John 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