Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*New York City
*New York City. Largest city in the United States and the second largest city in the world during the 1920’s, the period in which the novel is set. In the first section of the novel, John Dos Passos places New York among some of the great cities of history: While Babylon and Nineveh were made of brick, Athens had gold marble columns, and Constantinople’s minarets were like candle flames around the Golden Horn, New York City’s stark pyramids are made of steel, glass, tile, and concrete.
Setting his novel in the 1920’s, when American mores and values are changing, Dos Passos uses the city both as a symbol of the possibilities and dreams of those who left failure behind, and as a realistic environment that is either hostile or indifferent to their dreams and aspirations. The novel uses the city as a character, an architect that molds and shapes the strong, or a mechanical monster that crunches and consumes the weak. The one-word titles of the chapters—“Metropolis,” “Tracks,” “Steamroller,” “Fire Engine,” “Rollercoaster,” “Revolving Doors,” “Skyscraper”—give the major role in the novel to the city and the steel parts that bring it to life.
New York City’s streets, docksides, and tenements are peopled with thousands of migrants from America’s rural farmlands and hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have fled the old cities of Europe for the land of opportunity. People...
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It has been inevitable throughout this discussion that the original, inventive techniques the young novelist created for this collage of narratives are suited ideally to his themes of alienation and the pressures of perverse value systems. These techniques form the foundation for Dos Passos's artistic signatures in the U.S.A. and District trilogies as well as his final major novel, Midcentury (1961). His creation was inspired by James Joyce's masterpiece Ulysses (1922), T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), and experiments with collage as a film technique by Soviet director Sergi Eisenstein, whom Dos Passos met during a 1928 trip to the U.S.S.R.
Out of these diverse sources Dos Passos invented his own literary collage, a concept that involves the assimilation of diverse narrative and visual materials. The chapters are introduced by prose poems, hortatory evocations of history, snippets from the popular press, and sound bites from the propaganda that accompanied America's entry into World War I. These epigraphs, while in one way recalling the somewhat pretentious references to other literature by which some eighteenth and nineteenth-century novelists introduced chapters, have a more pluralistic base and do not allude to other literary figures. Moreover, these prose poems have subtle relationships to either the chapter they introduce, or ro a contiguous one.
The chapter epigraphs, then, play off models suggested by...
(The entire section is 779 words.)
Nothing in John Dos Fassos's previous books, two studies of the American war effort and a fin de siecle narrative about the aimless lives of artistic youths in Cambridge, foreshadowed the originality displayed by this study of the life of a growing metropolitan center. It was a breakthrough for its author in terms of theme, social consciousness, and literary technique. He creates in Manhattan Transfer an indictment of a city that is indifferent, merciless, or cruel to its inhabitants, yet throbbing with hypnotic energy and restlessness.
Nothing quite like Manhattan Transfer exists in Dos Passos's writings up to this point, and nothing exactly like it existed in English or American literature. One central social issue Dos Passos invented with this new mode of writing expressed concerns about the degree to which institutions created to nurture human happiness actually worked to destroy it. His portrait of the first decades of the twentieth century exhibits a brooding, ominous, energetic city that doles out rewards and frustrations with an arbitrary lack of concern for the recipients' merit.
Dos Passos suggests the anonymity and alienation that are byproducts of modern industrial society. But the deterministic tone of the novel also suggests that our destinations may not in themselves matter, for many characters' destinies depend less on their choice of a direction than on unacknowledged or unknown forces conveying them...
(The entire section is 496 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Arrington, Philip. “The Sense of an Ending in Manhattan Transfer.” American Literature 54 (October, 1982): 438-443. A brief study of the way in which Dos Passos finds a satisfactory way of concluding his diverse and sometimes incoherent novel.
Clark, Michael. Dos Passos’s Early Fiction, 1912-1938. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1987. A detailed examination of the works leading up to and including U.S.A., with emphasis on Manhattan Transfer as the most significant of the early works of the author.
Livingston, Townsend. John Dos Passos: A Twentieth Century Odyssey. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980. A satisfactory and detailed biography, which includes examinations of Manhattan Transfer and his other major novels.
Sanders, David. John Dos Passos: A Comprehensive Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1985. A thorough compilation of the author’s writings and of the major criticism of his work.
Wagner, Linda. Dos Passos: Artist as American. A good biography emphasizing Dos Passos’ deliberate artistry and showing how his aims, as in the later novels, shaped the structure of Manhattan Transfer.
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