A writer who draws on his own experiences for his fiction has first to understand their meaning for him. John Dos Passos was no exception. During his last two years as an undergraduate at Harvard from 1914 to 1916, he began to put his memories of early childhood in perspective by describing them in essays that merely hint at the themes which would later appear in his novels. He was already endeavoring to comprehend the role of his childhood in making him the person he had become, Then, 14 months after being graduated from Harvard, he saw more clearly the relationship between his childhood and the world beyond his experiences when the shock of World War I heightened his rebellious instincts. War was not at all what official rhetoric proclaimed. The fighting was horrendous, even absurd, he quickly discerned while he drove ambulances as a Norton-Harjes volunteer in the Verdun sector of the Western Front during the late summer of 1917, and after, as a Red Cross volunteer along the Italian front around Bassano at the end of 1917 and during the first half of 1918.”How ridiculous [the war] is!” he wrote in his diary as he headed in convoy toward Verdun. He cursed “all the cant and hypocrisy, all the damnable survivals, all the vestiges of old truths now putrid and false.” Three weeks later, after serving in a major French offensive against the Germans, he asserted to his young friend Rumsey Marvin that “the war is utter damn nonsense—a vast cancer of lies and self seeking malignity on the part of those who don’t do the fighting.” Dos Passes, like his sometime friend Ernest Hemingway and others of the generation of writers who emerged from the war, rebelled against the old truths—against the “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow” that Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms learned to hate, Dos Passos came to understand that in his childhood he had been imbued with the attitudes of the established middle class; he had been taught to be “nice” and to think, as he wrote in his diary in January 1918, that “ingrained taboos” were at the core of life.
By the time he wrote in his diary that January, he was confident he had broken free of the “morbidities & fastidious barriers” which had held him in thrall.”I realize there is no all the world to be in rapport with, “he told himself. At least the war had taught him that much, he thought, and he declared, “I’m a much heartier son of a bitch than I used to be much readier to slap my cock against the rocks of fact.” When he bragged thus, he was already in the midst of writing his first real protest, a never-to-be-published novel entitled Seven Times Round the Walls of Jericho. Its fourth part became his first published book, One Man’s Initiation: 1917. Henceforth in his fiction he would protest repeatedly against society’s strictures, and repeatedly he would portray some part of his own childhood as an inhibiting time from which one or another character had to struggle clear.
When Dos Passos described the time in his autobiographical novel Chosen Country, he called it a “hotel childhood.” Before that he had drawn from his memories of it for the narrative about the character Jimmy Herf in Manhattan Transfer, and he had rendered it impressionistically in the first Camera Eye sequences of U.S.A.It suited his purposes in fiction to portray partly autobiographical figures like Herf and Jay Pignatelli (in Chosen Country) or the more completely autobiographical Camera Eye narrator as innocents sheltered from a world beyond the ones their mothers created for them. Lonely, sometimes social misfits, these characters as they grew up had to learn, often painfully, to strip off the Victorian gentility—the niceness—that had been ingrained in them. Not until they did could they understand what the world beyond their childish imaginings was really about, and only then could they begin to live satisfactorily in that world.
One may wonder whether Dos Passos’s imaginative recreations of his childhood exaggerate his being the lonely outsider, the misfit, and so forth. I think not. Born out of wedlock on Jan.14, 1896, in Chicago, he lived with his mother, Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison, in Brussels and then in London from shortly after his birth until the fall of 1906, when they returned to the United States. Once before then he lived in his native land, that being during 1901—1902, when he attended the Friends Select School (now the Sidwell Friends School) in Washington, D. C. As a child, he thought of the United States as home; yet he hardly knew the country, a fact which added to his sense of isolation.”Home” was supposed to be America, but it was really Belgium, and then in the fall of 1902, England, so that he felt like “a double foreigner . . . A Man Without a Country,” as he described Jay Pignatelli. To add to Dos Passos’s sense of loneliness, his father, John Randolph Dos Passos, could only be with Lucy and their son when he traveled abroad for business. Thus there were long periods when the boy saw nothing of his father, heightening his dependency on his mother and building up a sort of querulous resentment against the ebullient corporation lawyer when he did appear.
