A level Unseen: Dos Passos – The 42nd Parallel.

My ideas as a response to this passage in OCR A level unseen format.

The Passage:

John Dos Passos – The 42nd Parallel


The young man walks fast by himself through the crowd that thins into the night streets; feet are tired from hours of walking; eyes greedy for warm curve of faces, answering flicker of eyes, the set of a head, the lift of a shoulder, the way hands spread and clench; blood tingles with wants; mind is a beehive of hopes buzzing and stinging; muscles ache for the knowledge of jobs, for the roadmender’s pick and shovel work, the fisherman’s knack with a hook when he hauls on the slithery net from the rail of the lurching trawler, the swing of the bridgeman’s arm as he slings down the whitehot rivet, the engineer’s slow grip wise on the throttle, the dirtfarmer’s use of his whole body when, whoaing the mules, he yanks the plow from the furrow. The young man walks by himself searching through the crowd with greedy eyes, greedy ears taut to hear, by himself, alone.

The streets are empty. People have packed into subways, climbed into streetcars and buses in the stations they’ve scampered for suburban trains; they’ve filtered into lodgings and tenements, gone up in elevators into apartmenthouses. In a showwindow two sallow windowdressers in their shirtsleeves are bringing out a dummy girl in a red evening dress, at a corner welders in masks lean into sheets of blue flame repairing a cartrack, a few drunk bums shamble along, a sad streetwalker fidgets under an arclight. From the river comes the deep rumbling whistle of a steamboat leaving dock. A tug hoots far away.

The young man walks by himself, fast but not fast enough, far but not far enough (faces slide out of sight, talk trails into tattered scraps, footsteps tap fainter in alleys); he must catch the last subway, the streetcar, the bus, run up the gangplanks of all the steamboats, register at all the hotels, work in the cities, answer the wantads, learn the trades, take up the jobs, live in all the boardinghouses, sleep in all the beds. One bed is not enough, one job is not enough, one life is not enough. At night, head swimming with wants, he walks by himself alone.

No job, no woman, no house, no city.

Only the ears busy to catch the speech are not alone; the ears are caught tight, linked tight by the tendrils of phrased words, the turn of a joke, the singsong fade of a story, the gruff fall of a sentence; linking tendrils of speech twine through the city blocks, spread over pavements, grow out along broad parked avenues, speed with the trucks leaving on their long night runs over roaring highways, whisper down sandy byroads past wornout farms, joining up cities and fillingstations, roundhouses, steamboats, planes groping along airways; words call out on mountain pastures, drift slow down rivers widening to the sea and the hushed beaches.

This passage from a novel written shortly after the trauma of the stock market collapse of 1929 portrays the effect of the destruction of the employment market and of wider society by focusing on one deeply traumatised ‘young’ man, representing the future and unnamed to give him ‘everyman status, urgently pursuing work and hope in a frightening and deserted cityscape. Writing so shortly after the event, the work prefigures later work by Steinbeck and others which study the collapse of American Society, the end of the ‘American Dream’ and the emergence of a cruel society of individuals driven by need and frightened of their peers.

Set at night, a time of fear and threat, in a city of ’empty streets, emphasized by the short statement which opens the second paragraph, the man walks ‘fast’ as though trying to escape something unknown. However he has been walking thus all day and is physically tired. The city has been deserted and Dos Passos writes the first of a sequence of asyndetic lists which capture the maelstrom of emotions flowing through the man’s mind. At first he focuses on the need for companionship – ‘the curve of faces…’ with ‘greedy’ eyes suggesting an insatiable need for what he seeks. This idea is stressed by the repetition of the adjective later in the paragraph and the reader recognises the physical rather than simply mental drive which propels him through the city.

As his mind becomes increasingly fevered he moves through stages of description which intensify his fear and his sense of need – the asyndetic construction helping to reflect the uncontrolled intensity of his thought; faces become hands either ‘spread’ in welcome or ‘clenched ‘ in threat; his mind becomes a metaphorical beehive – never resting and maintaining focus in apparent disorder; he moves via the physical ‘ache’ into a succession of dead-end, highly physical jobs – not desired as opportunities for advancement but because as we see in books like Grapes of Wrath, these are the only types of jobs available for the army of itinerant workers who crossed the continent in search of work over the following decade. The jobs seem to focus on a lack of identity in this new world in which men are ‘mask[ed]’ or separated by the liminal markers such as windows. Even the ‘streetwalker’ seems to be untouchable as she stands in her pool of light as though on stage.

As the man walks on, alone, a second asyndetic list focuses on his compulsions and the needs which drive him to seek ‘all’ the available jobs or modes of transport. More than that, what he wants is the ‘knowledge of a job’, as though things are so hopeless that this would be enough to give him hope. He is acting under a mental compulsion as he ‘must’ do these things and he must engage with all possibilities from the streetcars of this empty city, deserted by the workers who have ‘scampered for suburban trains’ in a manner suggesting not just speed but also a lightness of step as they escape, to the steamboats which once plied their trade down the great rivers in the 19th century and which perhaps symbolise a past world and yet also a better one – a trope common in modernist writing of this time is that the modern world is not necessarily better. The list recalls the landscape of writers such as Dreiser or Upton Sinclair.

Indeed the message is summed up in the short 4th paragraph by the short list, each element having the negative foregrounded and placed in order of importance – the job being far more important than the city itself.

In the last paragraph, Dos Passos uses a figurative plant to present a highly visual idea of the power of speech in linking the broken civilisation so far portrayed. The ‘tendrils’ of plant life offer a visible metaphor for the power of speech and its ability to unite and to lead society to freedom from this concrete jungle. As the awareness of sound develops, so the language seems to grow and expand to fill first ‘broad parked avenues’ until finally reaching ‘mountain tops’ and eventually the ‘sea’. This emerging freedom recreates the original Pioneer journeys across the nation – journeys with purpose and hope at their heart. This, we suggest is a better world and a world worth recreating. In reality in the 1930s as Steinbeck will show, this journey is one undertaken out of need and in despair. The State of California will offer hope, but the reality is different. There is no sense of communication in the broken world of the depression. Here Dos Passos is offering a suggestion for how things should be, rather than how they are.

The videos from the preparatory lesson: