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John Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer: A Novel that Changed the Way We See New York



Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos: A Modernist Masterpiece




If you are looking for a novel that captures the essence of New York City in the early 20th century, you should read Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. This novel is considered one of the most important works of American modernism, a literary movement that experimented with new forms and techniques to reflect the complexity and diversity of modern life. In this article, we will explore what makes Manhattan Transfer a modernist masterpiece, what are its main themes and techniques, and how it influenced other writers and artists.




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Introduction




Manhattan Transfer is a novel by John Dos Passos, an American writer who was born in 1896 and died in 1970. He was one of the most prominent members of the "lost generation", a group of writers who emerged after World War I and expressed their disillusionment with society and culture. Dos Passos was also a political activist who participated in various social movements and traveled around the world.


The novel was first published in 1925, and it is considered one of his best works. It is a sprawling and ambitious novel that depicts the life of various characters in New York City from the 1890s to the 1920s. The novel covers a wide range of topics, such as immigration, urbanization, industrialization, class conflict, consumerism, corruption, crime, love, art, and death.


Manhattan Transfer is widely regarded as a modernist masterpiece because it uses innovative techniques to create a realistic and vivid portrait of New York City as a dynamic and chaotic entity. The novel breaks away from traditional narrative conventions and employs multiple perspectives, stream-of-consciousness, collage, montage, intertextuality, fragmentation, and symbolism to convey the diversity and complexity of modern life. The novel also challenges the conventional notions of plot, character, and theme, and instead presents a kaleidoscopic vision of the city as a living organism.


Plot Summary




Manhattan Transfer is divided into three parts: "Ferryslip", "Metropolis", and "The Burial". Each part consists of several chapters that focus on different characters and events. The novel does not have a linear plot or a central protagonist, but rather interweaves various stories and scenes that create a mosaic of New York City.


The novel follows the lives of dozens of characters from different backgrounds and social classes who live in or pass through New York City. Some of the main characters are:



  • Ellen Thatcher, a young woman who dreams of becoming an actress and marries a wealthy lawyer, but feels dissatisfied and unhappy with her life.



  • Jimmy Herf, a journalist who is Ellen's childhood friend and later lover, who struggles with his identity and career, and becomes disillusioned with the city.



  • Bud Korpenning, a migrant worker who comes to New York City in search of a better life, but ends up homeless and suicidal.



  • Stan Emery, a playboy who marries Ellen's friend Congo, but cheats on her with other women and loses his fortune in the stock market crash.



  • Gus McNiel, a former boxer who becomes a corrupt politician and a gangster.



  • Anna Cohen, a Jewish immigrant who works as a seamstress and falls in love with a socialist activist.



The novel also depicts some of the historical events and cultural influences that shape the city, such as the Spanish-American War, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the World War I, the Prohibition, the Jazz Age, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Wall Street Crash.


The novel uses different perspectives and narrative styles to create a collage of the city. The novel switches between third-person omniscient narration, first-person narration, stream-of-consciousness, dialogue, newspaper headlines, advertisements, song lyrics, poems, letters, telegrams, and other forms of text. The novel also uses montage techniques to juxtapose different scenes and images that create contrasts and connections between the characters and the city. The novel also uses intertextuality to refer to other literary works that relate to the theme or mood of the novel, such as The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, Ulysses by James Joyce, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, and The Iliad by Homer.


Analysis




Manhattan Transfer is a novel that portrays the social problems, immigrants, and rich people in New York City. The novel shows how the city is a place of opportunity and exploitation, of diversity and discrimination, of glamour and squalor. The novel exposes the harsh realities of urban life, such as poverty, violence, disease, pollution, overcrowding, corruption, crime, and alienation. The novel also shows how the immigrants face challenges and prejudices in their adaptation to the American culture and society. The novel also shows how the rich people enjoy their privileges and pleasures, but also suffer from boredom, emptiness, and decadence.


Manhattan Transfer is a novel that criticizes the American dream and capitalism. The novel shows how the city is driven by money and power, and how it creates a consumerist and materialistic culture that values success and appearance over morality and authenticity. The novel shows how the city crushes the dreams and hopes of many characters who aspire to achieve happiness and fulfillment. The novel shows how the city is a ruthless machine that consumes and discards people like commodities. The novel also shows how the city is affected by the economic crises and social unrest that result from the capitalist system.


Manhattan Transfer is a novel that explores the concepts of identity, alienation, and fragmentation in modern society. The novel shows how the city is a place of anonymity and isolation, where people lose their sense of self and belonging. The novel shows how the characters struggle with their identity issues, such as their gender roles, their ethnic backgrounds, their social classes, their professional choices, their sexual orientations, and their personal relationships. The novel shows how the characters feel alienated from themselves, from others, from nature, from history, and from meaning. The novel also shows how the city is a place of fragmentation and chaos, where time and space are distorted and disrupted. The novel shows how the modern life is characterized by speed, noise, change, confusion, and uncertainty.


Reception and Legacy




Manhattan Transfer was not well received by critics and readers when it was first published in 1925. Many critics found the novel too experimental, too obscure, too pessimistic, and too vulgar. Some critics accused Dos Passos of plagiarism, of imitation, of propaganda, and of nihilism. Some readers were also confused or offended by the novel's style, content, and message.


