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Book of the Month: John Dos Passos’ Nineteen Nineteen

Book of the Month, Rare Books

In addition to the over 7,000 linear feet of archival collections made available for study at the University of Houston Special Collections, we are also proud to offer over 100,000 rare and antique books for use in our reading room. Each month we will highlight a text from our collections and what makes it so special.  This month, Matt Richardson shares John Dos Passos’ Nineteen Nineteen from the U.S.A. trilogy.

The front cover of Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos

The front cover of Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos

John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. is a sprawling look at American life in the early 20th century that takes place across 3 novels, several decades, and over 1000 pages. Consisting of the novels The 42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen Nineteen (1932), and The Big Money (1936), it was first published as single volume in 1938 by Harcourt Brace. In addition to the rather straightforward narrative passages, Dos Passos’ work incorporates collections of headlines and popular songs in “Newsreel” segments, impressionistic renderings called the “Camera Eye,” and short biographies, often satiric, of prominent Americans. Beyond the complexity and innovation of the form itself, the element that typically garners the most critical attention is the cinematic stream of consciousness Camera Eye, which often elicits comparisons to Joyce. Though the novels purport to be the epic of one nation, Dos Passos’ U.S.A. inevitably overflows those boundaries, as it is filled with characters who frequently journey abroad and are continually shaped by their imaginings of and interactions with the wider world. This perspective is especially apparent in the middle novel of the trilogy, Nineteen Nineteen, which focuses on the trying years of World War I and the unsettled peace that followed it.

"To Adrienne Rich cordially John Dos Passos"

“To Adrienne Rich cordially John Dos Passos”

UH Libraries’ Special Collections has the distinct pleasure of holding a 1946 printing of Nineteen Nineteen signed by Dos Passos himself. Interestingly, the inscription reads: “To Adrienne Rich cordially John Dos Passos”. How the author might have encountered the American poet, essayist, and feminist, or for that matter how the University of Houston Libraries Special Collections later came into possession of her copy, would no doubt make for an interesting tale in its own right. (Though it’s not her only appearance in our collections). And since this 1946 printing was originally issued as a box set by Houghton Mifflin, one wonders what became of its companion copies of The 42nd Parallel and The Big Money. Bound in rather austere tan buckram with a stencil-style “U.S.A.” stamped across a small blue field, the exterior of the book almost evokes a government provision of the type Dos Passos’ enlisted men might receive. In contrast, the interior includes vivid end-sheets and illustrations by Reginald Marsh.

Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos

The end sheets of Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos

And should the 1000+ page epic constitute more time than you can devote to our reading room, fear not! After you’ve taken a look at our signed copy here in Special Collections, you’ll be pleased to find circulating copies of the U.S.A. trilogy in the general collections stacks of the M.D. Anderson Library.


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