Manhattan transfer, p.1
Manhattan Transfer, p.1John Dos Passos
John Dos Passos was born in Chicago in 1896 of Portuguese descent. His father was an eminent lawyer and he was educated at the Chaote School and then at Harvard, graduating in 1916. After the First World War – during which he served in the US Army Medical Corps – he was a freelance correspondent in Spain and the Near East before settling down to the writing of books. In 1922 he published a volume of poetry and a collection of essays which explored the Spanish culture. In 1925 he published Manhattan Transfer his first experimental novel in what was to become his peculiar style – a mixture of fact and fiction. He began his panoramic epics of American life with the USA trilogy written using the same technique and tracing, through interwoven biographies, the story of America from the early twentieth century to the onset of the Depression in 1929. Then came the District of Columbia trilogy, which is a fictionalized social history of America in the thirties and forties. During the Second World War Dos Passos became a war correspondent in the Pacific for Life Magazine.
In later years John Dos Passos published a number of historical works dealing with the founding of the United States: The Ground We Stand On, The Head and Heart of Thomas Jefferson, The Men Who Made This Nation and The Shackles of Power.
His most permanent home was his father’s farm in Tidewater, Virginia. He died in 1970.
Jay McInerney was born in 1955. He has written fiction for magazines such as Esquire and Atlantic and is the author of the novels Bright Lights, Big City; Ransom; Story of My Life; Brightness Falls; The Last of the Savages and Model Behaviour, a number of which are published in Penguin. He also edited The Penguin Book of New American Voices and he wrote the screenplay for the film version of Bright Lights, Big City.
John Dos Passos
With an Introduction by
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in the United States in 1925
First published in Great Britain by Constable & Co., 1927
Published in Penguin Books 1987
Reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000
Copyright John Dos Passos, 1925 and 1953
Introduction copyright © Jay McInerney, 1986
All rights reserved
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Introduction by Jay McInerney
1 Great Lady on a White Horse
2 Longlegged Jack of the Isthmus
3 Nine Days’ Wonder
4 Fire Engine
5 Went to the Animals’ Fair
6 Five Statutory Questions
8 One More River to Jordan
1 Rejoicing City That Dwelt Carelessly
3 Revolving Doors
5 The Burthen of Nineveh
John Dos Passos’s Manhattan is hardly the ruddy, provincial cosmos with which Walt Whitman proudly identified himself some four score years before, or the genteel nineteenth-century village of American aristocrats that Henry James eulogized in The American Scene. It could be argued that the American Civil War was to change New York far more than those Southern cities that were destroyed in battle, beginning with the anti-draft riots in 1863, as it became headquarters for the juggernaut of American capitalism in the second half of the century. Although many Americans wish it had been New York that had tried to secede from the Union, and that the attempt had been successful, the city has almost always been, in literature and popular consciousness, a synecdoche for the land of opportunity, the portal for the immigrant to the New World, the stage of the American dream of success, the brain of the body economic.
Published in 1925, the same year as Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Manhattan Transfer gives us a very different view of the era and of those islands at the edge of the New World first glimpsed by Dutch sailors some three hundred years before, though in retrospect both novels seem to have anticipated the Great Depression. Fitzgerald, who was more interested in individuals than in political and economic analysis, was able to unveil the illusion of Gatsby’s version of the American dream even as he lyrically celebrated the power of the dream, illustrating his own notion that it is the mark of a first-rate mind to hold two contrary ideas at once. Almost alone among American novelists, Dos Passos as an artist was more interested in society than in the individuals who composed it, more interested in history than in psychology, though his sympathies were always with the men and women who were the victims of historical and social forces. The novel aptly takes its title from the city, as Fitzgerald’s does from the individual. For Dos Passos, American individuals are processed by the economic machine of the city, like the new arrivals to New York described in the opening passage of the novel: ‘men and women press through the manuresmelling wooden tunnel of the ferryhouse, crushed and jostling like apples fed down a chute into a press’.
The first extended scene in the novel takes place in the maternity ward of a metropolitan hospital, moments after a birth. ‘The newborn baby squirmed in the cottonwool feebly like a knot of earthworms.’ This image amplifies the feeling of the helplessness of the individual and, in its turn to the plural, betrays Dos Passos’s tendency toward a collective overview of the species. Later, when the excited father asks, ‘How can you tell them apart nurse?’ the nurse responds, ‘Sometimes we cant.’ The hysterical mother becomes convinced she has the wrong baby, a fear which is alluded to as the child, Ellen Thatcher, demonstrates some of the characteristics of a changeling. Ellen is a recurring figure in this novel that embraces scores of characters – some of them perhaps inmates of that same maternity ward – one of the few constants in the dizzyingly rapid shuttle of the narrative, although her own mobility, and the fluidity of American society, is such that she changes her name from Ellen to Elaine to Helena.
