Considered by many to be John Dos Passos's greatest work, Manhattan Transfer is an "expressionistic picture of New York" (New York Times) in the 1920s that reveals the lives of wealthy power brokers and struggling immigrants alike. From Fourteenth Street to the Bowery, Delmonico's to the underbelly of the city waterfront, Dos Passos chronicles the lives of characters struggling to become a part of modernity before they are destroyed by it.
More than seventy-five years after its first publication, Manhattan Transfer still stands as "a novel of the very first importance" (Sinclair Lewis). It is a masterpeice of modern fiction and a lasting tribute to the dual-edged nature of the American dream.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
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About the Author
John Dos Passos (1896-1970), a member of the Lost Generation, was the author of more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction, including THREE SOLDIERS and MANHATTAN TRANSFER.
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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 ferryhouse, 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 patentleather 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 roadswelled 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 brokenvisored 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 said gruffly and turned away to look at the expanse of river bright as knifeblades. The plank walls of the slip closed in, cracked as the ferry lurched against them; there was rattling of chains, and Bud was pushed forward among the crowd through the ferryhouse. He walked between two coal wagons and out over a dusty expanse of street towards yellow streetcars. A trembling took hold of his knees. He thrust his hands deep in his pockets.
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 goin 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 somethin. 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.
When Ed Thatcher climbed the marble steps of the wide hospital entry he was trembling. The smell of drugs caught at his throat. A woman with a starched face was looking at him over the top of a desk. He tried to steady his voice.
"Can you tell me how Mrs. Thatcher is?"
"Yes, you can go up."
"But please, miss, is everything all right?"
"The nurse on the floor will know anything about the case. Stairs to the left, third floor, maternity ward."
Ed Thatcher held a bunch of flowers wrapped in green waxed paper. The broad stairs swayed as he stumbled up, his toes kicking against the brass rods that held the fiber matting down. The closing of a door cut off a strangled shriek. He stopped a nurse.
"I want to see Mrs. Thatcher, please."
"Go right ahead if you know where she is."
"But they've moved her."
"You'll have to ask at the desk at the end of the hall."
He gnawed his cold lips. At the end of the hall a redfaced woman looked at him, smiling.
"Everything's fine. You're the happy father of a bouncing baby girl."
"You see it's our first and Susie's so delicate," he stammered with blinking eyes.
"Oh yes, I understand, naturally you worried. ... You can go in and talk to her when she wakes up. The baby was born two hours ago. Be sure not to tire her."
Ed Thatcher was a little man with two blond wisps of mustache and washedout gray eyes. He seized the nurse's hand and shook it showing all his uneven yellow teeth in a smile.
"You see it's our first."
"Congratulations," said the nurse.
Rows of beds under bilious gaslight, a sick smell of restlessly stirring bedclothes, faces fat, lean, yellow, white; that's her. Susie's yellow hair lay in a loose coil round her little white face that looked shriveled and twisted. He unwrapped the roses and put them on the night table. Looking out the window was like looking down into water. The trees in the square were tangled in blue cobwebs. Down the avenue lamps were coming on marking off with green shimmer brickpurple blocks of houses; chimney pots and water tanks cut sharp into a sky flushed like flesh. The blue lids slipped back off her eyes.
"That you Ed? ... Why Ed they are Jacks. How extravagant of you."
"I couldn't help it dearest. I knew you liked them."
A nurse was hovering near the end of the bed.
"Couldn't you let us see the baby, miss?"
The nurse nodded. She was a lanternjawed grayfaced woman with tight lips.
"I hate her," whispered Susie. "She gives me the fidgets that woman does; she's nothing but a mean old maid."
"Never mind dear, it's just for a day or two." Susie closed her eyes.
"Do you still want to call her Ellen?"
The nurse brought back a basket and set it on the bed beside Susie.
"Oh isn't she wonderful!" said Ed. "Look she's breathing. ... And they've oiled her." He helped his wife to raise herself on her elbow; the yellow coil of her hair unrolled, fell over his hand and arm. "How can you tell them apart nurse?"
"Sometimes we cant," said the nurse, stretching her mouth in a smile. Susie was looking querulously into the minute purple face. "You're sure this is mine."
"But it hasnt any label on it."
"I'll label it right away."
"But mine was dark." Susie lay back on the pillow, gasping for breath.
"She has lovely little light fuzz just the color of your hair."
Susie stretched her arms out above her head and shrieked: "It's not mine. It's not mine. Take it away. ... That woman's stolen my baby."
"Dear, for Heaven's sake! Dear, for Heaven's sake!" He tried to tuck the covers about her.
"Too bad," said the nurse, calmly, picking up the basket. "I'll have to give her a sedative."
Susie sat up stiff in bed. "Take it away," she yelled and fell back in hysterics, letting out continuous frail moaning shrieks.
"O my God!" cried Ed Thatcher, clasping his hands.
"You'd better go away for this evening, Mr. Thatcher. ... She'll quiet down, once you've gone. ... I'll put the roses in water."
On the last flight he caught up with a chubby man who was strolling down slowly, rubbing his hands as he went. Their eyes met.
"Everything all right, sir?" asked the chubby man.
"Oh yes, I guess so," said Thatcher faintly.
The chubby man turned on him, delight bubbling through his thick voice. "Congradulade me, congradulade me; mein vife has giben birth to a poy."
