by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
Although it may seem trivial to talk about Douglas on vacation, this trip had a significant impact on his life. He and his wife Besse had talked about it for years, but in the summer of 1925 they finally had enough money to travel to Europe. They sailed from New York on Friday, July 3rd, landing on the coast of France, at Cherbourg, on Thursday, July 9th. For over a month they toured France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands; on Friday, August 22nd, they took an overnight steamer across the Channel to England, spending another six days in London before returning to New York by ship on Friday, September 4th.
In their book about him, Douglas’s daughters devoted an entire chapter to this subject, but they did it because they wanted to show how funny and entertaining Douglas was. They were 16 and 18 in the summer of 1925, and they stayed behind with their maternal Aunt Glen and Uncle David in St. Louis. Although they received letters from both of their parents, the ones from their father were humorous (with goofy spellings like “Yurrup”) and sometimes included drawings. Here are two of the drawings, from Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C. Douglas (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1952):
While waiting for a train in Cologne, he drew this image of himself leading the way to the train station with Besse and several porters following in his wake:
And here’s a sample of the letter that accompanied this drawing:
We rode all over town yesterday in a rubber wagon in the rain. The guide would point out a building and say, ‘Das iss der Ratholenwhackerdamfinepifflebacken,’ [which I believe should be read, ‘Rat-hole-n-whacker, dam-fine-piffle-backen’] and we would peek out through the soggy curtains, look at the thing glassily, and reply with a yawn, ‘Oh, yah, yah; das iss blosh!’ [There’s no such word in the German dictionary.] Mother often stands by and grins when I, with a straight face, talk pigeon Deutsch to the porters and sich. Their language sounds like they had their mouths full of half-chewed rotten bananas. A porter will inquire, ‘Der handegepochtening goloshes splish der milash?’ and I reply solemnly, ‘Yash, splosh der squash und plish der mush!’The Shape of Sunday, p. 185.
It seems to me that Douglas’s tour of Europe is important for several other reasons, however (and not just as an outlet for his humor). First, it took him a step closer to becoming a world citizen. He never actually achieved that status; I’d say his trip made him an Anglophile rather than a lover of all cultures – he was a fan of London for the rest of his life – but he heard and saw enough to make him start thinking in global terms. For example:
Sometimes, late in the night, when sleep is tardy, instead of counting imaginary sheep jumping over a fence – which, for some reason, never did me any good, no matter how many sheep kept coming – I close my eyes and permit myself to be dizzied by great crowds of hurrying people.
Now I am standing on a corner in Munich – near the Rathaus – crowds – I can see them hurrying to the day’s work. Now I am standing on a corner in Naples – more crowds.
I skip about in fancy, from city to city – letting the rushing crowds bewilder me.
Now I am at the edge of the sweeping current of humanity on Champs Elysees – now on the Strand – now on Fifth Avenue – now on Michigan Boulevard – now on St. Catherine –
Now I am letting myself be milled about in great stations – Paddington, St. Lazare, Grand Central, Windsor –
Oh these highways!
What a diversity of interests travel over them! What an ocean of major and minor tragedies sweep over them! Not just once in awhile; but ever and always – by day and by night. . . .From a sermon entitled, “Cross Country with a New Idea,” preached in Montreal on January 26, 1930. In The Living Faith (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1955), pp. 134-143.
With the exception of American cities, these were all locations he visited in the summer of 1925. And, as this example illustrates, he never stopped thinking about those places or the people who lived there. That was an important next step toward creating the character of Dean Harcourt, who thinks constantly about the lives of people everywhere.
Second, Douglas’s trip to Europe was important because it was only during this trip that he kept a private journal. (If he did keep any other journals, his daughters did not include them in the archival material they gave to the Bentley Library. But since he said that the scrapbooks were to serve as journals, and since he did his best thinking at the typewriter, it seems unlikely that he wrote any other journals than the one during his European trip.) In that journal, he jotted down the kinds of details that an aspiring novelist should notice: vivid descriptions of people; how they talked; what they were worried about; and so on. Without falling behind in his humorous, entertaining letters to his daughters, he took time to record these kinds of impressions. This is especially important because he was in a non-church, non-religious environment, writing his perceptions of real people trying to do real things – and this activity took him a step closer to writing novels about people in secular situations.
Third, on a related note, the places he and Besse visited in the summer of 1925 would later be used as settings in his first novel. In chapter 12 of Magnificent Obsession, Helen Hudson is living at the Villa Serbelloni, where Lloyd and Besse stayed while in Bellagio, and Helen and her friend Marion Dawson tour some of the other areas the Douglases saw while there. After a brief trip back to the states, Helen returns to Europe via cruise ship and lands at Cherbourg, just as the Douglases did. Later she is in a train accident on the Naples-Rome Express, and Bobby Merrick rushes to the English hospital in Rome to operate; and on and on it goes, as the characters criss-cross the path that the Douglases traveled in 1925.
(Literary critic James Saxon Childers, who had studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and traveled the world, was repulsed by the novel’s “vulgar display of tourist knowledge of tourist resorts in Europe.” Having had the high privilege of studying overseas, he seems to have felt that it was “vulgar” for anyone who was not so privileged to write about their own experiences. I’m only pointing this out because it shows that, despite this criticism, Douglas was able to create a bestselling novel out of a single trip to Europe – and without the advantages of being a Rhodes Scholar. (Childers’s criticism is in James Saxon Childers, “Magnificent Obsession Is Debated: Pastor Praises But Editor Criticizes Notorious Book,” Birmingham (Alabama) News, March 26, 1933. Information on Childers is in the Encyclopedia of Alabama, an online resource, and can be found here.))
Fourth, after his return to the United States, Douglas considered writing a humorous travel book similar to the letters he had written to his daughters. He even sketched out the chapter headings:
If he ever wrote even fragments of this book, I have been unable to find a trace of them in his private papers; but that’s not important. What matters is that he was thinking like a professional writer, mining his experiences for nuggets he could use and publish. And again, this was a secular subject. He gave serious consideration to writing a book that was not religious. And that was a major step forward for him.
Actually, after he and Besse returned to England in the summer of 1930, he did write a three-part series of humorous travel observations for one of the Akron papers, and he was paid for it. Below is a wide shot of the second essay, along with close-ups of an artist’s rendition of the story. This gives us an idea of the kind of book it would have been if he had carried through with the idea.
The main point I want to emphasize is that Douglas’s first trip to Europe gave him practice thinking and acting like a writer, and since the topic was not religious, it moved him one step closer to the kind of writing that would make him famous.
There were a few other developments that prepared Douglas to begin writing novels. I’ll tell about those over the next few blog posts.
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