Bud Korpenning, arriving in the city on the ferry from an upstate farm, asks directions of a fellow ferry-passenger, saying, ‘I want to get to the center of things.’ This search for the center is shared in some degree by all of Dos Passos’s New Yorkers, ‘the center of things’ recurring as a ghostly refrain throughout the novel. For the have-nots the
Pursuit of happiness, unalienable pursuit… right to life liberty and… All these April nights combing the streets alone a skyscraper has obsessed him, a grooved building jutting up with uncountable bright windows falling onto him out of a scudding sky… Faces of Follies girls, glorified by Ziegfeld, smile and beckon to him from the windows… And he walks round blocks and blocks looking for the door of the humming tinselwindowed skyscraper, round blocks and blocks and still no door. (p. 327)
There is no door, though the notion of a brilliant focal point of all the city’s lights, a shining and accessible temple at the intersection of sophistication and material success, is one which is retailed in the popular press. ‘Of course what you want to do is make every reader feel Johnny on the spot in the center of things’ explains Ellen in her incarnation as the editor of a woman’s magazine. A tramp on a park bench cries out in protest against the pictures of beautiful actresses in the newspaper: ‘Them young actresses all dressed naked like that… Why cant they let you alone I say… If you aint got no work and you aint got no money, what’s the good of em I say?’ The glamorous images and myths of success are the bait with which the hordes are drawn into the great economic machine.
We get brief glimpses of those who would seem to operate the machine, politicians and capitalists for whom news of the Great War is significant only insofar as it affects the Stock Market and the elections (men like Dos Passos’s father, a powerful corporate lawyer who sired the novelist out of wedlock and did not acknowledge paternity until many years later). But these movers and shakers are themselves raised and cast aside by the forces they manipulate. Gus McNiel, a milkman, becomes a powerful and cynical political boss, while Joe Harland, who once controlled half of Wall Street, becomes a Bowery Bum.
Although he was interested in Marxism, Dos Passos was never to become a Communist; Manhattan Transfer is a passionate but not a systematic critique of American capitalism in the early twenties. The execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 was to further radicalize the novelist and provide the impetus for his masterpiece, the USA trilogy, but the last novel of that trilogy ends with a swipe at the Communist Party, which Dos Passos came to regard as yet another oppressive institution. ‘He was always more “agin the system”,’ contends the critic Alfred Kazin, ‘than for anything in particular except personal freedom and the “working-class stiffs” whom he tended to romanticize.’
Most critics agree that Manhattan Transfer registers a fervent denunciation of a society that subsumes and crushes the individual. And yet Dos Passos’s method may be almost too mimetic of the disease he portrays, his condemnation so complete that it is difficult for the reader to insert a wedge of judgement. The rapid-transit, discontinuous narrative brilliantly captures the pace of the city, the sense of brief, promiscuous contact with other lives. The metallically impersonal narrative voice carries the hard-edged din of the city at the same time that it keeps us at a distance from the residents; though it may swoop down from the smoky Manhattan skies from time to time to inhabit one of the characters, we are never long in the presence of a sympathetic consciousness. The danger with this method is that the victims of oppression are damned along with their chains.
Two characters in the novel seem to function vaguely as representatives of an authorial point of view, and bearers of a normative vision of nay-saying personal freedom. Stan Emery is a well-born rake who decides to destroy himself spectacularly with liquor rather than follow his father into a soul-killing business career. Against the dreadful conformity of the religion of success he posits a separate church: ‘Why the hell does everybody want to succeed? I’d like to meet somebody who wanted to fail. That’s the only sublime thing.’ Jimmy Herf, the downwardly mobile newspaper reporter with artistic ambitions who escapes the city at the end of the book, hitting the open road, is the only character to find an alternative to the grim determinism of the collective fate. The lone traveler on the open road is the other great archetype of American consciousness and literature - from the ‘Leatherstocking’ tales through Huckleberry Finn and the work of Jack Kerouac. It is the renegade version of the Horatio Alger ideal of success. In this novel, Dos Passos does not explore it. It is merely indicated – a possible route to freedom.
