Manhattan Transfer

Manhattan Transfer Dos Passos's Style: The Filmic in Prose

Manhattan Transfer is characterized by a multiplicity of perspectives. Though certain characters do appear more frequently than others, Dos Passos suggests that everyone is equally important. His is a novel more in the vein of the "democratic" structures of nineteenth-century English literature than the highly individualized novel of consciousness that emerged with Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce.

And yet, Joyce and Woolf do exert a great deal of influence on Dos Passos's writing; and there is something decidedly "twentieth-century" about the style of Manhattan Transfer. The city is viewed as a deconstructed (to borrow a later term) totality, fragmented into various angles and vantage points like a Cubist painting -- or like a film. Glimpses form a collective gaze, and in this sense Dos Passos is following in the footsteps of some of the avant-garde urban portrait films of his era, most obviously Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand's Manhatta (1921), as well as anticipating the techniques expounded by the great "city symphony" films of the 1920's, particularly Vertov's monumental Man With a Movie Camera (1929) and Walter Ruttman's no less significant Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). That films provide the benchmark for analyzing Dos Passos's style is itself significant. The writer's reliance on visual imagery and famed skipping of transitions suggest the shots and jump cuts of cinema; his insistence on remaining on the outside of a given event, such as the young man's talk with his sweetheart in this chapter, withholding certain key details - such as the man's name - lend the writing a kind of off-the-cuff documentary flavor, more reminiscent of the immediacy of filmmaking than the careful process and labored psychology of literature (or what it had become in the nineteenth century).

A closer look at the aforementioned scene offers some insights into Dos Passos's stylistic choices. Rather than intervening via an all-knowing narrator, Dos Passos relies on what can be seen and heard, not on what backstory the characters may bring to the moment. Emily is simply "a girl in a flowered bonnet" until we "hear" her boyfriend call her by her name. We have no real sense of the boy's inner reaction to her aloofness until he says: "God! I hate her. I hate her." The one glimmer of interiority Dos Passos offers us remains restricted to the purely physical: "the tears that were hot in his eyes," a piece of information which could not be deduced by observation alone.

Aside from that one instance, Dos Passos adopts and maintains a strictly observational stance in this scene, one which relegates the characters' interaction to the immediacy (and therefore ephemerality) of the "moment." The very brevity of such a vignette helps underline this approach: these are fly-on-the-wall snapshots of a metropolis, and we have no guarantee we will ever see this boy and girl ever again. The format recalls the one-shot, thirty-second films of teens (the decade during which the events of "Metropolis" seem to transpire), and indeed Dos Passos calls a later chapter "Nickelodoen."

To take another example, as "Dollars" opens we are introduced to George Baldwin, who will become one of the novel's recurrent characters (perhaps the most important individual in the book next to Ellen and Jimmy). He is at this time an ambitious but frustrated young lawyer, and, as usual, before entering his psyche Dos Passos presents Baldwin as if he were merely an image captured by a camera or a wandering eye: "A leanfaced young man with steel eyes and a thin high-bridged nose sat back in a swivel chair with his feet on his new mahogany-finish desk." Only three sentences later, Baldwin's thoughts have become incorporated into the prose, without even the separation of quotation marks: "Damn it I dont care." This sudden shift is indicative of Dos Passos's restless energy as a stylist: the objective and the subjective, the macro and the micro continually collide and interact in his prose; both the city and the characters who inhabit it are constantly in flux, grasped here and there from different vantage points.

The aforementioned "jump cut" in a Dos Passos passage involves a bridging of a time/space gap without use of paragraph indentation or time markers. In this case, Baldwin's journey to the chophouse on Maiden Lane is remarkably condensed. Consider the following sentence: "He straightened his vest and brushed some flecks off his shoes with a handkerchief, then, contracting his face into an expression of intense preoccupation, he hurried out of his office, trotted down the stairs and out onto Maiden Lane. In front of the chophouse he saw the headline..." The act of straightening the vest occupies more "page space," as one might put it, than that of exiting the office and walking to the eatery. From the syntax, one might even surmise that the contracting of Baldwin's face lasts the entire duration of his journey out of the office. Finally, the actual transition from "out onto Maiden Lane" to "the chophouse" is simply skipped; the period that separates the two sentences operates much as a cut does in a film, rupturing the temporal and spatial continuum and implying an absence - thereby rendering the invisible visible, so to speak. What is most important in this brief passage is the democratization of the language, and the subtle subjectivity imposed on everyday actions; the brushing off of a vest is not so much separated from the physical journey through space as blended into it, forming an organic whole indicative of being. Less emphasis is placed on the most dramatic element of the scene - Baldwin exiting into the open air and the bustle of the city - than on the seemingly mundane circumstances that surround and inform it - namely, the vest, the contracting of the face, etc. Dos Passos takes a moment of everyday existence and magnifies certain portions of it within a single unity - i.e. the sentence. Thus, his technique here is a strange and unsettling mixture of Woolf's immediacy, the "jump cut," and the roving camera in cinema (already a notable phenomenon in the work of F. W. Murnau, whose experiments paved the way for the democratization of the frame via Renoir and Welles).

Returning to the narrative, Dos Passos quickly follows his foray into subjective technique with an act of "the author" - that is to say, a reminder of the larger world which the author has established. New York is Dos Passos's canvas, and with Baldwin's discovery of Gus McNeil's accident in the paper, the novelist provides his first overt criss-crossing of storylines: Baldwin and McNeil are now linked, and Nellie, before we even meet her, is implicitly established as the problematic linchpin. Just as Gus's accident is "re-viewed," to a certain extent, through Baldwin's eyes, via the article in the paper, so is Nellie's beauty refracted through a variety of lenses. It is worth recalling Gus's dialogue with the bartender at the end of "Metropolis." "She's a real sweet girl Nellie is," says the latter. "Those little spitcurls o hers'd drive a feller crazy."

Well, drive "a feller" crazy is exactly what they do in the following chapter. Their target: the hapless George Baldwin. The first description of Nellie notes her "wavy redbrown hair" and "little flat curls." We are seeing her through Baldwin's eyes, and apparently the lawyer shares the same impression as the bartender: Nellie's beauty is immediately evident, but is most pronounced in the color and form of her hair. Dos Passos's emphasis on color informs the following passage, describing Baldwin's return from Nellie's apartment, and positing the white of snow as a lyrical answer to the red of her hair, of his cheeks, and of his blood:

"Baldwin staggered dizzily down the stairs. His head was full of blood. The most beautiful girl I've ever seen in my life. Outside it had begun to snow. The snowflakes were cold furtive caresses to his hot cheeks."