Manhattan Transfer

Manhattan Transfer Summary and Analysis of Third Section, Chs. I-III



James Merivale has just returned from the war in Europe. The year is 1918. Peace has been declared. James gets a shave, looks at himself in the mirror, and walks home. He reunites with Maisie and his mother Emily. The father, Jeff, has died in the influenza epidemic.

Ellen and Jimmy are likewise returning to New York. They sit together on a boat headed into the harbor, their baby Martin by their side. "Well there's the statue of Liberty," Jimmy notes, before insisting that the family head out on deck. When they arrive on land they are greeted by their friends Frances and Bob Hildebrand. Frances, Bob, Martin, and Ellen - who Frances calls Helena - drive off to the Brevoort Hotel while Jimmy takes care of the luggage. There they drink cognac and toast to the "Café d'Harcourt." "Of course what you kids dont realize," Hildebrand says, "is that the difficulty under prohibition is keeping sober."

Baldwin writes Ellen a card and sends it to her room in the Brevoort along with two dozen Gold of Ophir roses. He humbly offers his services to her and her husband and proclaims himself "your lifelong slave and admirer."

Joe O'Keefe, now a Sergeant-Major, and Private 1st Class Dutch Robertson, a friend of his, drift through the harbor on a boat, passing under the Brooklyn Bridge and expressing their joy at being home again: "Gosh little old New York's goin to look good to me..." Robertson says he is going to "live clean an get a good job and maybe get married." O'Keefe reckons that is not a bad idea.

Jimmy and Ellen - referred to again by people as Helena - eat a meal with the Merivales - Emily, Maisie, and James. Jimmy says he might go back to newspaper work. James will likely go work with Major Goodyear, head of the foreign exchange department of the Banker's Trust. The subject of the war comes up - and of Ellen and Jimmy's "war romance." They were both in the Publicity Department of the Red Cross at one point, we learn. When Mrs. Merivale suggests that Jimmy write a book of his experiences in Europe, he replies that he has tried a few articles but that no one seems interested in printing them. "You see I differ radically in certain matters of opinion," he says.

Joe O'Keefe leads an organizational meeting of fellow veterans, furious at the scarcity of jobs for returning soldiers and the lack of a bonus. "We fought for em didnt we, we cleaned up the squareheads, didnt we?" he says. "And now when we come home we get the dirty end of the stick." Later he visits a doctor and finds that he has syphilis. "Inevitable in wartime," the doctor assures him.

George Baldwin eats at a restaurant with Gus McNeil and a man named Densch, both of whom try to convince Baldwin of running for office. The lawyer shies away from the idea of a political career, but his companions won't give up on him. Densch argues that it is George's duty to run for office, that it is a critical and dangerous time for America. "I happen to know from a secret and reliable source that there is a subversive plot among undesirable elements in this country," he says. "Good God think of the Wall Street bomb outrage. [... In] fact we're approaching a national unity undreamed of before the war." Meanwhile, a boat of deportees floats down the harbor while a gathering crowd murmurs: "They are sending the Reds back to Russia..."


Ruth Prynne runs into Billy Waldron, a friend of hers. She tells him of her troubles - a problem with her throat, the scarcity of acting jobs, etc. Together the two reminisce about the old days. "The last time I saw you Ruth," Billy tells her, "was in The Butterfly on the Wheel in Seattle. I was out front..."

Dutch Robertson walks through the nighttime city with his girl Francie. He has been thrown out of his room in the city, is looking for work and can't find anything. Money is a problem. Dutch tells Francie about the war, how he was made a Sergeant but then went AWOL. He insists he can make it in New York, but prospects look grim. The two lovers are thrown out of a Chinese club, then harassed while trying to walk along the wharf, and finally end up sneaking into Francie's room.

Jimmy and Ellen go out to dinner in a restaurant by the water. There, to their surprise, they meet Congo. He offers them cocktails and proclaims that he is "the best bootleggair in New York." Ellen, for her part, has decided to take a job rather than dive back into acting - much to Jimmy's dismay. Their relationship seems somewhat frayed. When Jimmy stretches out his legs under their table and touches her feet she draws them away. "Why did we come back to this rotten town anyway?" Jimmy finally demands, once he and Ellen are drunk on absinthe. "Ellie for heaven's sake what's the matter with us?"

A girl named Anna dances with a "tall square built Swede," then a "blackhaired slender Jew." She goes from man to man, is "sickeningly tired," and seems to float along - one song after another, one dance after another, until she breaks free and runs to a female companion of hers.


