is the dark side of the American Dream, a place where promised easy money never materializes.

*San Juan Hill

*San Juan Hill. Site of an 1898 battle in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in which future president Theodore Roosevelt was involved. One of the most persistent false images in American history is that of Roosevelt charging up the hill on horseback at the head of his volunteer troop of “Rough Riders.” As he does throughout U.S.A., Dos Passos strips away the legend to reveal the truth: that Roosevelt ascended the hill on foot (only a fool would lead a cavalry charge up a hill) and that the hill had already been captured by U.S. Army regulars advancing up its opposite side. Because the legend is so firmly enshrined in the American imagination, the implied ironic analogue in Dos Passos’s description seems inescapable.


*Bingham. Utah mining center that is the site of a bitter labor battle between the IWW and the Utah Copper Company in 1912. IWW organizers, including the legendary Joe Hill, win shorter hours and higher wages for the downtrodden miners. For Dos Passos and his characters, the names of strikes resonate in the same way that the names of battles might resonate for a soldier. Names such as Bingham, Goldfield, Lawrenceville, and Coeur d’Alene become part of a working-class hero’s “service record.”

BibliographyHook, Andrew, comp. Dos Passos: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. Explores political and social influences, theme, technique, and Dos Passos’ contradictory stylistic blend of romantic individualism and radical history.Landsberg, Melvin. Dos Passos’ Path to “U.S.A.”: A Political Biography, 1912-1936. Boulder, Colo.: Associated University Press, 1972. Begins with Dos Passos’ parents’ background, describing the development of his political and social attitudes and tracing his literary influences.Ludington, Townsend. John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980. Connects contradictions in Dos Passos’ personality and writings to his illegitimacy and to his role as an outsider. Includes planning notes for U.S.A., showing its historical influences.Pizer, Donald. Dos Passos’ “U.S.A.”: A Critical Study. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988. Relates the novel to Dos Passos’ life and times. Examines theme and technique, using work plans, character lists, tables, and typescripts. Detailed analysis of the four modes: Camera Eye, Biography, Newsreel, and narrative.Wagner-Martin, Linda. Dos Passos: Artist as American. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. Discusses use of shifting panoramic view to re-create history, evaluating the effect of this technique on characterization. Traces the effect of American mythology and American political and economic realities on U.S.A.
Categories: Places