Manhattan Transfer

Manhattan Transfer Summary and Analysis of Second Section, Chs. IV-VI



Ellen is walking through Central Park with Harry Goldweiser, who confesses her love to her: "You cant understand how lonely a man gets when year after year he's had to crush his feelings down into himself." Ellen is fairly unresponsive. The two decide to go to Coney Island together.

Gus McNeil, now a wealthy man "with a heavy watchchain in his vest," sits in Baldwin's office. The lawyer advises Gus stay clear of the impending Contractors and Builders Association lockout and the union strike. Gus has apparently been dabbling in politics, and has encountered some difficulties with a certain Judge Connor, a Republican from Albany. Baldwin tells Gus that it is imperative to keep the papers out, to avoid publicity: "[Otherwise] you'll have all the reformers on your heels." When Gus asks Baldwin to actively intercede on his behalf, George responds: "I'm a lawyer and not a politician."

Joe O'Keefe, a young man in a straw hat and likewise involved in the strike, leaves Baldwin's office and meets up with Joe Harland outside. "Here I've got myself all in deep in this political game and there dont seem to be no future to it," he tells Harland. "God I wish I was educated like you."

Stan accompanies Ellen to her dressing room. He is drunk as usual. Ellen and her assistant Missy put him in the bathtub and the actress runs to the stage to make her entrance. It is a new dramatic role, a big step forward for Ellen's career. Harry Goldweiser explains to her after the show that they "have just got [her] started as an emotional actress." Ellen complains that she hates it, that "it's all false," and that in "a musical show you could be sincere." The situation with Stan nearly comes to a head when Mr. Fallik, a friend of Harry's, asks Ellen if he can use her bathroom - where Stan is still lying in the tub. Milly quickly makes up an excuse about the bathroom being "out of order."

Once Goldweiser and Fallik have left, Ellen and Milly dry Stan off and slip him into a dress (since his own clothes are soaked). They speedily hurry him through the back exit, and Ellen takes a cab with him. "Stan you've got to stop drinking," she tells him. "It's getting beyond a joke."


George Baldwin escorts Ellen to a crowded roadhouse. There they meet the McNeils. Ellen has heard of Gus, has seen his name in the papers associated with the "builders' strike and the Interborough bond issue." World War I has just broken out. A recent father-daughter murder (judged a rape-suicide by the police) has marked the neighborhood. But all Gus can think of is Ellen and his love for her. Seeing Nellie again makes him uneasy, reminds him of their affair. "Think of it I was crazy in love with her and now I cant remember what her first name was," he tells Ellen. He is almost forty years old now and a great success as a lawyer. Yet he is deeply unhappy. He and his wife Cecily have separated, for the time being at least. He pleads to Ellen to let him take care of her. "By gad you are so full of love and mystery and glitter," he says. When he asks her how she feels, she only replies: "George please dont ask me."

Just a few tables over, Jimmy Herf sits with Tony Hunter and others. They discuss the local murder; Grant Bullock, a sailor, insists that the rape-suicide theory is nonsense and that "the Black Hand" is responsible for the crime. "Canarsie's full of the Black Hand, full of anarchists and kidnappers and undesirable citizens," he argues. "It's our business to ferret em out and vindicate the honor of this poor old man and his beloved daughter." The conversation shifts to the war - "I bet the Germans are in Paris in two weeks," one man says - and Bullock takes Jimmy over to talk to "Congo Jake," the roadhouse's French barkeep. It is the same Congo we know from earlier. On the way, Jimmy spots Ellen.

"I dont want to be had by anybody," Ellen tells Baldwin. Meanwhile, Congo and Jimmy converse. Congo explains how he got his name - because of his dark, curly hair - and tells of his voyages as a youth. He says he won't go fight in the war: "A workingman has no country," he argues. He goes on to explain that the war is being fought simply to keep the working class all over the world from starting a revolution. Ellen joins the two men, asks Jimmy to help her get away from Baldwin. Jimmy notes he would like to be a war correspondent, and Ellen replies that she might join the Red Cross as a nurse. When the subject of Stan comes up, Jimmy tells Ellen he wishes she would keep him from drinking so much. "I'm not his keeper," she responds.

Jimmy and Ellen dance, and soon enough Baldwin interrupts them. He grabs Ellen's wrist and snaps at her: "You've been playing with me long enough, do you hear me? Some day some man's going to take a gun and shoot you. You think you can play me like all the other little sniveling fools... You're no better than a common prostitute." He pulls a gun, but Gus McNeil is there to grab it from his hand. The situation is quickly diffused. "No harm done, just a little nervous attack, see?" Gus tells the gathering crowd.

Jimmy hails Ellen a taxi, and before taking it the two of them take a short walk to the "murder cottage" - where the old man and his daughter were found dead. Ellen asks Jimmy if he has seen Stan. He has not. They return to the cab and Ellen asks to be alone.

Jimmy leaves the roadhouse, accompanied by Tony Hunter, who has troubles of his own. "I thought you were like me," Tony tells Jimmy. He confesses his homosexuality. "I'm so ashamed," he cries. "I'm so afraid people will find out about it." He finally says he would like to kill himself. Jimmy halfheartedly tries to comfort him. "They're lots of people in the same boat," he notes.


Joe O'Keefe takes Joe Harland to his home. He too was at the roadhouse the night before - he was there "to take a message to the chief about somebody tippin him off that they were going to close the market" - and he excitedly tells Harland about Baldwin's uproar. The two men discuss the war: "I dont see how this can last long," Harland says. O'Keefe then introduces him to his kid brother Mike. Moments later, "a small grayhaired woman" appears. She turns on Harland and tells him to leave: "I dont allow no drunken bums in my house." Harland does as told, muttering to himself as he leaves: "Charwoman."

