Manhattan Transfer

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



More time has passed. Jimmy Herf, now on his own and a budding journalist, goes to see an older woman with whom he has a relationship in her apartment building. She is an aspiring but out-of-work actress named Ruth Prynne. Jimmy has grown into a fast talker, a witty skeptic, and he fires off the following line to Ruth: "The sun's shining outside and people are coming out of church and going home to overeat and read at their Sunday papers among the rubberplants."

Cassandra Wilkins, a neighbor whom Jimmy refers to as "funny-looking," is folding sheets off a cot in the hall. "Ruth does nothing but talk about you," she eagerly tells Jimmy. At that moment, a "crookednosed man" with red hair opens his door: it is Mr. Oglethorpe. His wife Elaine calls from inside her room for those outside to quiet down. Jimmy also catches a glimpse of Mrs. Sunderland, the oldest lady of the lot, going into the bathroom. He hurries Ruth out of the building, complaining to her that "that place gives [him] the infernal jimjams" and noting that Elaine - "that lovely girl with copper hair," as he describes her, and our very own Ellen Thatcher - is too beautiful to be married to the likes of "the Ogle." Ruth notes that Elaine has "made kind of a hit in Peach Blossoms" and that she has talent as an actress.

Ellen walks through the city. She watches a girl with "chestnut hair" in a green Dolly Varten hat ride slowly by on a white horse, over a saddlecloth embroidered with the word: "Danderine." She finally arrives at the Brevoort, there to lunch with George Baldwin. She explains to him that for once she has had the whole day free, and that she has spent it walking through the Park from 105th Street to 59th. George makes a sneering remark about Ellen's husband - whom she refers to as Jojo - and she snaps back at him. "For better or worse he is my husband, till divorce do us part," she says. It is very quickly evident that George and Ellen are having an affair.

Stanwood Emery, a rebellious college boy - "all he does is drink and raise Cain," Baldwin notes of him - and the son of the senior partner in Baldwin's firm, arrives at the table. George introduces him to Ellen, and Stand mentions that he saw her perform onstage the night before. Soon afterwards, John Oglethorpe himself - the same John, we might assume, who accompanied Ellen to Atlantic City years ago - appears.

When Ellen departs, leaving Baldwin frustrated, his offer to take her to the theater rejected, she runs into Stan outside of the restaurant. He has waited around to see her come out, and implores her to allow him to escort her someplace in his Ford. She readily agrees, noting that "it's nice to meet somebody humanly young." In the car, the two new acquaintances pass by the girl on the white horse.


Joe Harland types away at an office, nervous he is about to be fired. Then he wanders about the Battery, thinking: "A fine mess you've made of your life Joseph Harland. Forty-five and no friends and not a cent to bless yourself with." He heads to a bar and regales fellow customers with his sorry life story. The "Wizard of Wall Street" he was once called. For ten years he traded on margins, covered on stocks he knew little of, and always made money; according to him, the secret of his luck was "a blue silk crocheted necktie" his mother had given him. Whenever he wore it, he did well in the stocks; whenever he didn't, his luck failed him. As it so happened, he fell in love with a girl, gave her the necktie to prove his devotion, only to have her sniff at it as old and worn out and throw it to the fire.

A messenger boy breaks into an apartment, only to be caught by a gun-toting Ellen, Stan standing behind her. Laughing at the young burglar in a Western Union outfit - "it's only hunger made me take to it," he explains - Stan and Ellen give him a dollarbill and send him on his way. We follow the boy home...

Stan and Ellen go out to grab a drink. They are deeply in love - but Ellen stands by her husband nonetheless. "He's just a peculiar very unhappy person," she says. When she returns home, soaring on feelings of romance and of her rising star on Broadway, she suddenly feels "sick disgust" as she pushes the key into the lock and opens the door to her husband's apartment.

Ruth Prynne tells Jimmy Herf a wild story. Apparently, a few nights ago at Mrs. Sunderland's apartment building - or "the Balkans" as Jimmy calls the place - John Oglethorpe was having a furious row with his wife, brandishing a revolver in her direction and yelling, "Disarm me or I shall kill this woman." Tony Hunter, another actor and a known homosexual who was present at the occasion, managed to grab the gun. Ellen went back to her bedroom as if she had just given a performance. John banged on her door, but got no answer. Finally he went to Tony's room and asked the young man: "Can a broken man crave asylum in your room for the night[?]" The two spent the night together. Meanwhile, Miss Costello, the landlady, insisted that the Oglethorpes leave the building at dawn.

