Hobos and Heroes
Mac, otherwise known as Fainy McCreary, and Gene Debs, who is portrayed as Eugene V. Debs, are the first two characters in John Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel’s narrative and biography sections, respectively. The shared trait that the two possess, despite being in different sections of the text, is they stay true to specific character archetypes. Mac follows that of the Hobo, and Debs plays the Hero. Using theory and sections from the text, it is evident Dos Passos implements archetype at the character level to discuss the individual in relation to society.
Mac spends time in Chicago, Michigan, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Sacramento, San Francisco, Seattle, and other cities within the first 70-odd pages of The 42nd Parallel. His movement, and the circumstances of said movement, follows an earlier definition of the word Hobo. Frederick Feied, in his book, No Pie in the Sky: The Hobo as American Cultural Hero in the Works of Jack London, John Dos Passos, and Jack Kerouac, contends: “[Hobo] originated in the west, when the great tide of humanity swept in that direction; and it was applied to many who, failing of their first hopes, were forced to the necessity of tramping from community to community in quest of employment” (16). This perfectly describes the train-jumping, newspaper ad-answering, dream chasing nature of Mac. His employment with Uncle Tim ends and Mac: “sat there while the storm raged above his head; then he got up, slipping a corn muffin into his pocket as he went” (Dos Passos 15). At that point Mac doesn’t stop moving until he finds a job and that cyclical nature of job stability and movement is a balance he navigates throughout his entire narrative. Being Dos Passos’ ideal, or preliminary, working man, a disenfranchised American simply looking for work, Mac’s presence in the text is a direct marker of change. A beacon of sorts that guides the reader through the story, establishing context for the other narratives Dos Passos engages with.
It isn’t until Mac, who at the time in the text was still Fainy McCreary, loses his job that Dos Passos introduces his first biography, Gene Debs – whose presence in the story reflects real world socialist, Eugene V. Debs. Dos Passos forces the reader into a positive connotation of Debs without requiring them to read a word of the section by titling the segment “Lover of Mankind.” David L. Vanderwerken, in “U. S. A.: Dos Passos and the “Old Words”,” makes the case for the portrayal of Debs as Heroic: “Eugene V. Debs and Bill Haywood, the two labor leaders, are heroes because they worked to realize the promise of America, not for themselves, but for others” (200). Dos Passos’ focus on Debs’ beliefs and the rhetoric he used to communicate is an indicator of his ability to lead others: “He was a tall shamblefooted man, had a sort of gusty rhetoric/ that set on fire the railroad workers in their pineboarded halls/ made them want the world he wanted,/ a world brothers might own/ where everybody would split even:” (19). Having the ability to inspire the workers made Debs a sort of socialist hero in the perspective of Dos Passos. Debs’ heroic ideals are a classic archetypical use of character according to Jeff House’s “Sweeney among the archetypes: the literary hero in American culture”. House writes: Literature uses its heroes to comment on cultural values, and from its inception, American literature likewise found in the hero a means by which to comment on, or reflect, in society” (69). Debs’ inclusion in The 42nd Parallel, and at the start, no less, is a direct appeal by Dos Passos to invoke the same illicit reactions in the readers that Debs gets from the workers.
The pairing of Mac and Debs works well together. Although they are different archetypes, they champion similar ideals – Mac talks at length with Ike about Communism and chases newspaper positions to advocate for the classes. They are the perfect blend of character to begin Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy as it establishes an unquenchable desire resonating within the public at the individual level. Their actions become resembling of society as a whole and lend credence to Dos Passos using his other, more aesthetically macro, structures. With the structure of the text existing in such a non-traditional manner, it’s only fitting Dos Passos subverts two archetypes for his bidding.
Dos Passos, John. The 42nd Parallel. Mariner: New York, 2000. 15-20. 2/11/2016.
Feied, Frederick. No Pie in the Sky: The Hobo as American Cultural Hero in the Works of Jack London, John Dos Passos, and Jack Kerouac. iUniverse. 2000. 16. Web. 2/14/16.
House, Jeff. “Sweeney Among The Archetypes: The Literary Hero In American Culture.” Journal Of American Culture (01911813) 16.4 (1993): 69. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2/14/16.
Vanderwerken, David L.. “U. S. A.: Dos Passos and the “old Words””. Twentieth Century Literature 23.2 (1977): 195–228. Web. 2/14/16.