One of Dos Passos’s contemporaries, the conservative critic Paul Elmer More, described Manhattan Transfer as ‘an explosion in a cesspool’. Sinclair Lewis hailed it as ‘a novel of the very first importance… which the literary analyst must take as possibly inaugurating, at long last, the vast and blazing dawn we have awaited.’ Recent critics have tended to assess the novel more temperately, often treating it as a warm-up, technically and thematically, for the USA trilogy. Although he seemed in the thirties to be the mentor of a new literature of social realism, Dos Passos today is more talked about than read, and seldom talked about in the same breath as his contemporaries Hemingway and Fitzgerald. His influence is visible in the work of Norman Mailer, among others, but his is at present a somewhat lonely place in American letters, which may indicate a deficiency in our vision as much as in Dos Passos’s. Our literary canon and current American practice reflect the legacy of New Critical notions of the self-contained art object, the well-wrought urn; the exploration of the individual psyche in a relatively domestic context is the predominant mode of our fiction. Dos Passos sought to record the history of his times, and even, perhaps, to affect it. Manhattan Transfer is an excellent introduction to his work, an intriguing narrative experiment, and a fascinating portrait of the great American city in the early years of the century.
Three gulls wheel above the broken boxes, orangerinds, spoiled cabbage heads that heave between the splintered plank walls, the green waves spume under the round bow as the ferry, skidding on the tide, crashes, gulps the broken water, slides, settles slowly into the slip. Handwinches whirl with jingle of chains. Gates fold upwards, feet step out across the crack, men and women press through the manuresmelling wooden tunnel of the ferry-house, crushed and jostling like apples fed down a chute into a press.
The nurse, holding the basket at arm’s length as if it were a bedpan, opened the door to a big dry hot room with greenish distempered walls where in the air tinctured with smells of alcohol and iodoform hung writhing a faint sourish squalling from other baskets along the wall. As she set her basket down she glanced into it with pursed-up lips. The newborn baby squirmed in the cottonwool feebly like a knot of earthworms.
On the ferry there was an old man playing the violin. He had a monkey’s face puckered up in one corner and kept time with the toe of a cracked patent-leather shoe. Bud Korpenning sat on the rail watching him, his back to the river. The breeze made the hair stir round the tight line of his cap and dried the sweat on his temples. His feet were blistered, he was leadentired, but when the ferry moved out of the slip, bucking the little slapping scalloped waves of the river he felt something warm and tingling shoot suddenly through all his veins. ‘Say, friend, how fur is it into the city from where this ferry lands?’ he asked a young man in a straw hat wearing a blue and white striped necktie who stood beside him.
The young man’s glance moved up from Bud’s road-swelled shoes to the red wrist that stuck out from the frayed sleeves of his coat, past the skinny turkey’s throat and slid up cockily into the intent eyes under the broken-visored cap.
‘That depends where you want to get to.’
‘How do I get to Broadway?…I want to get to the center of things.’
‘Walk east a block and turn down Broadway and you’ll find the center of things if you walk far enough.’
‘Thank you sir. I’ll do that.’
The violinist was going through the crowd with his hat held out, the wind ruffling the wisps of gray hair on his shabby bald head. Bud found the face tilted up at him, the crushed eyes like two black pins looking into his. ‘Nothin,’ he s
EAT on a lunchwagon halfway down the block. He slid stiffly onto a revolving stool and looked for a long while at the pricelist.
‘Fried eggs and a cup o coffee.’
‘Want ’em turned over?’ asked the redhaired man behind the counter who was wiping off his beefy freckled forearms with his apron. Bud Korpenning sat up with a start.
‘The eggs? Want em turned over or sunny side up?’
‘Oh sure, turn ’em over.’ Bud slouched over the counter again with his head between his hands.
‘You look all in, feller,’ the man said as he broke the eggs into the sizzling grease of the frying pan.
‘Came down from upstate. I walked fifteen miles this mornin.’
The man made a whistling sound through his eyeteeth. ‘Comin to the big city to look for a job, eh?’
Bud nodded. The man flopped the eggs sizzling and netted with brown out onto the plate and pushed it towards Bud with some bread and butter on the edge of it. ‘I’m going to slip you a bit of advice, feller, and it won’t cost you nutten. You go an git a shave and a haircut and brush the hayseeds out o yer suit a bit before you start lookin. You’ll be more likely to git somthin. It’s looks that count in this city.’
‘I kin work all right. I’m a good worker,’ growled Bud with his mouth full.
‘I’m tellin yez, that’s all,’ said the redhaired man and turned back to his stove.
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