Among Dos Passos’s papers at the University of Virginia are carbons of two typed but unpublished essays which make no attempt to fictionalize his childhood memories. Along with several untyped essays, they are perhaps the best sources to give a sense of what his earliest childhood was. Almost certainly they are his first attempt at autobiography; and they are probably the most accurate, not having been written many years after the episodes occurred, nor written with an eye to presenting something other than autobiography. It is likely that these typed drafts were among some drawn from the essays he had written for a composition course he took in 1914—1915 at Harvard. Dos Passos intended them for publication in the Harvard Monthly; eventually only one appeared there, another piece entitled “Les Lauriers Sont Coupes.” In the unpublished pieces, he described his first memories, acknowledging the difficulty of capturing “those sudden pictures, from which the mists are withdrawn for so brief a space. Other memories, vaguer, dusky-winged, throng about you, until your early childhood seems a dull chaos of emotions and glimpses of scenes.”
His earliest recollection was of “a meadow of tall grass filled with daisies: everything is damp and warm and scented.” His nurse and he followed behind his mother, whose dress swished as she walked along. He recalled the moist grass against his unsteady legs, and a green world, “splashed with white of daisies, and palest blue overhead.” His body felt warm and damp from the grass, while a “steaming meadow-fragrance” hung about the whole scene.
What followed was a memory of nighttime in the bedroom of a large hotel, where he lay crying because of a pain in his legs while his mother, “soft and fluffy in a peignoir,” cared for him by candlelight. A knock came at the door; a harsh voice asked if the child could not be quieted because the woman across the corridor had complained, and his mother snapped back an answer. Then she tried to calm him by telling a story, “an endless rambling story, about an elephant in scarlet trappings and a little Indian prince whose legs hurt, oh so badly.” The young Dos Passos was in tears; then the story changed: the prince was well and lay “sleeping among scarlet and gold cushions on the elephant’s back, while a beautiful princess fan[ned] him with a pearl-encrusted fan.” Later on the hotel stairs Dos Passos and his mother confronted the lady who had complained. Vividly he recollected his mother’s flashing eyes and the ominous rustle of her dress as they brushed past the woman, who, he thought, “looked sheepish and apologetic.”
Mingled with these scenes was “the deep melancholy of certain songs.” While his mother, vaguely silhouetted in the twilight, leaned over his crib, he heard faint footsteps on the street outside. She sang “a sad little song about sheep and wolves and the cold wind of winter, crooned very low,” Dos Passos wrote, so that her song covered him “with veil after veil of unspeakable sadness.” The melancholy resembled what gripped him during a dream he had at about the same time, a dream in which he found himself sinking in water “that kept closing over my head in slow regular rings like the brown pond-water I had once seen close over a pebble, while I sank and sank,” But he had also from those years a vivid picture of a breakfast table, gleaming silver, a white table-cloth, and brilliant sunlight pouring through a window. Ever after the smell of café au lait and the sound of crisp toast being eaten took him back to the pleasant scene of him and his mother seated “at the little carved table by the window, merry in the greenish light of a spring morning,”
These earliest memories were from the years until 1901 in Brussels—home, but a place from which he frequently traveled even as hardly more than a baby. He recalled nighttime journeys and “the regular clank of train-couplings and the smell of coal smoke,” then “cream-colored villas, shrouded in feathery foliage, and the shrilling salt wind at Biarritz,” where he and Lucy vacationed—probably more than once—during their summers, there and at Boulogne-sur-Mer, nearer Brussels on the English Channel in the north of France. All he recollected of these trips were the bits and pieces a small child would retain. On the train down to Biarritz, he remembered a Spanish woman sobbing hysterically to his mother because her husband had been left behind at one stop with all their money. As the woman rushed through the train shrieking, “Manuelo, Manuelo,” Dos Passes had been struck by “the brutality of husbands”—an oblique slap at his own father, who could only travel infrequently with his mistress and their son. At Biarritz there were carriage rides among the steep hills, vivid colors, chill winds, and a heavy surf that sometimes sent foamy water scudding over the terraces along the shore.
