Manhattan Transfer

Manhattan Transfer Study Guide

Manhattan Transfer is a seminal American novel, and yet it is not widely read. John Dos Passos is perenially overlooked in the literary canon in favor of his contemporaries Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Dos Passos was friends with Hemingway and, for a time, a political compatriot; his writing, in turn, has much in common with Fitzgerald's exuberant prose, particularly in its treatment of color and smell and its focus on the surfaces of modern life -- the popular songs, the posters, the pin-ups, the ads, the trends. Yet, for whatever reason, Dos Passos has never achieved the kind of far-reaching popular awareness and critical acclaim Hemingway and Fitzgerald have.

Though best known for his U.S.A. trilogy, Dos Passos's first masterpiece, and the novel which sealed his reputation, is Manhattan Transfer. As a result of this work, Sinclair Lewis and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others, lavished praise on Dos Passos. Sartre even went so far as to proclaim him, in the 1930s, the greatest writer of the era. Manhattan Transfer's vignettes, its tapestry of a narrative, its insistently nonlinear structure, and its juxtaposition of prose and poetic forms, proved hugely influential. Though it met with mixed reviews when published in November 1925 by Harper & Brothers, Lewis declared Manhattan Transfer "the foundation of a whole new school of novel-writing" (Ludington, 847).

Indeed, though the influences of Joyce, Cendrars, Flaubert, Zola, Baudelaire, and Eliot on Dos Passos were evident, nothing quite like Manhattan Transfer -- a novel which attempts to do the impossible, that is encompass an entire city and an entire era -- had ever been seen. The breadth of its vision and the depth of its concerns distinguish it, along with Dos Passos's jazz-inspired writing style. Along with U.S.A. it was one of the milestones of Dos Passos's lengthy and illustrious career, and it is one of the landmarks of American fiction.