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.)