The épiceries along a muddy street in Boulogne-sur-Mer were memorable for the odors of coffee, spices, fruits, and petits gâteaux that issued from them, as was the harbor, “full of the reek of shipping and the dank smell of flats exposed by the tide,” and the breakwater out beyond the harbor, where a small lighthouse perched, and where he could watch the channel steamer that crossed to Folkstone and Dover. At Boulogne he passed mornings on the beach, playing with new sand pails and trying to build castles before his nurse hurried him away from the best spots in the sand, which “rough and very tanned little boys” always defended against the likes of him. He rushed to construct his castles before someone trampled down his efforts, or before his mother bustled him off for his swimming lessons. The only time he could recall finishing an ornate castle “properly surmounted by flags, two American, one French and one Belgian,” a huge wave pounded ashore and drenched him, his nurse Marie, and two small girls dressed in white who had watched his labors.
The swimming lessons were tortuous. When the weather was cloudy, the pool appeared threatening, the corridors around it dark and the matting cold under his feet. While Dos Passos’s mother smiled encouragement, his instructor became enraged at the awkwardness of his pupil, whose misery was never assuaged by the glasses of hot milk that he was offered after each session.
These episodes were not atypical of someone of his social class being brought up then. But Dos Passos’s memories often reflect his acute sense that as a child he was intimidated by a threatening world beyond his own intimate one. The boy occasionally plunged into some small adventure, only to be snatched back by his nurse or his mother. His father, moreover, did not appear in the autobiographical episodes, although John R. Dos Passes was almost certainly with him and Lucy at some point during their trips to Biarritz and Boulogne, and he visited them in Brussels. Later, in fictionalized renderings of these same episodes, a father would appear, but that was when Dos Passos’s intention was to present him as at least partly a challenge and a threat to his autobiographical characters.
Practically always his childhood, in retrospect, seemed restricted. In Brussels Dos Passos remembered being “a small boy in a clean little starched suit. . .alone in the dusky salon,stretched out on a black shaggy rug before the fireplace.” The rug was a forest where a porcelain bear roamed, searching for prey. Then Dos Passos’s imagination turned the rug into a stormy sea, and the bear climbed onto a rock, a piece of coal from the coal scuttle. Soon he had another idea and began pretending that he was in a charcutier’s shop. He piled coal on the hearth and got smeared with the black coal dust. At that moment his nurse swept in, shrieking at his dirtiness, followed by his mother, dressed for a reception in a formal, lace gown with a long train. Ashamed of himself now, he burst into tears while he was scolded for his imaginative games.
Dos Passos sought friendship, but his memory was of being pulled back repeatedly, as when in Brussels he met a boy in a park, and the two began to play with Dos Passos’s red fire engine. Silently they toiled at pouring dust and pebbles in and out of the toy truck. They even started to chatter to each other in French, until suddenly their nurses hovered over them and snatched them away. Another time he tried unsuccessfully to reach out to a child while he and his mother walked along a cobbled street in Holland. They had just bought themselves two large pretzels when they came upon “a pitiably ragged boy with smudged face, through whose torn shirt I remember catching sight of grimy little ribs.” Lucy pressed her son to give the boy a pretzel. Dos Passos pushed his toward the other child, and as he did, the boy’s hand, “very rough and hard, brushed against mine.” Dos Passos shuddered involuntarily.”For days afterwards,” he remembered, “I could feel, at times, that rough dirty little hand brush against mine.”
Of course, his early life did not always seem lonely. In the biographical piece, “Les Lauriers Sont Coupés,” published when he was a senior at Harvard, he wrote of the things that evoked his sense of “familiarity and respect, even of awe,” that he believed anyone felt for the first city he had known. For him, Brussels was that place. It abounded with “delightful genial things, fountains, and parks and cab-drivers; and above all, the little chocolate-district of winding streets, and cake shops—where was a constant clatter of women in furs and ruffles which reminded me of an aviary at the Zoo, and a marvellous, indescribable odor of éclairs and brioches, and of thick hot chocolate,” Like any small child, he yearned for the rich candies and cakes displayed temptingly along the counters. The winding streets had their distinctive odors and sights: smells of chocolate, and swarms of milliners and dressmakers who clustered in lace shops where the boy had to sit quietly while his mother or his nurse chattered endlessly about matters of no interest to him.
