Manhattan Transfer

by John Dos Passos
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 878

It was with Manhattan Transfer, his third published novel, that John Dos Passos made his first experiments in attempting in a novel to depict an entire society, that of a city that for him embodied the best and worst of American culture. The techniques he began using in this work came to fruition in the trilogy entitled U.S.A. (1937). Both Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A. use the same stripped, staccato style in their narrative passages, and the earlier work foreshadows the later trilogy in its rapid, abrupt shifts among a large and varied cast of characters. The speed of modern life is reflected not only in the style but also in those shifts, and the vividly colorful imagery adds to the effect.

Manhattan Transfer also prefigures U.S.A. in telling the stories of many characters while lacking a central plot. Such characters as Ellen Thatcher, Jimmy Herf, and George Baldwin receive more attention than others, but the novel can hardly be said to have a main protagonist. In fact, the central character is New York City. When Jimmy Herf escapes the clutches of the city at the end, he presumably saves his soul by heading for the hinterlands, but he leaves behind forever the city that made his life worth living.

Like other novels that intend to portray entire societies, Manhattan Transfer contains characters from many different economic and social levels (although it reflects the time of its creation in failing to include any African Americans among its major figures). The family that adopts Jimmy Herf is distinctly rich and upper class, and Herf’s uncle, Jeff Merivale, and other members of that family are very disappointed when as a young man he adopts the profession of newspaper reporter, a line of work much less prestigious than banking or law. It is even worse that Jimmy socializes with theater people and such “riffraff” and with Joe Harland, whom the Merivales no longer acknowledge as a relation.

In the story of Gus and Nellie McNiel, Dos Passos focuses attention on the laboring class and the political life of the city. The railroad accident that the lawyer George Baldwin turns into a modest fortune for Gus enables the onetime milkman to become a minor elected official and to set himself up as a friend of working men and women. Joe O’Keefe, the union organizer, provides another point of view on the struggles between labor and management.

The strongest thread holding the novel together is the story of Ellen Thatcher. Her birth is the focus of the early part of the novel, and her romances and marriages link such diverse characters as Jimmy Herf, the wealthy theatrical backer Harry Goldweiser, her first husband John Oglethorpe, and the lawyer George Baldwin. In his portrayal of Ellen and her activities, Dos Passos is also able to show the realities of the supposedly glamorous world of the theater. When after a series of ill-fated marriages and romances Ellen marries Jimmy Herf in Europe and returns to this country with him and their baby, Dos Passos is able to repudiate the conventional fictional happy ending. For this marriage is no more successful than the preceding ones, and when Jimmy leaves for the hinterlands, he leaves behind his wife and child as well as his career.

Another important aspect of life during the Roaring Twenties is conveyed by the activities of the French sailor named Congo. He jumps ship in New York with a friend and stays in the city, eventually contracting a marriage of convenience with a woman who owns a restaurant where he is working. Congo eventually becomes a wealthy bootlegger, and in narrating his life, Dos Passos depicts the world of the speakeasies. He also includes an episode in which Congo and the men who work for him engage in an exciting battle with the U.S. Coast Guard, which is trying to stop a shipment of illegal liquor.

Manhattan Transfer is in many ways the most successful novel of Dos Passos’s long and productive career, and it conveys as well as any novel of the time the frenetic pace of life in New York City during the 1920’s. While its scope is narrower than that of the trilogy U.S.A., this fact allows Dos Passos to avoid the sprawling structure of the later work and to provide a tighter focus on the cast of characters. It also was easier for him to convey the sense of life in a single city—even one as large and diverse as New York—than, as he later tried, the sense of life in an entire nation.

Perhaps most important, Manhattan Transfer does not carry the strong political message that marks U.S.A. The earlier novel makes it clear that Dos Passos’s sympathies are with working people rather than with their employers, with those driven to break the law rather than with those who enforce the law, and with outcasts rather than with pillars of the community. His views, however, are not yet informed by a specific doctrine as they were in later years. For its style, its depiction of city life, and its vigor, Manhattan Transfer remains one of the genuine classics of the twentieth century novel.

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