Jake Silverman and Rosie discuss their situation. These two characters seem to be involved in criminal activity that could wind up putting Jake behind bars for larceny. He appears perfectly calm, however, and comforts Rosie with claims that all is well, that he has merely to "bluff out Nichols" and that if they "can keep [Nichols] thinkin [they have] money [they'll] have him eatin out of [their] hands."

The Merivales are having breakfast "to electric light." It is sleeting outside. James taunts Maisie about her fiance Jack, a publicist for Famous Players. Maisie complains that James is "horrid about Jack," to which James replies: "Well if he's going to be my brother-in-law, I think I ought to have a say in picking him."

Tony Hunter dances with a girl named Nevada Jones. We have seen her name before, in association with Baldwin. Indeed it turns out that she and Baldwin are dating, but that she thinks little of him and has begun an affair with Tony: "If he thinks he can buy me with a little hotel accomodation and theater tickets he's got another thing coming," she says. Tony, for his part, has begun seeing a Dr. Baumgardt about his "problem," who is convinced his homosexuality is simply a product of his imagination and that Tony should see more girls. "He doesn't know what he's talking about though," Tony tells Nevada. But Nevada insists he stay with the doctor, who incidentally is being paid for by Baldwin himself.

The phone rings. It's George. Tony makes a quick getaway and Nevada goes out to lunch with Baldwin and Gus McNeil. The two men discuss business. Baldwin has decided to run for office after all -- but "on a Reform ticket." Gus is shocked. "But Goddam it if it hadn't been for me your name would never have come up for district attorney at all," he argues. "I know you've always been a good friend of mine and I hope you'll continue to be," George replies.

Gus McNeil chats with Joe O'Keefe, warning him about his involvement in agitation groups - one of which has recently raided a Garment Workers' Ball - and arguing that "the people of this country are pretty well fed up with war heroes." McNeil talks like a real politician, claiming that New York State has "done its duty by its ex-service men" and that a national bonus would only mean more taxes "to the average business man."

Dutch Robertson, hungry, thirsty, forlorn, reads in a paper of two men successfully holding up a bank messenger and making off with half a million dollars.

Jimmy visits a waterfront speakeasy - "a long building propped on piles over the water" - with Congo. The owner is Mike Cardinale, an Italian immigrant with a French wife to do his cooking. Jimmy sips some wine with the two men and listens to a mechanical piano, when the sound of a motorboat approaches. Congo and Cardinale go out to investigate. A fight ensues and Congo returns with his leg broken. (The leg itself is a cork one; "Cost me feefty dollars to have it mended last time I busted it," Congo tells Jimmy.) Cardinale has a gash over his eyes. The motorboats have sped away. We learn they were carrying hijackers who were trying to steal as much alcohol as they could. Cardinale and Congo have stocked up on champagne for the holidays; one of the cases has been damaged, but otherwise not much has been lost. When Congo asks Cardinale how the hijackers could have known about their landing site, Cardinale replies: "Some guy blabbed maybe."

Jimmy heads off, remembering a girl he met at the speakeasy, a girl with "toobright eyes." His reverie drifts to Ellen: "Before the kid was born Ellie sometimes had toobright eyes like that." Finally he thinks to himself: "God why cant I stop mooning over things that are past?"

James Merivale receives word from his mother at work that "something terrible has happened." When he returns home he finds "a little roundfaced woman in a round mink hat and a long mink coat" who claims she is Mrs. Jack Cunningham - wife to Maisie's fiance. She has a marriage certificate to prove it, and is eighteen years old. James is enraged. When he tries phoning Jack's room, he finds that the man is out of town.

Phineas Blackhead, employee at an import and export firm, discusses the prospect of backing Baldwin's campaign for office with Densch. Blackhead is opposed to the idea. "Well old man," Densch tells him, "it may have been a bad thing to do, but I've promised to support the reform candidate." Blackhead argues that doing so would be a slap in the face to Gus McNeil and his associates, who have been of great help to the firm. "My dear Blackhead," Densch proclaims, "I consider it my duty to as a citizen to help in cleaning up the filthy conditions of bribery, corruption and intrigue that exist in the city government." Blackhead scoffs, and later confides to his daughter Cynthia in his limousine: "If you ever hear a man talking about his duty as a citizen, by the Living Jingo dont trust him..."

