Dos Passos


Dos Passos Almost every one writer can say that they are
influenced by their childhood and past. Memories flood back
to them as they encounter a similar experience or similar
situation in their earlier years. No doubt a significant
factor in their writing, the past from a specific writer's
life usually adds more depth and complexity to their works.
Because these previous experiences are from the author's
actual life, the scenes and subjects related to the theme
are more accurate and realistic, and may even be more
appealing to read. These past voices may appear either
consciously through the author's works, or sometimes
unconsciously, guided maybe by some early childhood memory.
Well, whatever the case, John Dos Passos was such a man
that appeared to have been significantly influenced by his
past. Born un-rooted to any plot of land, his life was a
mission to search for new ground on which to grow, which
can be seen as an major theme throughout all his works.
Dos Passos grew up to a turbulent childhood, being
unconventionally born on January 14, 1896. His father, John
Randalph Dos Passos, was a prominent attorney and his
mother, Lucy Addison Sprigg, a housewife and an excellent
mother. Because his parents were not officially married
until in 1910, he was considered "illegitimate" for about
14 years; this theme of alienation is found in many of his
writings. Most of the time spent during his childhood was
with his mother, who travelled abundantly, and this was the
time where he grew closer to his mother and started to
drift away from the man he called "dad". His travels with
his mom led him to places such as Mexico, Belgium, and
England. Dos Passos's association with France began when he
was very young, and his knowledge of the language was quite
thorough. Much of his French expertise is showed off in his
works, including Manhattan Transfer.
Dos Passos first attended school in the District of
Colombia. As he grew up, he spent some of his childhood in
Tidewater Virginia. He began attending Choate School where
his first published writings were articles for the Choate
School News. Upon completing Choate School at the age of
fifteen, he entered Harvard University in 1912. At Harvard,
he continued his journalism by joining the Harvard Monthly.
While at Harvard, he developed a close, long-lasting
friendship with E.E. Cummings. During this time at Harvard,
the spirit of idealism swept the country. Dos Passos was
stirred by ideas of idealism and began to write short
autobiographical tales for the Harvard Monthly, which
showed vague idealism. He later graduated in June of 1916.
Out of college now, Dos Passos choose to volunteer for
ambulance duty overseas but his father rejected his idea.
So instead, he decided to make his first long visit to
Spain, a country which held fascination for him all his
life, to study architecture. With the death of his father
lather in 1917, he joined the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Group
and sailed for France. During his tour of duty as an
ambulance driver, he collaborated with a friend, Robert
Hillyer, on alternate chapters of a novel, and after
several revisions, it became One Man's Initiation - 1917.
This book was based largely on his own wartime experiences
in France and Italy. His second novel, Three Soldiers, was
published in 1920.
In 1915, Harper published Manhattan Transfer, a city novel
in which Dos Passos first began to use the experimental
techniques he would develop more fully in his major
contributions to American fiction. The themes of this novel
are typical of Dos Passos's work: alienation, loneliness,
frustration, and loss of individuality but Manhattan
Transfer " was his first success at creating a 'collective
novel' where a unifying theme is conveyed through multiple
facets of character and situation." (Wrenn,32) He borrowed
styles from Flaubert, Zola, Balzac, James Joyce, and T.S.
Eliot and found many technical and artistic ideas in early
twentieth century French literature.
Taking segments of his life, Dos Passos intermingled it
with his imagination to make Manhattan Transfer what it is.
The autobiography is placed almost entirely within the life
of a single fictional character, Jimmy Herf, a young
newspaper reporter with ambitions to become a writer. The
role of Herf was not simple to bring the author's
experience into the novel, but probably instead to show him
as being like a rebel, overcoming obstacles that success
command, and finding values that counter what society feels
important. But also representing Dos Passos, was Armand
Duval, "Congo Jake", an anarchist and bootlegger who learns
how to ridicule the law and get away with it. He
illustrates Dos Passos's side that desired independence
from his parents, producing a theme of individual liberty.
The theme of Dos Passos not being born to any plot of land,
with his life a mission to find new ground on which to grow
is representative by Jimmy Herf's life. Jimmy arrives in
Manhattan hopeful of a new life; to settle down with a
beautiful wife and acquire a satisfying job. He eventually
does win the heart of Ellen Thatcher and becomes a
successful writer, but in the end he allows Ellen to
divorce him, and on the last few lines of the book he says,
At a cross-road where the warning light still winks and
winks, is a gasoline station, opposite of the Lighting
Bug lunchwagon. Carefully he spends his last quarter
for breakfast. that leaves him three cents for good
luck, or bad luck for that matter. A huge furniture
truck, shiny and yellow, has drawn up outside.
" 'Say will you give me a lift?' he asks the
redhaired man at the wheel.
" 'How fur ye going?'
" 'I dunno... Pretty far.' " These last words of the novel
suggest a optimistic point of view upon Herf, as he walks
out of Manhattan as a homeless vagrant, without family,
without money, on toward a new life.
Dos Passos may have viewed New York as a place of entry
upon U.S.A. Like a transit point where people enter and
leave from. Thus, the first settings with Jimmy Herf and
Congo are set aboard ocean liners entering the port of New
York. We find Congo talking to one of his friends,
I want to get somewhere in the world, that's what I
mean. Europe's rotten and stinking. In America a fellow
can get ahead. Birth don't matter, education don't
matter. It's all getting ahead The book directs the readers
attention to the fact that Manhattan is only a temporary
place: " the emphasis on fire and destruction, the theme of
'The Burthen of Nineveh', and the recurring motif of the
Oh it rained forty days
And it rained forty nights
And it didn't stop till Christmas
And the only man that survived the flood
Was longlegged Jack of the Isthmus"
(Wrenn,122) Besides being the title of one of the chapters
in book, the Isthmus may have been Manhattan Island, which
was like a strip of land connecting Europe to mainland
Although Jimmy Herf was the main character of the novel,
when he ends up marrying Ellen Thatcher, a beautiful and
talented young Broadway actress, the book shifts toward her
direction and we are drawn into her life. "She grows up,
becomes an actress, marries and divorces a homosexual
actor, marries the observer-protagonist Jimmy Herf, becomes
a successful editor, enters the world of the powerful,
divorces Jimmy, and drifts toward another marriage."
(DBLv9,44) She may have represent what Dos Passos believed
the characteristics of his life, which were ruthless and
unforgiving, could have been.
Although the novel centers it's attention mainly around
Jimmy and Ellen, Dos Passos produced it so that we also
bare witness to the other fifty or sixty more characters in
the novel to obtain the sense of " being intimate witnesses
to a series of interwoven human dramas." (DLBv9,44) We
witness the story of Stan Emory, the high-spirited but
drunk architect who commits suicide; of Joe Harland, failed
financier turned alcoholic; of Bud Korpening, a young boy
looking for a job in the city but is driven to his death by
the fear of it; of Anna Cohen, who dies sewing dresses for
the wealthy.
When Dos Passos's mother died in the April of 1916, it
threatened to destroy whatever balance there was between
his head and his heart. His father, being a stranger to
him, was not there when he needed him, and instead, the
only person he could trust in time of despair was his
mother. He had known her intimately, and she had become a
part of him. But this death was not the only that occurred
for only a few months later, Dos Passos's father died too."
It was the end of parental authority, of his feelings of
moral responsibility to the ideals of class which his
father presented, and his boyhood." (Wrenn,39) 
Dos Passos