Joe Harland is talking to himself. He has asked the Merivales - Jimmy's Aunt Emily and Uncle Jeff - for money, but has been refused. "Emily'd have given it to me if it hadn't been for that damned old tightwad," he figures. "Lord knows they used to eat out of my hand in the old days." His landlady Mrs. Budkowitz demands he pay the rent, which is now three weeks late. Joe steps outside, goes to a nearby store and asks his friend Felsius, the storeman, for a loan. Again, he is refused.

Cassandra Wilkins and Morris McAvoy, her beau, exit a movie theater. He treats her disdainfully, lamenting his poverty: "Goddam it's hell to be broke," he says. Cassie insists he will get a good job, but he finds it hard to agree: "I'm not so young as I was Cassie. I aint got any time to lose." For her part, Cassie wants to dance - but not for the money. "Once you got money you can do what you like," Morris argues. "I want money."

Cassie tells Ellen she has broken it off with Morris, who was furious because she wouldn't live with him. She seems to believe with all her heart in pure love, untainted and eternally innocent. Ellen, meanwhile, is making a getaway from Oglethorpe. She packs up her things, has a cab wait for her outside, and orders Cassie not to tell "Jojo" where she is.


Phil Sandbourne argues with colleagues about Stanford White's murder. "A man's morals arent anybody's business. It's his work that counts." So begins the chapter. Moments after he utters these words, Phil, who is walking east along 34th and crossing Fifth Avenue, spots a girl in a taxicab: "From under the black brim of a little hat with a red cockade in it two gray eyes flash green black into his." Phil is mesmerized and doesn't see a vehicle run into his direction. He survives the crash and is whisked away in an ambulance.

Stan, back from Harvard, pays a visit to his friend Jimmy Herf. He asks him if he has any liquor to spare. Later that morning he mentions that he has been "fired from college." We learn that Jimmy graduated from Columbia - not Princeton or Yale, as Uncle Jeff would have preferred. Stan asks Jimmy how Ruth is doing. "She's all right," is the reply. "She hasnt got a job yet." "Why the hell does everyone want to succeed?" Stan demands. "I'd like to meet somebody who wanted to fail. That's the only sublime thing." Jimmy responds that it's "all right if you have a comfortable income."

The two friends drink absinthe together, and Jimmy speaks of moving out to Mexico, getting away from it all. Stan takes him to another café to meet Ellen - only to find her seated next to her husband. Ellen seems to think nothing of it, and only says to John: "Isnt that wonderful Jojo?" Jimmy, for his part, is immediately smitten by the sight of Ellen, with her "coppery hair" and "bright blue dress." Oglethorpe leaves and Ellen requests that Jimmy keep her company for a while. Stammering, blushing, the young man acquiesces.

Harry Goldweiser, an older friend of Ellen's and something of a professional consultant to her, speaks with her about her career. He asks her how she likes "being a nine days' wonder." She doesn't know how to respond.

Baldwin eats breakfast with his estranged wife Cecily, who demands that their marriage end. The headlines in the paper stare out at George: "ASSASSINATION OF ARCHUDUKE WILL HAVE GRAVE CONSEQUENCES. AUSTRIAN ARMY MOBILIZED." World War I has just begun. Baldwin implores his wife to be reasonable, insists that "Mrs. Oglethorpe" is merely a friend, and that his days of infidelity are long gone. Finally, he concedes that a divorce would be harmful to his professional situation, but that if she insists on no longer living with him he will see what he can arrange.

Ellen is dressing up her new room, beginning her life away from her husband. "The first place of my own I ever had in my life," she calls the apartment, and what is more Oglethorpe will let her divorce him if she so wishes. Cassandra pays her a visit, and tells her she thinks she is pregnant. "I wanted our love to be always pure and beautiful," she says, "but he said he'd never see me again if I didn't..." Ellen tries her best to console her. Cassie refuses to marry, and Ellen advises that she go to a doctor.

Joe Harland notices a newspaper headline: "CONTRACTORS PLAN LOCKOUT TO ANSWER BUILDERS' STRIKE." He is now working as night watchman, and when a young man approaches him about joining the "solid front against this here lockout sitooation," Joe refuses. "This is the first decent job I've had in five years," he explains.

Jimmy reads Jean Christophe and complains to Stan that they live in a country where "nobody ever does anything." Later that night, when Jimmy is lying alone in bed, Ellen slips into his room, pleading that she cannot see her husband "when he's in that condition." Jimmy takes a look and sees that, from outside the window of Stan's room, John Oglethorpe is yelling and calling Ellen a "slut." "My blood will be on your head Elaine forever," he rails.

