Parallel Narratives: The Railroad as Cinematic Camera Eye in John Dos Passos' "The 42nd Parallel"
Haverford College. Department of English
Place of Publication
Table of Contents
In confronting the influence of the railroad on literature and film, John Dos Passos’ 'U.S.A.' trilogy [...] is worth scrutiny. Written across the 1930s, 'U.S.A.' spans the first three decades of the new century and navigates between four modes of storytelling, one fictional, the other three nonfictional: prose poems that offer brief biographies of historical figures from the day; 'Newsreels' that collect news headlines, news excerpts and song lyrics from the day in filmic montages; and 'Camera Eyes,' in which Dos Passos recollects his life in stream-of-consciousness prose poems that are fraught with cinematic connotations. The author’s use of film qua industry to condemn the railroad is not hypocritical; rather, it is meant to expose and emphasize the inner workings of the railroad and its impact on the human psyche, so as to engender critique of it, and of the ideologies that support it. [...] Much critical precedent exists to support the perception of 'U.S.A.' as a railroad-like machine that aims to self-reflexively show its own inner mechanisms. [...] [What] follows is a study of the railroad in the trilogy’s first entry, 'The 42nd Parallel', as a filmic technology that incorporates itself into its passengers’ bodies with the effect, as [Lynne] Kirby theorizes, of turning their perceptions of space and time panoramic and filmic, a process that Dos Passos, who is more pessimistic than Kirby, views as a traumatic distortion. Thus, he turns his own industrial 'Camera Eye' against the railroad in an effort to establish a conception of space and time beyond the railroad’s control, and to expose the fallacy of the filmic view from the train. [...] The most critical hermeneutic technique of this essay will involve viewing crucial events from the characters’ lives as twists on stories that were traditional in the railroad-themed films of early cinema—which I hereafter term 'paradigms' of the railroad narrative[.] [...] Alone, each of these paradigms appears tired and unoriginal, yet together, they form a panoramic mythology of the railroad that facilitates Dos Passos’ critique of the filmic vision with which it infects its riders.