Manhattan Transfer

Manhattan Transfer Summary and Analysis of First Section, Chs. IV-V



Jimmy and his mother, Lily, are eating dinner in their hotel on Broadway. She complains about a headache, and mentions how tired she is "of never really feeling well." Jimmy, a doting mother's boy, expresses worry: "Muddy," he says, "mother why arent you eating your soup?" After dinner, Lily lets her son go outside to buy candy at the nearby drugstore. When he returns he finds her lying in bed, "her face [...] purplish pale." She tells him she merely has "a terrible headache" and that he should call up Aunt Emily. He does so, and soon Emily arrives and sends him off to bed. Jimmy can't sleep, and returns to his mother's room later in the night, finding a doctor and nurse with her.

Emile mentions to Madame Rigaud that she must need help running the store. "Emile, you're a goodlooking fellow and steady and you'll get on in the world," she tells him. "But I'll never put myself in a man's power again... I've suffered too much..."

Baldwin has won the McNeil suit and has received several more good cases as a result. He is doing well. But a visit by Nellie casts a shadow over his day. When he suggests to her that she divorce Gus and live with him, she treats the idea as if it were a joke. "Anyways I aint comin here again," she says. When Baldwin tells her that they should not part bitterly, that they have loved one another, she nearly breaks into tears.

Bud gets a drink with a Japanese man who calls himself Laplander Matty. After encountering racism at the bar, Matty takes Bud with him to Pearl Street to pick up prostitutes.

Phineas P. Blackhead, an attorney for the railroads, meets with labor delegates who are planning a strike. "I have confidence," he tells them in typical legal-speak, "I can say I have the completest confidence, that we can settle this matter amicably and agreeably."

Jimmy, his mother hit by a stroke, fears his return to school. He imagines a schoolyard fight with other kids. "Mother's had a stroke and next week I'll go back to school," he thinks. His Aunt Emily takes him to dinner at her lavish apartment, where he meets his cousins Maisie and James Merivale. At the table, Uncle Jeff expounds on the fate of the city: "New York is no longer what it used to be when Emily and I first moved up here about the time the Ark landed... City's overrun with kikes and low Irish, that's what's the matter with it... In ten years a Christian wont be able to make a living... I tell you the Catholics and the Jews are going to run us out of our own country, that's what they are going to do." Jimmy's mind races back to images of school - and of a kid named Harris who was picked on because "he was supposed to be a Jew."

A man arrives, uninvited, much to the consternation of Jeff and Emily. He is Joe Harland, a retired broker, now an impoverished drunkard who refers to himself as "the family skeleton." "They dont like me," he explains, "they wish I'd go away." After he leaves, Emily mentions that years ago the "papers called him the King of the Curb" because of his monumental success in the stocks.

After dinner the children begin to "play stock exchange." "What do we do?" Jimmy asks. "Oh juss run round an yell mostly," Maisie responds. After Jimmy calls her a fool during the game, Maisie throws a fit, tells him he is "in danger of hellfire," and refuses to play anymore. Jimmy grabs his hat, runs out the door, and races back to his home.

Congo is back from sea, catching up with his old friend Emile. They talk about Madame Rigaud, and Congo suggests that if Emile really wants Rigaud to fall for him and let him run the store he should "make her jealous."

Susie is gone. Ed Thatcher, now living alone with his daughter, sits in his office, listening to a man named Viler try to sell him a suspicious stock. When Viler asks Ed why he seems satisfied with his "damned office," the commute, his financial worries, Thatcher responds: "I believe in workin my way up, that's all." Once alone in the office, Ed thinks of his daughter and muses about what might happen if he bought the stock, if he took the plunge... "Take a plunge and come up with your hands full, pockets full, bankaccount full, vaults full of money. If I only dared take the risk."


Years have passed. Jimmy Herf is now a young man of sixteen, wearing a necktie and climbing a hill close to the harbor. "And muddy had had a stroke and now she was buried. He couldn't think how she used to look; she was dead that was all."

Emile talks with a girl, who threatens to tell Madame Rigaud of their prior scheme: standing in front of the delicatessen window together hugging and kissing, just so Rigaud would see, get jealous, and fall for Emile. The Frenchman comforts her, walks off, spots a fire. "They caught the firebug," he hears someone say. It is a black man, dragged away from the scene by two policemen who ruthlessly beat him with clubs. When he returns to the delicatessen, Emile asks Madame Rigaud when they are getting married.

Ellen, like Jimmy, has grown. We find her seated in a train headed to Atlantic City, next to a boy named John. He calls her "prince's daughter" and is obviously smitten with her. They spend the night together in Atlantic City, but she is sick, uneasy, troubled. "If she touched [John] she would die." She vomits in the bathroom. She lies awake, listening to the rain pound the pavement outside.

Jimmy eats lunch with his Uncle Jeff at one of the fanciest clubs in New York. Jeff, now Jimmy's guardian, explains to him the importance of his future, of a proper career, and remarks: "I have not noticed that you felt sufficient responsibility about moneymatters..." He advises that Jimmy follow James Merivale's example and work his way up the family firm. Jimmy nods in agreement to all of Jeff's suggestions and dictates, but once outside his angry thoughts come to the fore: "Uncle Jeff and his office can go plumb to hell."