More exciting were lunches at cafés like Les Trois Suisses, where he could sit, “solemnly sipping my milk and eating my madelaine, while gnomes and old men with beer mugs leered at me from the walls, from behind placid ladies and gentlemen taking their déjeuner.” Occasionally, a gilt lion at the other end of the room would roar, and its eyes, electric-lighted, would flash when someone tapped a fresh barrel of beer.
The trolley cars, whose tracks led all through the city and out into wooded parks, were equally enthralling. He particularly liked the yellow, open trolleys which ran during the summer through woods “where bandits assuredly lurked,” to Terveuren, a park “of pale green trees and still ponds and dim gravelled walks among the woods.” Empress Carlota’s palace had been here; hers and Maximilian’s names sent chills through him. The palace had burned down, and now a child could roam through the museum made from the remains of the buildings, filled with exhibits from the Belgian Congo. One could be served tea at tables on the terrace and listen to a band play. Lucy told her son as they would sit there about mad Carlota and about Maximilian, who had been executed in Mexico. When at dusk came the trip back from the park, the little boy quavered as he and his mother rode along “dark, mysterious boulevards,” lit by gas lamps whose reflections flared in the shop windows along the way. As soon as they were home, he would be hurried into bed, and as he fell asleep, he pictured “the Princess Carlota, with streaming hair and a torch in her hand, setting on fire the palace at Terveuren.
Although he feared Brussels’ Palais de Justice, more terrifying was “a quarter near the Porte de Hal, where frightful gypsies lived.” His nurse scared him once by showing him the house reputed to have been that of a king of the gypsies.”He was a gigantic man,” declared his nurse, “un homme immense, who wore a yellow sash and one huge earring and the gendarmes did not dare touch him. His wife killed him by pouring hot lead into his ears as he slept. . . . And they had a huge funeral; all the riffraff of Europe filled the cemetery, and the agents de police did not dare stop them.” Dos Passos asked his nurse if that had been long ago.”Not very long,” she responded, while he huddled down in his bed until Lucy came in to sing to him, so that he remembered the feel of her soft silk evening gown as she crooned,
Notts nirons plus aux bois, les lauriers sont coups
Les amours des bassins . . .
Void l’herbe quon fauche et les lauriers qu’on coupe.
Nous n irons plus aux bois, les lauriers sont coupes.
These years seemed a coming and going full of railroads and stations, exciting but unnerving. Dos Passos felt an “exultant awe and wonder at the swiftness of trains and the hugeness of crowds,” and one image especially remained with him from those days. In “Les Lauriers Sont Coupés” he described it; later he would include it in an early Camera Eye of U.S.A., and yet again, in Chosen Country, in the fiction fitting the incident to the themes of childhood innocence, fear and isolation. His memory, he wrote in the essay, was of
lying, barely awake, in a dim railway compartment with my head on my mother’s lap. Above, the two little dark green tassels of the bowlshapea gas lamp swung to and fro with the swaying of the car. I was watching a small beam of light, escaped from the shade, which traveled up and down amid the blackness of the opposite seat; in my ears sounded the confused jolting rumble of the wheels. I must have been sitting up on my mother’s knee a little later, for I remember seeing tiny lights shoot across the blackness of the window. All at once I caught sight of something strange and terrifying outside, a burst of red curling flame, that as it passed subsided into a dull glare. Tremendously excited, I pressed my face against the cold window pane, and stared into the moving blackness. We were rushing past rows and rows of low, black chimneys, —potteries probably—from the tops of which came a lurid glare that now and then burst into enormous flaming pillars. Somehow they made me feel, as they dimmed in the distance, the speed and madness of the train.