However, the novel gradually gained recognition and appreciation as one of the most important works of American modernism. The novel influenced other writers and artists of the modernist movement, such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Reception and Legacy




Manhattan Transfer was not well received by critics and readers when it was first published in 1925. Many critics found the novel too experimental, too obscure, too pessimistic, and too vulgar. Some critics accused Dos Passos of plagiarism, of imitation, of propaganda, and of nihilism. Some readers were also confused or offended by the novel's style, content, and message.


However, the novel gradually gained recognition and appreciation as one of the most important works of American modernism. The novel influenced other writers and artists of the modernist movement, such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Sergei Eisenstein. The novel also inspired other works that depict New York City in a similar way, such as The Naked and the Dead (1948) by Norman Mailer, The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) by Truman Capote, Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) by Tom Wolfe, and The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt.


Manhattan Transfer is still relevant today in terms of its themes and techniques. The novel reflects the social and cultural changes that shaped the modern era and that still affect our contemporary world. The novel explores the issues of urbanization, immigration, class, gender, race, consumerism, capitalism, war, art, and identity that are still relevant today. The novel also employs the techniques of collage, montage, intertextuality, fragmentation, and symbolism that are still used today by many writers and artists.


Conclusion




In conclusion, Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos is a modernist masterpiece that captures the essence of New York City in the early 20th century. The novel depicts the life of various characters in New York City from the 1890s to the 1920s, covering a wide range of topics and historical events. The novel uses innovative techniques to create a realistic and vivid portrait of New York City as a dynamic and chaotic entity. The novel also challenges the conventional notions of plot, character, and theme, and instead presents a kaleidoscopic vision of the city as a living organism. The novel portrays the social problems, immigrants, and rich people in New York City, criticizes the American dream and capitalism, and explores the concepts of identity, alienation, and fragmentation in modern society. The novel was not well received by critics and readers when it was first published in 1925, but it gradually gained recognition and appreciation as one of the most important works of American modernism. The novel influenced other writers and artists of the modernist movement, and inspired other works that depict New York City in a similar way. The novel is still relevant today in terms of its themes and techniques.


In my opinion, Manhattan Transfer is a fascinating and impressive novel that deserves more attention and appreciation. I enjoyed reading the novel because it gave me a glimpse into the history and culture of New York City, and made me feel like I was there with the characters. I also admired the novel because it showed me how creative and experimental writing can be, and how it can convey complex and diverse meanings. I think Manhattan Transfer is a novel that anyone who loves New York City or modern literature should read.


If you are interested in reading more about Manhattan Transfer or John Dos Passos, here are some further reading or resources that you can check out:



  • The U.S.A. Trilogy by John Dos Passos: This is Dos Passos' most famous work, a trilogy of novels that continues his exploration of American society and history from 1900 to 1930.



  • Dos Passos: A Life by Virginia Spencer Carr: This is a comprehensive biography of Dos Passos that covers his personal and professional life, his political views, and his literary achievements.



  • John Dos Passos and the Art of Montage by James T. F. Tanner: This is a critical study of Dos Passos' use of montage techniques in his novels, especially in Manhattan Transfer and The U.S.A. Trilogy.



  • New York Modern: The Arts and the City by William B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff: This is a cultural history of New York City in the early 20th century that examines the artistic movements and innovations that emerged in the city, including literature, painting, music, theater, and film.



  • The John Dos Passos Society: This is an organization that promotes the study and appreciation of Dos Passos' life and works, and organizes conferences, publications, and awards.



FAQs




Here are some frequently asked questions and answers related to the topic of the article:



  • What is the meaning of the title Manhattan Transfer?



The title Manhattan Transfer has multiple meanings. It refers to the railway station where many people arrive or depart from New York City, symbolizing the transience and mobility of urban life. It also refers to the transfer of power, money, and culture that takes place in the city, as well as the transfer of influences and references that Dos Passos uses in his novel.


  • Who are some of the real-life figures that appear or are mentioned in Manhattan Transfer?



Dos Passos includes or alludes to many real-life figures in his novel, such as politicians, businessmen, artists, writers, and celebrities. Some examples are Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Eugene O'Neill, Isadora Duncan, Charlie Chaplin, Fanny Brice, Babe Ruth, and Al Capone.


  • What are some of the symbols that Dos Passos uses in Manhattan Transfer?



Dos Passos uses many symbols in his novel to convey different meanings or themes. Some examples are the ferry slip, which represents the entrance and exit to the city; the skyscraper, which represents the ambition and power of the city; the bridge, which represents the connection and division between different parts of the city; the fire escape, which represents the escape and entrapment of urban life; and the neon sign, which represents the allure and deception of consumerism.


  • How does Dos Passos use music in Manhattan Transfer?



Dos Passos uses music in his novel to create a sense of rhythm, mood, and atmosphere. He also uses music to reflect the cultural diversity and changes of New York City. He includes lyrics from various songs that were popular or relevant at the time, such as ragtime, jazz, blues, folk songs, patriotic songs, opera songs, and musical comedy songs.


  • How does Manhattan Transfer compare to other novels about New York City?



Manhattan Transfer is one of the first and most influential novels about New York City in the modern era. It differs from other novels about New York City in its scope, style, and perspective. It covers a longer period of time, uses more experimental techniques, and presents a more diverse and complex view of the city and its inhabitants. It is considered a precursor to other novels that depict New York City in a similar way, such as The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Goldfinch.


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