Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
New York City, perhaps the novel’s main protagonist, is cruel and indifferent to individuals and their hopes. The city is improbably generous to a few, but above all exciting and glamorous.
Ed and Susie Thatcher have their first child, a girl they name Ellen. After the birth of the child, Susie becomes deeply depressed and wants to die. Congo and Emile, two French boys, had come to New York to make their fortunes. Emile marries a widowed Frenchwoman who owns a delicatessen. Congo does not like New York and returns to sea.
Gus McNiel, a milkman, is run over by a train. George Baldwin, a young lawyer, takes Gus’s case against the railroad and obtains a settlement for the injured man. While Gus is in the hospital recovering from the accident, George has an affair with Gus’s wife, Nellie.
Jimmy Herf arrives from Europe with his widowed mother, who is in delicate health. One evening, she has a heart attack; not long afterward, she dies. Jimmy’s rich uncle, Jeff, and aunt, Emily Merivale, become his legal guardians. One evening at their house, Jimmy meets Joe Harland, the drunken black sheep of the family, who had won and lost several fortunes on Wall Street.
Susie Thatcher dies, and Ed works hard for little Ellen. He stays at the office until late each evening, working and dreaming of all the fine things he will do for his daughter some day. Ellen grows up, works on the stage, and marries John Oglethorpe, a competent but lazy actor. Ellen’s married life becomes unhappy when she discovers that her husband is gay.
Jimmy Herf’s Uncle Jeff tries to get him interested in business, but Jimmy will have none of it. He gets a job as a reporter and becomes acquainted with Ruth Prynne, a young actor who lives in the boardinghouse where Ellen and John Oglethorpe stay.
George Baldwin forgets Nellie McNiel and is now interested in Ellen. One afternoon, as he and Ellen sit together at tea, a drunken college student stops at their table. George introduces him to Ellen as Stan Emery. Ellen and Stan fall in love. She is miserable with John. Ellen decides that she and John can no longer live together. She packs her belongings and moves to a hotel. Stan goes on a long drunken spree after being expelled from college. He goes to Jimmy Herf’s room. Later in the day, they meet John and Ellen drinking tea together. Stan leaves, but Jimmy stays to talk with Ellen. Ellen moves from her hotel to an apartment. She is supporting herself well now, for she has become a success on Broadway.
George Baldwin sits at breakfast with his wife, Cecily, whom he had married for social position. They are not happy, and Cecily knows of his affairs with other women. George does all he can to keep her from leaving him...
(The entire section is 1130 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 912 words.)