Ellen finally sees Stan Emery again, in a nightclub where she is seated with Harry Goldweiser. He has returned from "the most exordinately spectacular trip" up to Montreal and "back through Niagara Falls." He introduces a girl named Pearline to her. "We got so tight in Niagara Falls that when we came to we found we were married," he explains. All Ellen can do is say, "Good night Stan."

Jimmy happens upon Joe Harland at "the end of Manhattan," looking at photogravures in a Sunday paper while a steamer passes in front of the statue of Liberty. "You're Lily Herf's boy," Joe says, and Jimmy likewise recognizes him. The two men share a cigarette. Jimmy tells Joe of his job as a reporter for the Times, and how sick he is of it. "You'll never get anywhere with that attitude," Joe insists. "Poor dear Lily was so proud of you... She wanted you to be a great man, she was so ambitious for you." Jimmy replies with a laugh: "I didnt say I wasnt ambitious." Later he mentions that he would like to go to the war. Harland asks him for some change, and he and Jimmy go share a cup of coffee. Before they leave, Jimmy notices an image of Ellen in Harland's paper. The text reads: "Talented Young Actress Scores Hit in the Zinnia Girl."


The midpoint of this section is also roughly the midpoint of the novel: the night at the roadhouse. Much as a dramatist like Shakespeare would in the last act of a play, Dos Passos deftly interweaves his various storylines, assembling disparate characters in a single time and setting. The narrative of Emile and Congo reappears and interacts with Jimmy and Ellen's respective arcs - quite literally, in the conversation between Congo, Jimmy, and Ellen. Baldwin meets Nellie McNeil again, reminding us of his days as a young, struggling lawyer. Joe O'Keefe makes an appearance, recalling the workers' problems that are accumulating; Gus also stands in as a token of the political machine that surrounds all the characters. Tony Hunter finally emerges as a character in his own right, illuminating yet another social problem: homophobia. Stan is missing, and yet nearly present through the repeated references to his name and person; Ellen asks Jimmy twice where he is, and twice Jimmy replies that he doesn't know.

At the same time, hovering above these individual lines of action and emotion, a cataclysmic event has been introduced: World War I. When Jimmy and Ellen talk, seemingly in a joking manner at first, of joining the fight in Europe, Dos Passos establishes a premise which will later be paid off, when the two characters do indeed head off to the Continent, Jimmy fulfilling a dream of sorts and Ellen disposing with hers - essentially replacing the outfit of princess of New York, of which she has grown so tired, with that of a Red Cross nurse, close to the soil, to the carnage, to life itself rather than its fantastical reproduction on a stage. Of course, Dos Passos is drawing from his own life experiences here. He too participated in World War I, driving ambulances in France and Italy. And, just like Jimmy, he too lost his mother at a young age. It should be noted that while the roadhouse chapter might be characterized by its very multiplicity of perspectives, Jimmy and Ellen do emerge as the two prime locus points of the scene's narrative: Jimmy as Dos Passos's alter-ego, and Ellen as the love of his life.

Another point worth mentioning is that "Went to the Animals' Fair" is the only chapter of the novel to respect the unity of time and place. While Ellen is seriously considering quitting the stage, Dos Passos's writing for once fits the mold of traditional dramaturgy, telling a story that is confined to a single space and its environs, and to a single night. No extraneous vignettes feature in the chapter. The "Animals' Fair" of the title may be the roadhouse itself, or it might refer to the absurdities of World War I, looming in the distance but quickly approaching New York and America.

Dos Passos uses symmetry again and again to structure his seemingly unstructured novel. "Fire Engine" and "Five Statutory Questions" are both of roughly equal length, and serve as a sort of frame to the roadhouse scene. In these two chapters, the vignette-based technique is in operation, but "Fire Engine" begins and ends with Ellen, just as "Five Statutory Questions" opens and closes with Joe Harland. If one counts the opening, italicized passage of prose-poetry that precedes "Five Statutory Questions" (a passage of similar form opens each chapter of the novel), then the chapter contains five separate sections of vignettes, just as its title might suggest.

Dos Passos closes the chapter with another fateful crossing of gazes: this time between Jimmy and a photograph of Ellen. Though the photo is by definition static, Dos Passos imbues it with movement through his writing -- as if this moment were just another permutation of the wordless encounters that populate the novel and characterize the city. "A face made out of modulated brown blurs," he writes. Again, color features prominently, and again the unity of the face or body is fragmented. The fragmentation gives way to abstraction, so that in essence Jimmy is starting at "modulated brown blurs," fluctuating bits of color that do not so much define a whole as exist on their own -- indefinable pieces of the city. The paper is itself in motion: it falls from Harland's hand; Jimmy picks it up; then he too drops it. But the paper becomes Ellen; when Dos Passos writes, "she fell face down," he is referring simultaneously to the actress, her image, and the material upon which that image is printed.

This doubling of identities reminds the reader of the city as a whole: faces peering out of windows might as well be faces stuck in photographs, framed by the contours of the image; just as those faces are carried along through subways and trains and taxicabs and riding white horses, so too does Ellen travel through the air on Harland's paper -- her own "white horse" as one would have it. What is important to recognize is that Dos Passos is sublimating romantic desire into the gaze, and extrapolating out of that gaze a vision of city life -- constantly in motion, constantly in flux, where years can flicker by in an instant and a single suspended moment can hang in time indefinitely.