Dos Passos was the most experimental of the major novelists of what critics now refer to as the period of “high modernism,” which lasted roughly from 1910 until 1940. His great contemporaries in the American novel, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner, all concentrated on writing about specific areas or groups. Hemingway, during the 1920’s, wrote mostly about expatriate Americans living in Europe and about such upper-class sports as big-game hunting and bullfighting. Fitzgerald, too, wrote about expatriates but also about bored flappers and socialites, upper-class young people with too much money and too little to do. Faulkner, while using such experimental techniques as stream of consciousness, focused all of his attention on the Deep South, especially his native corner of northern Mississippi.
Dos Passos was looking for techniques that would enable him to portray the wide range of characters and economic situations to be found in American society. He was also looking for a style that would reflect the fast pace of modern life and the actual speech of its people. Even as early as Three Soldiers he was engaged in this pursuit, choosing as his principal characters a farm boy from Indiana, an aesthete from the East Coast, and an Italian working-class man from San Francisco and making no attempt to combine their stories, except to make clear that all were destroyed by the machinelike nature of the modern Army.
Dos Passos’s experimentation took a major step forward in Manhattan Transfer, which also brought him wide public attention. He attempted to create a cross-section of urban life in the United States by introducing a wide range of characters. While much of the book’s attention is devoted to a young newspaper reporter and a young woman who becomes an actress, depictions are also given of a young man from a farm who cannot find work, who becomes homeless and eventually dies, either accidentally or by suicide; a French immigrant who makes himself something of a success by marrying a widow who owns a delicatessen; a man who had once been a rich Wall Street investor but whose luck went bad and who sinks to the lowest levels of society; a war veteran who turns to crime; and a milkman who is injured in an accident and uses the settlement as a springboard to a successful political career.
Each chapter in Manhattan Transfer is introduced by a brief section of impressionistic prose about some aspect of New York City and its life, which will appear in that chapter. For example, where a couple of the characters are to find their way to the waterfront and others are to arrive by ship in New York harbor, the opening segment depicts the shoreline and the dirty waters of New York Bay. In each chapter, as it proceeds, episodes in the lives of several of the characters are described, with occasional brief references to individuals who are mentioned only a single time. The intention is to produce a kaleidoscopic effect, a novel that will give the reader a vivid impression of what it is to live in a city as bustling and energetic and squalid as New York.
Dos Passos’s most radical experiments are the techniques used in U.S.A. The prose style makes frequent use of a device he used sparingly in Manhattan Transfer, that of run-together words. The narrative segments move rapidly, with little attention to extended depictions of characters; the “Camera Eye” segments are more relaxed, and the “Newsreel” collages are jagged and sometimes almost incoherent as they skip from subject to subject.
In the novels that compose this trilogy, Dos Passos interweaves the stories of eleven major figures from various parts of the United States and various economic and social levels. Along with these narratives, three very different devices are employed. One is the “Newsreel,” a collage of headlines from newspapers, brief stories of violence or betrayal, snatches of popular songs of the time, and quotations from public officials and from government reports. The second is the “Camera Eye,” impressionistic pictures in vivid prose from the perspective of a single individual responding to the events of the times. The third consists of portraits of important historical figures of the time, from the industrialist Henry Ford and the financier J. Pierpont Morgan to the Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs and the economist Thorstein Veblen. Dos Passos’s views about politics and economics are most clearly suggested in these portraits.
First published: 1925
Type of work: Novel
Characters from all walks of life struggle with the tensions and pressures of life in New York City.
Dos Passos, in Manhattan Transfer, tried to show what life was like between the last years of the nineteenth century and the early 1920’s for a wide variety of people living in the largest of American cities, New York. At the center of the action are two characters, Ellen Thatcher, whose birth occurs in the novel’s opening pages, and Jimmy Herf, who is first seen as a young boy. Ellen’s background is lower middle class; her father is an unsuccessful accountant, her mother an invalid who dies while Ellen is still a child. Jimmy’s background is more wealthy, but his father is dead and his mother dies after a series of strokes. Instead of Yale or Harvard, he goes to Columbia University.
In the course of the novel, Ellen becomes a minor star in the theater and marries an actor who, it is revealed, is homosexual. She divorces him, and after a frustrating affair with a rich young alcoholic, she goes abroad with the Red Cross during World War I and meets Jimmy, whom she had known in New York. He has been a newspaper reporter. The two marry and have a son, but eventually they become bored with each other. Ellen has abandoned the theater and becomes a successful magazine editor. When she and Jimmy divorce, she reluctantly agrees to marry a longtime suitor, George Baldwin. Jimmy becomes increasingly restive as a reporter, and at the end he quits his job and sets out to see the rest of America.
This thin plot is only a means for holding the novel together while Dos Passos provides glimpses of a number of very different lives. A few of these are from upper levels of society. Jimmy’s aunt and her husband live well, and their son, James Merivale, becomes an officer in the war and then a stuffed-shirt banker. Phineas T. Blackhead and his partner, Densch, run an export-import business which seems very successful until the end of the novel, when it goes bankrupt.
A few characters represent the lower depths of society. Bud Korpenning is a young farm boy who comes to the city after stealing his father’s savings. He never finds a permanent job, drifting from handout to handout and eventually becoming a Bowery bum before falling, perhaps deliberately, from the Brooklyn Bridge. Anna Cohen, a poor Jewish girl, makes a meager living as a seamstress until she joins a strike against intolerable conditions and loses her job. She takes a job in a dress store and, dreaming of something better, is horribly burned in a fire. Dutch Robertson, a war veteran, and his girlfriend, Francie, are barely surviving until he begins robbing stores. She joins him and is romanticized by the press as a “flapper bandit.” They are caught when she gives birth to their baby.
Most of the characters, however, belong at some level of the middle class; a few of them rise. Gus McNiel is a milkman who negligently allows his cart to be hit by a train and is injured. An ambulance-chasing lawyer named George Baldwin sues, seduces McNiel’s wife, Nellie, and wins a large settlement for McNiel. The money is the springboard that launches McNiel on a successful...
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