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
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 traveled 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
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 red-haired 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 song,
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 U.S.A.
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.