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John Dos Passos Biography And Critical Essays On Alice



John Dos Passos’s 1925 novel Manhattan Transfer is perhaps best
remembered nowadays as a trial run for this same author's U.S.A. Trilogy,
a massive 1,200-page work that would take up most of Dos Passos’s
attention over the next decade.  Most of the quirky ingredients
that characterize Manhattan Transfer—the fragmented narratives, the
bits of newspaper stories and song lyrics inserted into the text, the
hedonistic and alienated characters, the occasional adoption of stream-
of-consciousness techniques—reappear on a more ambitious scale in
the later work.  

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Yet Manhattan Transfer was much more than a blueprint for U.S.A.  It
also established a new style of slice-and-dice fiction that continues to
flourish in the current day. To a greater or lesser
extent, a host of later important novels adopt a
similar structure.  We see it in works as diverse
as Don DeLillo's Underworld, Doris Lessing's
The Golden Notebook, George Perec's Life A
User’s Manual
, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar
and Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer.  Each of these
offers a literary collage, a holistic picture con-
structed from the juxtaposition of isolated pieces
of narrative. Upon its publication, Sinclair Lewis
seemed to anticipate this development, praising
Manhattan Transfer as "a novel of the very first
importance" and predicting that it could represent
"the foundation of a whole new school of novel-
writing."

In preparing to write Manhattan Transfer, Dos Passos jotted down an
odd assortment of notes on scraps of paper: ideas for scenes, bits of
dialogue, facts, slogans, a textual collage waiting to be assembled into
something larger.  The finished novel retains this fragmented quality, an
Ikea of fiction where the reader needs to take charge of the final
assembly. The effect could also be described as cinematic, and just
as film allowed rapid shifts from scene to scene that made the
dramatic theater of the 19th century seem static by comparison, Dos
Passos offered a literary equivalent, a book in which characters and
settings flash by in a blur, and different stories are juxtaposed in rapid
succession.

But another influence is evident in this book, one far older than the
movie technology that was emerging as a major entertainment industry
during the period this book was written.  In his spare time, when not
working on his manuscript, Dos Passos read the Bible, a work that both
delighted and infuriated him.  "This is not a book to put in the hands of
Christians," he concluded.  But, in a strange sort of way, his own work-
in-progress began to take on a Biblical tone.  Characters come and go,
with their worries great and small, but a all-powerful deity presides over
their travails—namely Manhattan itself, poised to bless the few, curse
the many, and receive the worship and blasphemy of its chosen people.  

Dos Passos makes many unconventional choices in crafting this novel.  
He undermines the heroic, downplays the dramatic, and tempers the
tragic with absurd or fatalistic elements.  If other books portray bold
protagonists who seize their own destiny, Manhattan Transfer offers up
characters whose fates seem random or perverse.  One of the most
successful inhabitants of Dos Passos's Manhattan is Congo Jake who
starts out as a peglegged sailor and ends up as a wealthy New Yorker
with a new name, Armand Duval, an attractive wife and more money
than he knows what to do with.  On the other extreme, we encounter
Joe Harland, the Wizard of Wall Street, who makes a killing in the stock
market and loses it all, but attributes his change of luck to the loss of a
crocheted blue silk necktie that his mother had given him when he was a
youngster.  (Shades of Rosebud!) Harland’s conviction is ridiculous, but
very much in keeping with the ethos of Manhattan Transfer, in which  the
wheel of fortune is more like a runaway rollercoaster, taking people on a
wild ride beyond their ability to control or forecast.  

Dos Passos is equally iconoclastic in his approach to the moments of
intense action in this novel.  These invariably happen out of sight or at
a distance, presented with a deliberate attempt to suppress any sense
of suspense or excitement.  The most heated encounter in Manhattan
Transfer
finds Congo and several other characters involved in a gun
battle between bootleggers and a rival gang that wants to hijack their
illegal shipment of champagne.  Yet Dos Passos decides to describe
the entire scene from the perspective of a bystander who is hiding in a
nearby building, and only catches a few glimpses of the action from a
window.   In another subplot, a down-and-out couple decide to stage a
series of holdups, and though Dos Passos describes the before and
after of their crime spree, he presents only indirect accounts of the actual
incidents.  The effect is peculiar and undermines the intensity of the story
—imagine if Tarantino had edited Pulp Fiction, removing scenes of
conflicts, hold-ups, or violence, yet still wanted to convey the same
tension and ambiance, and you will have some idea of the impact here
—but very much in keeping with the approach of this novel. When
another one of his 'lost generation' characters commits suicide, and
sets his apartment on fire in the process, Dos Passos cuts away from
the action at the crucial moment, and continues the narrative from afar.  
Again and again, Dos Passos downplays precisely those tumultuous
incidents that most other storytellers would bring to the forefront. This
reticence—an almost ascetic renunciation of high drama---would
remain our author's modus operandi.   A few years later he would write
a war novel, 1919—the second volume of the U.S.A. Trilogy set in
Europe during World War I—and not include a single firsthand account
of combat.   In the world of John Dos Passos, exciting and violent things
are constantly happening, but always in the background.   

But even as we admire Manhattan Transfer for its ambition, readers can
hardly overlook the flaws in its execution.   Dos Passos shifts his scenes
from character to character faster than he can invent worthy plots to keep
them busy.  An interlude featuring an aimless character without direction
may reinforce the 'lost generation' ambiance of the book, but after fifty or
a hundred of these passages, the device loses it impact, and ennui sets
in.  In the closing pages of this book, when one of the characters gripes
"why don’t you do something instead of talk," the reader is inclined to
nod in impatient agreement.  Dos Passos also overuses certain
descriptive techniques.  He seems incapable of writing about a setting
without referring to the reflections of light—this verbal tic shows up every
few pages in his novel.  Another example: When people walk down the
street in Manhattan Transfer, our author again and again describes grit
blowing against their faces.  Was New York’s air quality really so much
worse back in 1925?  Even if that were the case, the repetition here is
awkward. Every so often, Dos Passos breaks out of these tired
repetitions and delivers a burst of prose that shows his capability as
an author.  But these are few and far between.  I suspect that most
readers, having finished this novel, will remember the innovative
structure, but not any turn of phrase or striking incident.  The characters
themselves seem determined to lead as forgettable lives as possible.

In all fairness, the structural innovation here is substantial, and will be
sufficient to keep this book in print, and impart some luster to its
author's posthumous reputation.  And given the increasing popularity of
fragmented narratives on the current literary scene, Manhattan Transfer
has certainly lived up to Sinclair Lewis’s bold prophecy that it would
initiate a "whole new school of novel-writing." That said, it is a shame
that John Dos Passos didn't make a better case for this innovative
structure as a vehicle for delivering an equally compelling story.




Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture.  His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.  

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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.

Manhattan Transfer

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...

(The entire section is 3199 words.)