wrote prolifically and sought the literacy career to prove to his father that he was the man his father was, and worthy of his father's name. These deaths influenced him to write an upcoming novel called Rosinante to the Road Again, which portrays two characters, Telemachus and Lyaeus, who are made in the image of Dos Passos. Besides his parents deaths, he was " subject to a number of influences which might have developed in him the penchant for puzzling about the meaning of what people said an did." (Wrenn,35) From his grandfather, he may have acquired a certain Latin sensitiveness tending toward emotionalism. From his father, a keen mind alert for significant details, and from both a restlessness of spirit that would keep him ever searching for the better society, the better way of life. His stormy childhood may have induced his habit of first grasping details before he could comprehend the whole. And because he was born in hotel, his mind and attitude developed the influence of home, a place he never really knew. " The rootless existence of his childhood left him longing for something to belong to, something to believe in." (Wrenn,35) Some of the unique styles and techniques of writing used today were established by Dos Passos. He employed several features into his works, such as one called the "Newsreel", which used newspaper headlines, words from popular songs, and advertisements to surround the action and characters. Another technique was called "The Camera's Eye", which gave the author's view of his subject and sections of actual events, such as the Succo Vanzetti trial. "

Dos Passos

regarded his style as providing a social and historical background in which individual actions reflected larger patterns he saw in his society." (WBv5,313) Using these innovative techniques, Dos Passos was able to present a compare and contrast perspective that presents the reader with a multidimensional view of the first thirty years of American life in the twentieth century. More than any of his contemporaries, Dos Passos embraced the novel as a means to persuade - and to persuade in a political direction. When Dos Passos died in 1970, the world not only lost a great writer, but one ranked among the most important American writers of the century. " Dos Passos believed that his novels served as a catalyst that forced people to study their lives; man has the ability to recast his present in terms of the past while allowing the future to exert it's influence." (Patrick,346) Searching for a place to belong, Dos Passos made himself a environment in which he was accepted. As Jean-Paul Sartre declared in 1938, He is not, perhaps, " the greatest writer of our time " but as a political novelist and chronicler of American civilization from 1900 to the Great Depression, Dos Passos has an established place in American literary history (CLCv32,125) For years he did not enjoy the critical esteem that his contemporaries, Hemingway and Faulkner, had but today critics have begun to understand the importance of his writing, and finding them major works of fiction and time capsules of a critical period of U.S. history.


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