Thursday, January 14, 2016

Melting Pot Metropolis

Manhattan TransferManhattan Transfer 
by John Dos Passos

"With a long slow stride, limping a little from his blistered feet, Bud walked down Broadway, past empty lots where tin cans glittered among grass and sumach bushes and ragweed, between ranks of billboards and Bull Durham signs, past shanties and abandoned  squatters’ shacks, past gulches heaped with wheelscarred rubbishpiles where dumpcarts were dumping ashes and clinkers, past knobs of gray outcrop where streamdrills continually tapped and nibbled…. “Say mister you couldnt tell a feller where a good place was to look for a job?”      —from Manhattan Transfer

Today is the anniversary of the birth of John Dos Passos.  In his long career he created the massive USA trilogy, but Manhattan Transfer focuses on New York City.  
The ferry-slip. A ferry, and a newborn baby. A young man comes to the metropolis and the story begins. It is a story of that metropolis: "The world's second metropolis." But it is really the latest in a line that extends backward in time to "Nineveh . . Athens . . . Rome . . . Constantinople . ." and others since.

John Dos Passos presents stories of some of the people who call this metropolis, Manhattan, home near the beginning of the twentieth century. The novel is about New Yorkers and their stories -- numerous characters whose commonality is only their status as New Yorkers brought them together, impersonally and randomly. He does so with an engaging style that encompasses the sights, sounds, feelings, and excitement encountered by those who peopled this island metropolis. Each chapter begins with passages comprising observations of city life, newspaper headlines, bits and pieces of dialogue, and phrases from advertisements. All these passages emphasize that "Manhattan Transfer" is a collective novel about the city of New York, about its shallowness, immorality, and grinds of the urban life. The characters' lives only depict some of them.

There are the dreams of new parents whose daughter, Ellen, is born at the opening of the novel. Her life and career will be one of two that span the course of the novel. But there are also young lovers, young men, down-and-outers, immigrants, swells, and others on the make with little but their dreams to keep them going. Some stories are about dreams shattered or those whose lives are stillborn,limited by poverty or lack of vision. The angry rebels are present as well -- those found on the street corner protesting for better treatment, better pay, or mimicking the ideas of radicals and anarchists of the day.

Among the many stories some stand out. One of the most  successful inhabitants of Dos Passos's Manhattan is Congo Jake  starts out as a peglegged sailor and ends up as a wealthy New Yorker with a new name, Armand Duval, an attractive wife and more money than he knows what to do with.  On the other extreme, we encounter Joe Harland, the Wizard of Wall Street, who makes a killing in the stock market and loses it all, but attributes his change of luck to the loss of a crocheted blue silk necktie that his mother had given him when he was a youngster.  Then there is James Merivale who is born to wealth and a prosperous future and the family man Ed Thatcher with his wife and newborn daughter Ellen (mentioned above). There is also the other character whose story will span the novel, Jimmy Herf, whose path will cross that of Ellen. Jimmy Herf works with the "Times" in a job that he finds unfulfilling eventually leaving this job. Jimmy's search for his dream will form another arc that provides a link for all the stories bringing the reader ultimately back to the ferry with which the book began. This arc is not unfamiliar in the sense it is similar to the arc of young Nicholas Rostov in War and Peace and many other young men since.

Dos Passos' style is mesmerizing and fits perfectly with the story he tells. The characters form a mosaic that blends with the sights and sounds of Manhattan to create a world that is alive with all the possibilities, both successes and defeats, that humanity may experience. Upon its publication, Sinclair Lewis seemed to anticipate this development, praising Manhattan Transfer as "a novel of the very first importance" and predicting that it could represent "the foundation of a whole new school of novel-writing."  While British novelist D. H. Lawrence wrote Manhattan Transfer is "the best modern book about New York" because it "becomes what life is, a stream of different things and different faces rushing along in the consciousness, with no apparent direction save that of time".  
The historical references include discussion of the "bonus marchers" of veterans requesting their military bonuses, references to Sarajevo, and other events; all of which provide a background that provides context for these peoples' lives. I found this book an exciting read that gripped my attention and did not let it go. I would highly recommend this modern classic.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

I really do need to read this. Everything about it sounds appealing.

D.H. Lawrence's reaction is interesting. In many ways I see him as an anti - urban, anti modern world thinker. Thus his thoughts on a work like this fascinate me.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. As for D. H. Lawrence I agree with your assessment as to his view about urban vis a vis rural, but I'm not so sure about anti-modern. At least in a literary sense he was in the forefront of modernism.