Bud sleeps on a cot surrounded by other men. The place appears to be a homeless shelter of some sort. Bud is restless, unable to sleep. He shows a companion his back, displaying the scars his father gave him when he was a child, and tells the story of how he killed the old man and set off to the big city to never be found. The bum is worried for Bud, tells him he will go crazy if he keeps going in this manner. Bud leaves, walks along Brooklyn Bridge. "Goddamn detectives," he thinks. "Dont matter where I go; cant go nowhere now." He jumps off the bridge.

A Captain McAvoy "of the tugboat Prudence" witnesses the incident. Bud's body is fished out of the water. "A pretty thing to happen on a man's wedding day," the Captain mutters.


"Steamroller" begins and ends on the water. It opens with the following line: "A steamroller was clattering back and forth over the freshly tarred metaling of the road at the cemetery gate." It closes with Captain McAvoy staring at the dead body of Bud - a character who hitherto had become such a recurrent presence that one might have suspected he would emerge as the novel's chief protagonist. Water is thus equated with not just death but, specifically, the space of death and of burial, that is to say, a final resting place. Bud's death echoes the cemetery mentioned in the first sentence, and the passing of two important characters - Lily Herf and Bud - frames the chapter.

The framing devices go even further. Consider that both Bud and Lily are both introduced on the decks of ships. That the death of Bud's father ultimately drives him to suicide, and that the death of Jimmy's mother is what brings him to that hillside road in Yonkers at the chapter's start. Death propels the characters, and thus the narrative, forward, while leaving behind the remnants of the past. Never again will Bud Korpenning figure in the novel; he is simply washed away, like so many other victims of the metropolis.

If one can identify a single "killer" at work here, it must be unchecked capitalism (which is subject to a scathing parody in Maisie and Jimmy's playing "stock exchange"). In this sense, three moments stand out as the key points of this section of Manhattan Transfer: Ed Thatcher and Viler at the end of "Tracks"; Joe Harland visiting his relatives, much to their dismay; and Bud's suicide. In a sense, each of these scenes posits a casualty of capitalism, and together the three-point sequence may be interpreted as a progression from one kind of damage to the other: from the mid-life crisis in Thatcher, to the wrecked old age of Joe, to, in the example of Bud, the most tragic of all - the death of a young man.

Dos Passos's language suggests that money itself is the root of the tragedy that unites these lost souls. "Dollars swarming up like steam," he writes, "twisting scattering against the stars." It is a hopeful vision for Thatcher, and yet strangely reminiscent of a biblical plague. It is the light at the end of the tunnel - and yet that light is an apocalyptic one, spelling the end as well as a new beginning. The very titles of the chapters - "Dollars," "Tracks," "Steamroller" - seem pulled from a Blaise Cendrars poem, underlining the equation of money and movement, of wealth and speed, as well as a particularly modernist conception of the twentieth-century city, be it Paris (in the case of Cendrars) or New York (in the case of Dos Passos). For both these writers, Baudelaire remains the most pivotal influence, for his darkly romantic vision of the late-nineteenth century metropolis decomposes a collective whole into subjective fragments, pre-cinematic snapshots redolent with excessive imagery and overloaded with metaphor. It is, in other words, a tradition of excess, of descriptions which actively stretch and attempt to encompass the entirety of a lived experience. The subjective meets the objective, the individual meets the collective, and Baudelaire's "flaneur" meets Cendrars' trains and Dos Passos's swarming dollar bills. In a word: modernity.

Dos Passos's leftist leanings at the time he wrote Manhattan Transfer cannot be ignored. Ed Thatcher is an inherently weak man, weakened by his need to follow the rules of an economy which itself knows no rules; his hidebound composure is ill at ease in the brave new world of heedless expansionism and hedonistic spending. The towers of Wall Street are too tall for this little man. And yet even the "King of the Curb," the once-great Joe Harland, is likewise humbled by New York's rampant capitalism, reduced to drunkenness and a status as the "family skeleton." In a way, Harland will emerge as not just his family's spectre, but that of the entire city - New York's "skeleton" one might argue, the victim of American capitalism who refuses to go away. Whereas Ed Thatcher fantasizes about prestige - thinking of himself as "Millionaire Thatcher" - and Joe temporarily attains it, Bud is doomed to suffer one humiliating encounter after another, from a failed attempt to get a job, to the resentful gray-haired woman who will give him a meal but not a dollar for his trouble, to a homeless shelter and finally the depths of the Hudson. In that entire course, the only moment of happiness he seems to experience is in the company of a fellow victim - a Japanese immigrant, Laplander Matty. Racism rears its ugly head when a man at a bar calls Matty a "little Yap," and again when a "negro" is immediately labeled a "firebug" and beaten mercilessly by a pair of policemen.

Indeed, the more disturbing aspects of the city and of the era begin to take the foreground in these chapters. Dos Passos ceases to be a mere stylist; his style has become politicized. An agenda is now evident in his writing - but it is a testament to his virtuoso skill that it so organically and effortlessly emerges.