Ellen proposes to Jimmy that they get separate rooms, now that he is back to continually working nights. Jimmy protests that they would never see each other as a result. "We hardly ever see each other as is," he says. "It's terrible," Ellen replies, just as Martin's weeping comes "in a gust from the other room."

A Jewish girl named Anna goes to an ice cream fountain with Elmer, "a rustyhaired thinfaced young Jew." He chides her for having stopped paying union dues, for being a "fatalist," for not thinking of the larger picture when it comes to her job at a sewing machine. "The trouble with the workers," he argues, "is we dont known nothin, we dont know how to eat, we dont know how to live, we dont know how to protect our rights. [...] Cant you see we're in the middle of a battle just like in the war?"

Nellie pays a visit to George Baldwin. She tells him Gus asked her to do so, and tries to persuade him to not run on the reform ticket. George maintains that Gus is a friend of his, but that in "this particular campaign [he has] pledged [himself] to oppose certain elements with which Gus has let himself get involved." George then visits Nevada Jones and abruptly calls of their affair. "I've known for some time that you and Tony Hunter were carrying on," he proclaims. Tony Hunter is, in fact, hiding in Nevada's bedroom at that very moment. Baldwin tells Nevada he will send her a check for five hundred, and that she should never communicate with him again. With that, he heads off. Tony emerges from hiding and laments the turn of events: "O God if I'm not the unluckiest fellow in the world," he sighs. By contrast, Nevada appears totally unfazed. "I set out to make a man of you kiddo," she tells Tony, "and I'm goin to do it."

James Merivale runs into Jack Cunningham in a clothing store. Jack invites him to dinner with a man named Randolph Perkins -- one of the vice presidents of James's bank. He asks that if James sees Maisie he tell her that Jack will visit her tomorrow. "An extraordinary series of events has kept me from communicating with her," he says. James agrees to dinner, walks off and phones his mother to inform her he will be dining with Perkins -- as well as Mr. Cunningham. In quite a distortion of the truth, James explains that he has confronted Jack about the crisis with Maisie and has been promised a full explanation within twenty-four hours.

Ellen is now an editor for a magazine called Manners. Acting is a thing of the past for her. We find her elegantly dressed and seated in a tea-room with Ruth Prynne. Ruth's own career has not improved much. "Oh Elaine I'm so discouraged," she says. "My dear I'm getting old." Ellen consoles her. She has already said that she too "must be getting old" and is beginning "to hate large parties."

Nonetheless, she and Ruth go to a costume party at a nearby dancing studio, where they meet up with Cassandra Wilkins and John Oglethorpe. We learn from John that Tony Hunter has been "straightened out by [his] psychoanalyst" and is now on the vaudeville stage with Nevada Jones. We also learn that Jimmy Herf is known as a "bolshevik pacifist and I.W.W. agitator."

Suddenly, the party is broken up by a raiding police party. The detectives are ready to make arrests for the sale and consumption of liquor, but Ellen, not missing a beat, speedily phones Baldwin at the district attorney's office and asks him to tell the D.A. that the police have made a mistake, and that the raid should be called off. Soon enough the D.A. speaks to the head detective and the charges are dropped. "Accidents will happen..." the detective says. Once home, Ellen calls Baldwin again to thank him.

Jimmy, desperate and bubbling over with frustration, knocks on Ellen's door, demanding that they talk. The estranged spouses talk. Jimmy asks Ellen if she still loves him. "I guess I dont love anybody for long unless they're dead," she confesses, in an underhanded allusion to Stan Emery. Jimmy is crushed and suggests a divorce, but Ellen reminds him of Martin: "What about him?" she asks. The conversation does not reach a real resolution. Jimmy simply gives in and leaves. "But things dont end," Ellen says as he goes.

Anna passes a group of girls discussing the recent murder of an acquaintance of theirs. "A negro had done somethin terrible to her and then he'd strangled her..." she hears as she walks by.

Jake Silverman and Rosie head to their hotel and are met there by an official from the Department of Justice, who wishes to arrest Jake on the grounds of "using the mails to defraud [people]." Jake leaps to his defense: "I am a man who has been deeply wronged through foolishness in misplacing confidence in others," he argues - to no avail. The official and his partner search Jake's room and whisk him off, leaving the teary-eyed Rosie alone with a handwritten note her beau has just written her. It reads: "Hock everything and beat it; you are a good kid."