Ellen visits her father, who has been reading of Stanwood Emery's hedonistic exploits with "a certain charming young actress whose career is fast approaching stellar magnitude" in the paper. Ed asks Ellen to take a vacation with him, but she says she must look for a job, now that the show is going on the road. She explains that she is divorcing John Oglethorpe, and that George Baldwin - "a friend of mine," she calls him - "is going to run it through."


One of the key moments of this section, and indeed the whole novel, is Phil Sandbourne's catching the gaze of the girl in the cab. Never do we know her name. The only description we ever read of her treats her as if she were herself a collection of fragments: "From under the black brim of a little hat with a red cockade in it two gray eyes flash green black into his." Consider the progression of colors: black to red to gray to green to black again. When the crash comes, Phil sees Fifth Avenue spinning "in red blue purple spirals," while "blue pillars of policemen" rush to the scene.

An event is reduced to moments, which are in turn reduced to fragments, which are in turn reduced to colors: all is abstracted in Dos Passos's rendering of the scene. A whole life transpires between Phil's fleeting glance into the girl's eyes, and yet the language itself offers us only a set of colors: black, red, gray, green, purple, and blue. The girl in the cab, for her part, recalls the nameless girl on the horse two chapters earlier; she too was described by her color scheme - green and white. While the horse-mounted apparition fed into Ellen's fantasies of aristocracy, of New York her enchanted kingdom and eternal playground, the girl in the cab feels baser, closer to the muck and grime of the earth, by virtue of her mode of transport and the wreckage it inadvertently helps cause. Just as Stanford White, who Phil extols in the opening of "Nine Days' Wonder," a mere page before his fateful encounter, was murdered because of a chorus girl (dating this scene of the novel to 1906), so does Phil's near death come about because of the opposite sex. The danger of attraction in the modern urban environment is underlined in this connection; no sooner has Phil praised White's architecture than he falls silent at the sight of the passing girl whose name he will never know. History gives way to the moment; one has the sense that seeing that girl may prove to be the most meaningful thing to ever happen to Mr. Sandbourne.

One is also reminded of the famous speech in Citizen Kane, in which Kane's former colleague, now an old man, tells the reporter of a girl in a white dress he saw on a boat years ago. The encounter lasted a second; he never learned her name; he never saw her again. And yet, year after year, his memory drifts back once or twice a month to the vision of the girl. Embedded within the baroque grandiosity of Kane, that simple account rings with particular clarity; in a film so devoted to a larger-than-life figure, to both American and film history, to the very idea of America, the story of the girl on the boat lingers in the mind like a haunting melody. Like Welles, Dos Passos is an artist of excess; it is within the grand, teetering structure of his opus that he plants the chance "meeting" of a marginal character and a nameless one. That chance meeting seems, in turn, to inform the work as a whole with meaning. It is a testament to the sadness and risks of the city, but more important its precipitous joys. Where else but in the bustling metropolis would a wordless encounter like this be possible? People are sped along at the speed of bullets, but for a fleeing second they lock eyes, and that second lasts an eternity. If Manhattan Transfer is prose, Phil Sandbourne's suspended moment of romantic yearning, of genuine human connection, is crystallized into poetry. "Her lips are pouting towards him, her eyes flutter gray caught birds."

It is also worth mentioning, of course, that the 1906 marking of this scene is something of a surprise - and an indication of Dos Passos's larger tactic. Just a few pages later, when we find George Baldwin at breakfast with his wife, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated and World War I is about to begin. The year is therefore 1914. Not content to merely jump back and forth in space, stitching homes and neighborhoods of the city together like a patchwork quilt, Dos Passos mixes time, playing with it as if it were clay in his hands. A microcosm of this practice can be found in the aforementioned "jump cut," where a significant period of time is condensed into a single sentence, or phrase, or comma. Here, the technique plays out on a larger stage - whole years dissolving in the space of a paragraph break. The result is that we never know exactly when we are. We must become attuned to the news clippings and advertisement slogans and popular ditties and fashion trends Dos Passos enumerates in his exhaustive and whirlwind descriptions; those fragments of society and of the city provide, just like the headline Baldwin reads, the narrative's only bearings.

At the same time, one should note that the number of one-paragraph vignettes has decreased by this point in the novel. The kaleidoscopic vision of earlier pages has by and large given way to a more grounded and, yes, conventional structure. Ellen and Jimmy appear and reappear - and then finally meet. It is clear from the description of their first encounter that Jimmy has feelings for the woman; and one would not be wrong to guess that those two characters have not seen the last of each other...