To a sensitive child, the speed and madness were threatening, even if they were thrilling. But Dos Passos could never get away from threats, really, because others loomed up and pressed in on his security—crowds of faces, strangers, laborers who were vastly different from the people of his parents’ world, or “the huge grimy vaults of railway stations,” where the smell of coal smoke was choking and a cold wind chilled him even when he tried to press in against his mother’s fur coat. As he walked along the railway platform next to a locomotive, it seemed to tower over him and hiss like some evil monster.”The glare of its huge staring eye was terrifying, as were the sooty men who poked about the great still wheels without seeming afraid. Then to look up at the dim cavern filled with smoke, eddying in brown wraiths about the girders, which struck here and there across the gloom, brought a strange fear and wonder, a peculiar catching of the breath.”
The threats were constant. In the first Camera Eye sequence, Dos Passos described a time when his mother and he were walking in a park. It was during the Boer War; tempers were high, and the Americans were mistaken for English. An angry crowd of Belgians began to follow them, shaking their fists, throwing stones, and shouting after them, “Englander.” Lucy walked faster; then they ran and dodged into a postcard shop.”Non nein nicht englander amerikanisch americain,” Lucy tried in her broken German and French. The shop owner comprehended: “Hock Amerika Vive l’Amerique.” And Lucy laughed in relief, “My dear they had me right frightened.” The little boy had hidden under the counter, but now he could admire the “postcards that shine in the dark pretty hotels and palaces.” He felt safe once more, because Lucy had sheltered him from a world which he was too young to comprehend.
Sometimes Dos Passos would travel with his parents when they were together in Europe. A memorable voyage was to Madeira, his ancestral home, where the three of them went after he had undergone a hernia operation. In one of the unpublished essays written at Harvard, Dos Passos described the trip. He thought he had been six; thus it might have occurred in the summer of 1902, after his stint in the United States at the Friends Select School. The trip left him with vivid images of a miserable voyage from Lisbon to Funchal, where they stayed for three weeks at Reid’s Hotel, over-looking the town. Sailing over he lay much of the time stretched out in a steamer chair, “while a kind hearted gentleman fed me strawberries of miraculous sweetness” to offset the sea sickness induced by the constant rolling of their “wheezy old steamer.”
The bay stretching before Funchal was lovely, “hemmed in by lavender-brown cliffs,” while at the far end the town “rose in white and red steps up the mountainside.” As soon as the steamer anchored, all sorts of boatmen surrounded her, shouting to the people on board. Dos Passos was fascinated by them and awed by the “small boys, olive skins flashing in the sunlight, [who] dove for the pennies we threw them.” Once ashore, he and his mother—in his undergraduate essay he never mentioned his father—climbed into a carro, a two-seated sled with a white canvas top from which curtains hung down. After their luggage was piled in front of them, oxen began dragging the sled up the cobbled streets to the hotel. When he wrote about this episode for his composition course at Harvard, Dos Passos rendered it vividly, giving some hint of his descriptive powers. His instructor, Charles Townsend Copeland, thought it excellent and noted in the margin of the theme paper, “The best thing you’ve done in English 12—A catalogue of odors compiled by D. P. would be worth having.” The scene he described was of a barefooted driver walking beside the oxen,
brushing off the flies with a long horsehair whisp. . . . Every now and then he lets the metal runners pass over an oil soaked rag he keeps hanging over the shaft. The hot oil emits an exotic intoxicating odor which is my most poignant memory of Funchal. It is an odor unlike any other I have ever smelt, hot and choking and heavy, yet mixed with the fragrance of endless gardens and the tang of the South Atlantic, As it jolts glidingly along, white curtains swaying from side to side, the carro groans and creaks painfully.
