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One Man's Initiation: 1917 by John Dos Passos

One Man's Initiation: 1917

First Encounter


subjects: First World War Fiction

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Springing from the author’s first-hand experience as an ambulance driver and Red Cross worker during World War I, this autobiographical first novel is noteworthy for its vivid and colorful evocation of France at that time and for its passionate indictment of war. The author’s disillusionment with war for a time turned him toward socialism and against capitalism. Ultimately, after being labeled pro-German and a pacifist, the author concluded that the quasi-religion of Marxism turned loose more brutal aggression than poor old Capitalism ever dreamed of.

112 pages with a reading time of ~1.75 hours (28003 words), and first published in 1920. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, .

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In the huge shed of the wharf, piled with crates and baggage, broken by gang-planks leading up to ships on either side, a band plays a tinselly Hawaiian tune; people are dancing in and out among the piles of trunks and boxes. There is a scattering of khaki uniforms, and many young men stand in groups laughing and talking in voices pitched shrill with excitement. In the brown light of the wharf, full of rows of yellow crates and barrels and sacks, full of racket of cranes, among which winds in and out the trivial lilt of the Hawaiian tune, there is a flutter of gay dresses and coloured hats of women, and white handkerchiefs.

The booming reverberation of the ship’s whistle drowns all other sound.

After it the noise of farewells rises shrill. White handkerchiefs are agitated in the brown light of the shed. Ropes crack in pulleys as the gang-planks are raised.

Again, at the pierhead, white handkerchiefs and cheering and a flutter of coloured dresses. On the wharf building a flag spreads exultingly against the azure afternoon sky.

Rosy yellow and drab purple, the buildings of New York slide together into a pyramid above brown smudges of smoke standing out in the water, linked to the land by the dark curves of the bridges.

In the fresh harbour wind comes now and then a salt-wafting breath off the sea.

Martin Howe stands in the stern that trembles with the vibrating push of the screw. A boy standing beside him turns and asks in a tremulous voice, “This your first time across?”

“Yes…. Yours?”

“Yes…. I never used to think that at nineteen I’d be crossing the Atlantic to go to a war in France.” The boy caught himself up suddenly and blushed. Then swallowing a lump in his throat he said, “It ought to be time to eat.”

"_God help Kaiser Bill!
 O-o-o old Uncle Sam.
 He's got the cavalry,
 He's got the infantry
 He's got the artillery;
 And then by God we'll all go to Germany!
 God help Kaiser Bill!_"

The iron covers are clamped on the smoking-room windows, for no lights must show. So the air is dense with tobacco smoke and the reek of beer and champagne. In one corner they are playing poker with their coats off. All the chairs are full of sprawling young men who stamp their feet to the time, and bang their fists down so that the bottles dance on the tables.

"_God help Kaiser Bill._"

Sky and sea are opal grey. Martin is stretched on the deck in the bow of the boat with an unopened book beside him. He has never been so happy in his life. The future is nothing to him, the past is nothing to him. All his life is effaced in the grey languor of the sea, in the soft surge of the water about the ship’s bow as she ploughs through the long swell, eastward. The tepid moisture of the Gulf Stream makes his clothes feel damp and his hair stick together into curls that straggle over his forehead. There are porpoises about, lazily tumbling in the swell, and flying-fish skim from one grey wave to another, and the bow rises and falls gently in rhythm with the surging sing-song of the broken water.

Martin has been asleep. As through infinite mists of greyness he looks back on the sharp hatreds and wringing desires of his life. Now a leaf seems to have been turned and a new white page spread before him, clean and unwritten on. At last things have come to pass.

And very faintly, like music heard across the water in the evening, blurred into strange harmonies, his old watchwords echo a little in his mind. Like the red flame of the sunset setting fire to opal sea and sky, the old exaltation, the old flame that would consume to ashes all the lies in the world, the trumpet-blast under which the walls of Jericho would fall down, stirs and broods in the womb of his grey lassitude. The bow rises and falls gently in rhythm with the surging sing-song of the broken water, as the steamer ploughs through the long swell of the Gulf Stream, eastward.

“See that guy, the feller with the straw hat; he lost five hundred dollars at craps last night.”

“Some stakes.”

It is almost dark. Sea and sky are glowing claret colour, darkened to a cold bluish-green to westward. In a corner of the deck a number of men are crowded in a circle, while one shakes the dice in his hand with a strange nervous quiver that ends in a snap of the fingers as the white dice roll on the deck.

“Seven up.”

From the smoking-room comes a sound of singing and glasses banged on tables.

"_Oh, we're bound for the Hamburg show,
 To see the elephant and the wild kangaroo,
 An' we'll all stick together
 In fair or foul weather,
 For we're going to see the damn show through!_"

On the settee a sallow young man is shaking the ice in a whisky-and-soda into a nervous tinkle as he talks: