Places: Manhattan Transfer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1925

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Impressionistic realism

Time of work: 1920’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New York City

*New Manhattan TransferYork City. Largest city in the United States and the second largest city in the world during the 1920’s, the period in which the novel is set. In the first section of the novel, John Dos Passos places New York among some of the great cities of history: While Babylon and Nineveh were made of brick, Athens had gold marble columns, and Constantinople’s minarets were like candle flames around the Golden Horn, New York City’s stark pyramids are made of steel, glass, tile, and concrete.

Setting his novel in the 1920’s, when American mores and values are changing, Dos Passos uses the city both as a symbol of the possibilities and dreams of those who left failure behind, and as a realistic environment that is either hostile or indifferent to their dreams and aspirations. The novel uses the city as a character, an architect that molds and shapes the strong, or a mechanical monster that crunches and consumes the weak. The one-word titles of the chapters–“Metropolis,” “Tracks,” “Steamroller,” “Fire Engine,” “Rollercoaster,” “Revolving Doors,” “Skyscraper”–give the major role in the novel to the city and the steel parts that bring it to life.

New York City’s streets, docksides, and tenements are peopled with thousands of migrants from America’s rural farmlands and hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have fled the old cities of Europe for the land of opportunity. People appearing in the novel’s snapshots and vignettes are much like stock characters who show types, rather than individuals with whom readers can develop intimate acquaintances. They seem as programmed in their movements as the mechanized metropolis they inhabit. Some characters, like an old immigrant playing a violin on the ferry and a homeless derelict weeping in the street, seem to illustrate an anonymous class of city dwellers forgotten by both fellow human beings and the city.

Some characters appear in a few scenes but seem to be disconnected from the lives of other characters. For example, Bud Korpenning, who eventually commits suicide, demonstrates the life that goes steadily down to defeat in the city. Other types–a banker, a lawyer, a broker, an actor, a bootlegger, a labor leader, an architect, and an arsonist–connect in passing with the lives of two exceptional characters, Ellen Thatcher and Jimmy Herf, who appear in successive scenes throughout the novel and give it continuity. Ellen, often frightened by the city but determined never to show that fear, becomes a hardened and self-centered “Elaine” or “Helena,” depending upon her aspirations of the moment. She has no qualms about using people to get what she wants.

Jimmy Herf may be an incomplete projection of Dos Passos himself. Herf is a fatherless boy orphaned at sixteen when his mother dies. He returns to New York after a sojourn in Europe and serves in the Red Cross during World War I. He functions in the novel almost as a counterculture to the city’s dehumanizing environment. He is sensitive and caring, and seeks to maintain a value system that rejects compromises in order to gain wealth or social success in the urban, industrialized world. In the end, the uncompromising Herf abandons the city that rejects him and his kind.

By presenting the characters in impressionistic images, in brief scenes that show them in combat with the elements, disastrous illnesses, and accidents, swayed by fragments of songs, the roar of the elevated trains, spoken words, or silent gestures, Dos Passos shows New York as a symbol that has betrayed the promises of the land of opportunity. The novel moves from the attraction of the city that brings the hopeful characters to it, through their desperate battles to survive within the steel and concrete jungle, to an almost frantic desire to get away from it. Its bigness attracts, then dehumanizes with indifference and an environment ruinous of health, and finally becomes an evil monster that destroys or spits out its human cargo.

BibliographyArrington, Philip. “The Sense of an Ending in Manhattan Transfer.” American Literature 54 (October, 1982): 438-443. A brief study of the way in which Dos Passos finds a satisfactory way of concluding his diverse and sometimes incoherent novel.Clark, Michael. Dos Passos’s Early Fiction, 1912-1938. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1987. A detailed examination of the works leading up to and including U.S.A., with emphasis on Manhattan Transfer as the most significant of the early works of the author.Livingston, Townsend. John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980. A satisfactory and detailed biography, which includes examinations of Manhattan Transfer and his other major novels.Sanders, David. John Dos Passos: A Comprehensive Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1985. A thorough compilation of the author’s writings and of the major criticism of his work.Wagner, Linda. Dos Passos: Artist as American. A good biography emphasizing Dos Passos’ deliberate artistry and showing how his aims, as in the later novels, shaped the structure of Manhattan Transfer.
Categories: Places