In the hotel Dos Passos was horrified to find red ants in his bureau drawers; that and “a nice oldish gentleman with two large white moustaches—the American consul I think—who used to bring my mother a gigantic bunch of pink and apricot tinted roses every morning” were all he remembered of the hotel where he stayed. The garden outside, however, was striking, “with its graveled paths, its wealth of flowering shrubs, and its dark green luxuriant foliage, all impregnated with the cloying sweetness of giant honeysuckle.” And he had a vivid recollection of clambering “down the face of the cliff on rock cut steps to the rocks at their base, where a small swimming pool was hollowed out of the live rock.” Seaweed on the bottom waved in the eddies that swirled between the rocks as Dos Passos tried to catch the tiny black fish darting among the algae. The pool was ideal, but for him it was disagreeable, because there he first tried to swim on his own— presumably the struggles at Boulogne had been complete failures.”How hard I tried to strike out boldly as I saw other people do who bathed in the real ocean beside the pool!”— his father, a strong swimmer, among them, which Dos Passos did not mention.”No use; hardly did my feet leave the bottom before there was a frightened agonized splutter and a great gulp of burning salt water. Then, after tearful coughing, I would be urged to try again with the same miserable results.” “Until I begged to,” Dos Passos began the next sentence in his essay, but crossed it out, realizing that this would get him onto another topic, and in his essay he meant to be describing scenes, not his relationships as a small child with parents eager for him to prove himself.
As slow and creaking as a trip up the mountain by carro had been, so the one down was fast and furious:
There is a brilliant picture in my mind of white walls and vivid trees shooting past us as we dove down towards the blue sea and the red tile roofs of Funchal. The sled rattled over the stone pavement at a tremendous pace, amid the shouts of the steersman, who held on behind to keep the car from coming to grief in the ditches that lined the narrow lane. It was an experience that took my breath away: the hot odor of the burning oil from the runners, the glimpse of the dazzling azure sea every moment growing nearer, the bright green foliage that melted into pink villas and white, clustered houses as we sped by.
When many years later he wrote his memoir, The Best Times, he recalled other scenes from childhood: in England “sitting on the roof of a coach and four being driven with jingle of harness through green lanes,” or having “a picnic under a royal oak in a park full of grazing deer” with his parents and some English friends, among whom was a pretty woman he liked until she plied him with too many questions. In his mind he heard the sounds of corks popping off miniature champagne bottles and remembered eating hordes of small cheesecakes—”Maids of Honor”—that made him feel ill. He recollected salmon fishing on a Scottish lake, and the blue veins on his father’s hands showing from the exertion of rowing their boat, half filled with water after a squall hit them.
Dos Passos wrote in his undergraduate essays of his childish confusion about what was acceptable and unacceptable to adults, the incident of rubbing coal on himself being one example. The same scene appears in Chosen Country when Jay Pignatelli thinks back over his childhood. Other memories surface for Jay; an Easter morning and his mother bringing him “a fuzzy pink rabbit on a nest of chocolate eggs,” the boy “proud because I’d done not only number one but number two in bed, oh but the rumpus and the scolding and screwed up disgustful faces and the pink rabbit taken away and the scrubbing and the shaking and the soap and slapping water.” And mingled with these memories are confusing ones about sex—memories of Jay’s French nurse who took him into her bed at night, peeled off his nightdress, pulled hers up to her neck and rubbed his “poor little dingus up and down her bare belly, “faire les petits venventres,” she called it and she was all furry around the place and when I asked her why it was all wet there she said it was because she’d just washed it but it made me feel funny.” Jay recalls the wife of one American in Brussels, reclining naked on a couch in front of him, laughing shrilly about it with his mother. Sex and his loneliness and America all swirled together for the child as he looked outside to see “the red and white stripes and the stars of the flag hanging from a pole above the portecochere and Kentucky was a state and all the states were stars and right here in the conservatory it was American soil like Kentucky, like one of the stars, and Kentucky was where the little naked lady lived.”
John R, Dos Passes wanted his son’s schooling to be English, believing this would be much superior to an American education. He hoped his boy would get an English public-school background, then go to Oxford or Cambridge, because the elder Dos Passos’s own learning—for the most part gathered from his incessant delving into the classics on his own— was quite like that of his English friends. He thoroughly enjoyed conversing at length and without fear of appearing snobbish about the likes of the Greek philosophers, about Julius Caesar and Lord Bacon, his son wrote in The Best Times.