New York has entered a new period of history, and Dos Passos charts it with considerable precision in this section of his novel. Consider the title of the first chapter: "Rejoicing City That Dwelt Carelessly." World War I is over, peace is declared, and a sense of jubilation is in the air. James Merivale emerges as a character in his own right, and we are "introduced" to him on a ship returning to the city - just as Dutch Robertson and Joe O'Keefe, as well as Ellen and Jimmy, make their first appearances of the chapter on a boat. The veterans are returning, and among those who have spent time in Europe are, to our surprise, Ellen and Jimmy, now married. While a conventional novel, intimately concerned about its primary protagonists and their struggles, would likely follow Ellen and Jimmy to the Continent and trace the steps that led to their marriage, not to mention Martin's birth, Dos Passos confines his narrative(s) to New York proper. The Great War exists as a sort of apparition on the horizon; we never experience it firsthand, but we can observe its results on a city thousands of miles away from the conflict.

Dos Passos's striking use of ellipses is not restricted to Ellen and Jimmy's "war romance." When "Rejoicing City" begins, Prohibition has already been declared and the influenza epidemic has already hit. Uncle Jeff is dead; Gus McNeil is a budding politico; and one can sense that the city itself as irrevocably changed. Returning to the aforementioned title, "Rejoicing" indicates the euphoria following victory in Europe, while "Carelessly" suggests the problems which lie ahead. In other words, in its joy New York blinds itself to the myriad tragedies which still afflict it. If New York can be said to have "dwelt" (a curious term, since one think of the city being a site of dwelling, rather than something that might itself dwell), it means it too may be interpreted as a character. Perhaps then it is the city that is the true protagonist of the novel. The phase we have entered is thus a time of false pride on the part of that protagonist; "he" thinks himself almighty, untouchable, but cannot indefinitely disregard to the wounds festering beneath the surface.

Those wounds are close to Dos Passos's heart, and by extension Jimmy's. Oglethorpe refers to Herf as a "bolshevik pacifist," and Jimmy finally quits his newspaper job in a later chapter, calling off professional life and participation in the capitalist apparatus for a time. The political convictions these labels refer to involve, in this case, the great chasms of wealth that exist in New York. Dos Passos depicts what amounts to a return to feudalism, with the lords dwelling high up in their skyscraper-castles, looking down over the huddled masses of the poor and "undesirable." One of the great tragic moments in Manhattan Transfer is the deportation of the "Reds" - a brief moment which lasts only a few paragraphs, but which resonates in the mind, especially due to the young girl beginning to sing the "Internationale" and being abruptly quieted. Bolshevism, Dos Passos seems to suggest, though it may be flawed, at least casts light on the inequities of American urban life in a way the flag-waving capitalist system simply cannot. Though Dos Passos later rejected his leftist leanings and turned against communism, at the time he wrote this novel he was still very much an idealist, somewhat under the sway of East Coast American intellectuals and fellow writers such as Ernest Hemingway. In New York he saw a den of inequality - the rush of modernity coexisting with a near-medieval social apparatus that ruthlessly pitted rich against poor.

Consider Dutch Robertson's desperation. Unable to carve out a life with his girlfriend Francie, despite his war veteran status, Dutch finally reads of a hold-up in a paper and decides to follow a similar course of action. We can hardly blame him for turning to crime. As Dos Passos portrays it, the city forces Dutch to that decision. Even seemingly insignificant vignettes, such as Elmer and Anna in the ice cream shop, resonate with the larger social conflict. "Cant you see we're in the middle of a battle just like in the war?" Elmer asks Anna.

Therein lies the true problem - and the veritable tragedy that New York has fallen prey to. The victory of World War I is a hollow one. The streets are crowded for a time with revelers: but what exactly are they celebrating? Soon enough, things return to normal, and the idealists realize that nothing was gained. The poor are still poor; workers are still oppressed; jobs are still scarce. Even the homecoming soldiers do not receive what was promised to them. The return to the status quo (underlined by the cyclical connotation of the chapter title "Revolving Doors," just as the "grand illusion" of World War I and the ensuing Jazz Age finds a convenient metaphor in the title "Nickelodeon") is particularly painful for some, and Gus McNeil is finally forced to confide to Joe O'Keefe that "the people of this country are pretty well fed up with war heroes." In short, the rejoicing is fleeting, but the "carelessness" is far longer-lasting. Aside from Dutch's transition to crime, we witness Jake Silverman's downfall for fraud and George Baldwin's decision to run for office after all - but on a reform ticket. The city needs change, and flag-waving is not the answer.