Monday, June 29, 2020

Manhattan Transfer (#20BooksOfSummer)

"I think that this city is full of people wanting inconceivable things...look at it."

'This city' is New York, and the novel, like the city, is full of people wanting things. And maybe those things are inconceivable, but more likely just un-gettable.

The novel starts in 1896 when the law is passed that unites what are now the five boroughs of New York into one city. It continues on until the early 20s (the novel appears in 1925) and has maybe a dozen major characters. That's Ellen Thatcher quoted above. She's born in 1896 to George and Susan Thatcher; he's a reasonably successful accountant; she never really recovers from the pregnancy and dies when Ellen is still young.

There's also Jimmy Herf, aged five or so when his single mother returns with him from Europe to New York. There's Jimmy's uncle, Joe Harland, the Wizard of Wall Street, until he ruins himself with drink. George Baldwin is a young lawyer who has just opened an office when he hears about a milkman injured by a train; getting that milkman compensation is his first case and makes his name.

That milkman is Gus McNeil, who goes on to be a labor organizer; while McNeil is still laid up, Baldwin has an affair with Ellie McNeil, Gus' wife, which is the start of Baldwin's other notable career, as a philanderer. There's Stanwood Emery, a Harvard graduate and maybe going to be a poet? But also too fond of the bottle. There are two French sailors--Emile and Congo Jake--who pitch up in New York; Anna Cohen, a Jewish seamstress; Bud Korpenning, from Cooperstown; Cassie Wilson, who weeps; Ruth Prynne, who doesn't; Tony Hunter, who weeps because he can't have Jimmy; Frances, the flapper bandit, and her partner Dutch; and still others. Jimmy and Ellen get the most space, but we see into the head of all of the above characters at one time or another.

The novel is powerfully influenced by Joyce's Ulysses and makes effective use of stream of consciousness. Here's Gus McNiel daydreaming just before that accident with the train:
The morning has grown bleak. Leaden clouds have settled down over the city. "Git up old skin and bones," shouts Gus jerking at the gelding's head. Eleventh Avenue is full of icy dust, of grinding rattle of wheels and scrape of hoofs on the cobblestones. Down the railroad tracks comes the clang of a locomotive bell and the clatter of shunting freightcars. Gus is in bed with his wife talking gently to her: Look here Nellie, you wouldn't moind movin West would yez? I've filed application for free farmin land in the state of North Dakota, black soil land where we can make a pile o money in wheat; some fellers git rich in foive good crops....Healthier for the kids anyway..."Hello Moike!" There's poor old Moike still on his beat. Cold work bein a cop. Better be a wheatfarmer an have a big farmhouse an barns an pigs an horses an cows an chickens...Pretty curlyheaded Nellie feedin the chickens at the kitchen door...
The influence of Joyce shows up in 'freightcars', 'wheatfarmer', and 'curlyheaded' as well. Newspaper headlines, bits of song float through people's heads. Stan Emery recites Swinburne to himself at one point. Ellen, a successful actress during of the most of novel, has one scene where she's memorizing lines while half-heartedly carrying on a conversation.

Mostly I was pretty amazed by the novel. It's 350 pages in my edition. Not especially easy pages, but not too terribly difficult either. Dos Passos juggles his dozen major characters, moves their stories along, and gives a broad picture of life in New York over the course of twenty-five years. Several of the characters have real depth. That's a lot to pull off successfully. There may be one too many drunks. I had to double-check at one point which drunk was which.

He's pleasantly (and a bit surprisingly) sympathetic to the difficulty of being homosexual at that time.

It's a dark vision of New York, though. A lot of people fail, fall by the wayside, poverty, jail, accidents, suicide. The few who succeed feel morally compromised or empty. Ellen is a successful actress, what she wanted to be, but it doesn't make her happier. The novel ends with Jimmy, leaving town:
"Say will you give me a lift?" he asks the redhaired man at the wheel.
"How fur you goin?"
"I dunno...Pretty far."
The novel is sometimes simply considered a first crack at the broad-picture style he developed further in the USA trilogy of later in the 20s. That is kind of true. Though this is still awfully good, the USA trilogy is better, I think: it gives a more rounded picture of society; its characters go a bit deeper. It's also three times the length... Not what I did, but if you're curious about Dos Passos, you may want to start here and see what you think.

One other curious fact I noticed. 1896, the year the novel starts, is the year Dos Passos was born. Jimmy Herf pretty clearly owes a lot (though not all) of his details to Dos Passos' own biography.

If you have read it, what did you think?

I slotted this in because Fanda and Laurie were hosting Jazz Age June:

I had it in my head more of this novel took place in the Jazz Age than is in fact the case; we're already two-thirds through by the time World War I is over. Still there are bootleggers:
"Of course what you kids dont realize is that the difficulty under prohibition is keeping sober."
Thanks to Laurie and Fanda for hosting!


  1. Another book you've now made me want to read! :)

  2. i've wondered about Dos Passos; i think i tried to read this once and got bored but it's hard to tell... i would have been in my teens, probably needs a reboot, we'll see....

    1. I read a few selections from the USA trilogy in high school and I thought they were pretty good, but I wasn't reading serious books in high school other than the ones I was assigned and not always even then...

      But I remembered that and later I got the third volume of the USA trilogy and read that & I thought, enh, what was the fuss about? I didn't think much of it.

      Then, much later, I read the whole trilogy in order and I thought, ooh, that is pretty good. And I bought Manhattan Transfer pretty soon after that, but some more years passed, and I've only now read it.

      Me and John--we've got this blows hot, blows cold relationship. Blowing hot at the moment, though...

  3. I've owned this book for ages. One day I should probably make time to actually read it. Have always been intrigued by the novel's multiplicity of narrators and/or points of view.

    1. I do think it's a good one & he pulls off his structure rather well.

  4. This sounds like one I'd really enjoy. Now that the library is open again, I've been eyeing their single copy of the USA Trilogy, because I loved the part I managed to read before it was due back again (last year sometime).

    1. I think the USA trilogy is probably better & if you're in the middle of it...

  5. I "have" to read the USA trilogy because it is on the Modern Library list. So if I ever read Manhattan Transfer, I will be like, 100 years old. You do make it sound tempting, however!

    Faulkner also used portmanteau words in Light in August as I recall. I thought he did it more for emphasis than anything else but it sometimes felt precious to how some modern authors leave off quote marks.

    1. I'm with you--those portmanteau words generally strike me as precious. I don't see what it adds other than to say you've been reading Joyce.

      As I said above I'd sort of always had Dos Passos in mind, but the Modern Library list also foregrounded (uh-oh. Not sure about that word...) it for me. It really was one of the better, somewhat challenging things I read from that list, though.