So it was that Dos Passos, after the sojourn in America, really commenced his education at Peterborough Lodge, a school in the suburbs of London. Since his mother traveled with her lover when she could, Dos Passos boarded with two English women, Mrs. K. A. Gee and Miss Louisa Meakin, while he was in school. For a time he was the only American at Peterborough Lodge, but in the fall of 1904, another boy arrived. Dos Passos remembered the time vividly because his father—though never actually a politician—worked hard that year for the Democratic presidential candidate, Judge Alton B, Parker, who had the support of conservative and eastern Democrats against Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican incumbent. At Peterborough Lodge the new American strode up to Dos Passos and demanded to know whom he was for. Dos Passos said Parker, so the new boy punched him in the nose, but Dos Passos failed miserably to retaliate.
He went to Peterborough Lodge for his education through the first half of 1906 and appears to have been a good student. Among his papers at the University of Virginia is a report card from the school for the term ending July 31 of that year. His courses were Latin, French, English, Arithmetic, Algebra, and Geometry. There were ten students in all but Geometry, where there were twelve. In his classes he stood first, second, sixth, ninth, third, and sixth respectively. His teachers reported that his work ranged from “fair” in Arithmetic, to “very good” in French and Algebra. For his Latin teacher he worked extremely well, and it was predicted that he “will do well in the future.” His English teacher commented only “good.”
Although John R. Dos Passos wanted his son to have an English education, the boy desired otherwise. His and his mother’s lives were not especially happy. They felt like nomads; he longed to go to school in the United States, while she despised the evasions and outright lies that her situation created—although moving could not change that—and she felt hemmed around by circumstances, far from her native land. Thus in the fall of 1906 he and his mother boarded ship for America. When they arrived “home” at last, they headed for Washington, D. C., where the first relative of Dos Passos’s own age he met was his cousin Lois Sprigg, who remembered the meeting well. Dos Passos was a “handsome dark eyed little boy,” so excited to find a relative that he clutched onto her hand and held it, thankful to find someone who might be his friend and who, he sensed, would not mock him because of his formal manners and speech that had in it strains of both a French and an English accent. He felt he had outgrown a treasured collection of lead soldiers, so to show his affection for his new-found friend he thrust at her a box full of them— many of them headless, Lois recalled, but a thrill to get from this shy cousin nonetheless.
For the next several years, Lucy lived in Washington, on the New Jersey shore, or in New York, and during the summers spent time at Sandy Point on the Virginia side of the Potomac River near its mouth, where John R. Dos Passos had a large farm. In January 1907, their son began four and a half years of school at Choate, where his youth and his foreignness often made his life hardly bearable.”I hated boarding school,” he asserted in The Best Times, because the other boys—”the clean young American Rover Boys” he called them in a Camera Eye—taunted him for being “Frenchie,” a small, awkward “Four-eyes,” and a grind. He had come home to America, but his hotel childhood had not served him well, he thought. Only after he had written through it in his fiction and after he had made a sort of peace with the Establishment in his middle age would the resentment die that he harbored against his earliest upbringing. Until then, he believed it had served like a blinder at Choate and at Harvard so that only with great difficulty could he see “beyond wealth and clubs and that abominable coverer up of things—niceness”—something, he told Rumsey Marvin three months after leaving college, that a stupid Harvard graduate could never do.”It is so hard to get away from the lingo,” he continued, “from the little habits of speech and action, from the snobberies of one’s own class that it takes a distinct effort to see real “illumination” and appreciate it, regardless of garlic or lavender water.”
He would spend a good part of the rest of his life trying to get away. Paradoxically, the tension within him between his background and his rebellious instincts was the source of his best work. When his resentment against his upbringing dwindled, it was as if the creative spark that could unite protest with high art had been dampened. After Dos Passos made his final break from the radical left in 1937, the United States became his chosen country. Coincidentally, he began to look back, if not nostalgically, at least less resentfully. He wrote more good fiction, but none that compared to Manhattan Transfer or U.S.A., the latter especially a stern yet moving statement of rebellion against, among many other things, the author’s early life.