Perhaps more than anything else, Manhattan Transfer can be read as a fervent critique -- and, in places, denunciation -- of American capitalism. Though Dos Passos would later renege on the more radical implications of this novel, and many of his other works of the time, in 1925 he was a full-fledged leftist, and here he lets out a cry of anger. From Blackhead's corruption to Gus McNeil's turning his back on the class of which he was once a part; from Bud Korpenning's inability to carve out a life for himself to Stan's demise under the pressure of too much wealth; from returning soldier Dutch Robertson's twenty years in prison for stealing money to Ed Thatcher's shattered hopes of reaching beyong what he perceives as his lower middle-class mediocrity, Dos Passos's novel is replete with examples of capitalism's excesses, crimes, and oversights -- so much so that when Jimmy Herf finally calls it quits to his job and New York, one is likely to agree with his decision.
Most of the characters in the novel are searching, in one way or another, for love. In this respect, Ellen floats through the narrative, the object of desire of so many men, like a Hollywood screen siren -- seemingly untouchable, statuesque, yet troubled and insecure within. She drives Goldweiser to offer her a career, Baldwin to pull out a gun, and Jimmy to pound on her door in desperation. Never does she seem to actively instigate any of this behavior; rather, it is an already existent need for love which finds in Ellen the perfect reflection. There is also Anna Cohen, dreaming of a life with Elmer; Pearline, running to her husband's defense; Florence, reminiscing about a youth spent with Jack; Emile, trying to stoke Madame Rigaud's jealousy so that she will love him; and countless other examples. Dos Passos suggests, through his writing, that what unifies the disparate characters of his vast tapestry is, above all else, a need to love and be loved -- a need which, even for Ellen (who loses her one true love to a deadly fire), is seldom satisfied.
World War I obviously plays a major role in Manhattan Transfer, just as it deeply marked Dos Passos's own life. That said, we remain confined to New York. We never see the carnage of the war firsthand. Nor do we observe the experience of the shellshocked veteran, an experience which Virginia Woolf treats in detail in Mrs. Dalloway, another seminal work in which the Great War looms in the distance. The returning soldiers in Dos Passos's novel are not so much haunted by memories of the war -- indeed, James Merivale makes a habit of calling it "a great war while it lasted" -- as dismayed at their homecoming. Jobs remain scarce; the gap between rich and poor has not been bridged by a war that is often interpreted as having spelt the death-knell for aristocracy. In many ways, New York remains a feudal society, an aristocracy of capitalism, and the war continues -- as Elmer argues to Anna in the ice cream shop. The battle that really matters is not between nations but between classes.
When one considers just how many major historical events are communicated through newspaper headlines in Manhattan Transfer -- such as the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the economic depression following the War (a small panic which helped pave the way for the Great Depression years later) -- it becomes clear that the issue of the press and its role in society is one very important to Dos Passos. Not coincidentally, Jimmy Herf is a journalist himself, one who finds increasing difficulty in publishing his leftist-leaning articles. Newspapers are one of the ways in which characters in the novel and inhabitants of the city are connected: Jimmy sees Ellen's photo in the paper Joe Harland drops and is lost in reverie for a moment; Dutch Robertson reads of a successful hold-up in a journal, while Jimmy later reads of Dutch's arrest in another; James Merivale's narrative meets Phineas Blackhead's when the former reads of the latter's financial scandal. Just as Dos Passos uses words to paint his portrait of New York, the text of the various newspapers -- The Wall Street Journal and The Times figure most prominently -- creates a conglomerate network that connects one moment to another, unifying the characters, historical events, and subplots into a cohesive whole. Language spans time and space in Dos Passos's world, and the printed word offers the means by which the totality of a complex universe can be perceived and perhaps understood.
Two major deaths punctuate Manhattan Transfer, and they are both suicides: Bud's and Stan's. Paired together, these deaths point to a larger tragedy. New York, in its heedless rush toward modernization, leaves scores of victims, casualties of a war without a name -- a war that, in Dos Passos' writing, seems even more devastating than World War I. Stan's death prefigures Anna Cohen's near-fatal accident, just as Uncle Jeff's deadly case of influenza echoes Lily Herf's stroke. One need only point to the numerous instances of tenement buildings set afire, car crashes, and reports of murders to argue that death occupies a central position in Dos Passos's vision of New York -- sometimes hovering in the dark, as the young Ellen and Martin imagine it when alone in their beds at night, and other times leaping into the foreground and claiming yet another victim.
It is not insignificant that so much of Manhattan Transfer deals with the theater and the lives of its performers. Cassandra, Nevada, Ruth, Ellen, and Goldweiser all have ties to the stage. Like journalism, the field itself seems to function as a metaphor for larger societal issues. The way Dos Passos often describes it, New York is a kind of stage, showered with various colors, pools of light and pits of darkness, in which the skyscrapers and bridges often seem more like painted backdrops than edifices of stone. There is indeed a phantasmagoric quality to the writing, rendering the great city a dreamy, fantastical entity -- a wintry kingdom to Ellen's young, vivid imagination and a nightmarish cesspool of crime, poverty, and desperation in later years. The theater is a site of illusions, and thus offers both an escape from and an amplification of the reality of New York.
Dos Passos's narrative spans a considerable stretch of time. Early passages offer glimmers of the pre-twentieth-century city; soon enough, the Gilded Age and the era of the skyscrapers and the movie hall are in full swing; World War I appears on the stage, ushering in Prohibition and the Jazz Age, the time at which Dos Passos wrote the book. History is often compressed into telling moments; in other instances, time is suspended, as when Phil Sandbourne sees the girl in the cab or Jimmy sees Ellen's photo in the paper. Dos Passos bends and plays with time at will, projecting his characters' emotions and his own political convictions onto the fabric of his (hi)story.
The city is a character in itself, perhaps the hero of Dos Passos's novel -- though by necessity a tragic hero. We never leave New York or its environs. World War I occurs offstage; Jimmy and Ellen's marriage is skipped. The novel more or less begins with Bud entering the city. It ends with Jimmy leaving it. The last line, "Pretty far," directs our attention beyond New York's bounds and the end of the narrative, to a world outside the island -- a world which Dos Passos would later exhaustively describe in his great U.S.A. trilogy.
Manhattan Transfer Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Manhattan Transfer is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
This book is one of the best I've ever read, and yes, it is a masterpiece. Dos Passos easily transitions from one section to the next so well that you barely recognize the changing landscape of New York. His descriptions are sometimes...