Thatcher shook a fat little hand. "Mine's a girl," he admitted, sheepishly.
"It is fif years yet and every year a girl, and now dink of it, a poy."
"Yes," said Ed Thatcher as they stepped out on the pavement, "it's a great moment."
"Vill yous allow me sir to invite you to drink a congradulation drink mit me?"
"Why with pleasure."
The latticed halfdoors were swinging in the saloon at the corner of Third Avenue. Shuffling their feet politely they went through into the back room.
"Ach," said the German as they sat down at a scarred brown table, "family life is full of vorries."
"That it is sir; this is my first."
"Vill you haf beer?"
"All right anything suits me."
"Two pottles Culmbacher imported to drink to our little folk." The bottles popped and the sepia-tinged foam rose in the glasses. "Here's success. ... Prosit," said the German, and raised his glass. He rubbed the foam out of his mustache and pounded on the table with a pink fist. "Vould it be indiscreet meester ...?"
"Thatcher's my name."
"Vould it be indiscreet, Mr. Thatcher, to inquvire vat might your profession be?"
"Accountant. I hope before long to be a certified accountant."
"I am a printer and my name is Zucher — Marcus Antonius Zucher."
"Pleased to meet you Mr. Zucher."
They shook hands across the table between the bottles.
"A certified accountant makes big money," said Mr. Zucher.
"Big money's what I'll have to have, for my little girl."
"Kids, they eat money," continued Mr. Zucher, in a deep voice.
"Wont you let me set you up to a bottle?" said Thatcher, figuring up how much he had in his pocket. Poor Susie wouldn't like me to be drinking in a saloon like this. But just this once, and I'm learning, learning about fatherhood.
"The more the merrier," said Mr. Zucher. "... But kids, they eat money. ... Dont do nutten but eat and vear out clothes. Vonce I get my business on its feet. ... Ach! Now vot mit hypothecations and the difficult borrowing of money and vot mit vages going up und these here crazy tradeunion socialists and bomsters ..."
"Well here's how, Mr. Zucher." Mr. Zucher squeezed the foam out of his mustache with the thumb and forefinger of each hand. "It aint every day ve pring into the voirld a papy poy, Mr. Thatcher."
"Or a baby girl, Mr. Zucher."
The barkeep wiped the spillings off the table when he brought the new bottles, and stood near listening, the rag dangling from his red hands.
"And I have the hope in mein heart that ven my poy drinks to his poy, it vill be in champagne vine. Ach, that is how things go in this great city."
"I'd like my girl to be a quiet homey girl, not like these young women nowadays, all frills and furbelows and tight lacings. And I'll have retired by that time and have a little place up the Hudson, work in the garden evenings. ... I know fellers downtown who have retired with three thousand a year. It's saving that does it."
"Aint no good in savin," said the barkeep. "I saved for ten years and the savings bank went broke and left me nutten but a bankbook for my trouble. Get a close tip and take a chance, that's the only system."
"That's nothing but gambling," snapped Thatcher.
"Well sir it's a gamblin game," said the barkeep as he walked back to the bar swinging the two empty bottles.
"A gamblin game. He aint so far out," said Mr. Zucher, looking down into his beer with a glassy meditative eye. "A man vat is ambeetious must take chances. Ambeetions is vat I came here from Frankfort mit at the age of tvelf years, und now that I haf a son to vork for ... Ach, his name shall be Vilhelm after the mighty Kaiser."
"My little girl's name will be Ellen after my mother." Ed Thatcher's eyes filled with tears.
Mr. Zucher got to his feet. "Veil goodpy Mr. Thatcher. Happy to have met you. I must go home to my little girls."
Thatcher shook the chubby hand again, and thinking warm soft thoughts of motherhood and fatherhood and birthday cakes and Christmas watched through a sepia-tinged foamy haze Mr. Zucher waddle out through the swinging doors. After a while he stretched out his arms. Well poor little Susie wouldn't like me to be here. ... Everything for her and the bonny wee bairn.
"Hey there yous how about settlin?" bawled the barkeep after him when he reached the door.
"Didnt the other feller pay?"
"Like hell he did."
"But he was t-t-treating me...."
The barkeep laughed as he covered the money with a red lipper. "I guess that bloat believes in savin."
A small bearded bandylegged man in a derby walked up Allen Street, up the sunstriped tunnel hung with skyblue and smokedsalmon and mustardyellow quilts, littered with second hand gingerbread-colored furniture. He walked with his cold hands clasped over the tails of his frockcoat, picking his way among packing boxes and scuttling children. He kept gnawing his lips and clasping and unclasping his hands. He walked without hearing the yells of the children or the annihilating clatter of the L trains overhead or smelling the rancid sweet huddled smell of packed tenements.
At a yellowpainted drugstore at the corner of Canal, he stopped and stared abstractedly at a face on a green advertising card. It was a highbrowed cleanshaven distinguished face with arched eyebrows and a bushy neatly trimmed mustache, the face of a man who had money in the bank, poised prosperously above a crisp wing collar and an ample dark cravat. Under it in copybook writing was the signature King C. Gillette. Above his head hovered the motto NO STROPPING NO HONING. The little bearded man pushed his derby back off his sweating brow and looked for a long time into the dollarproud eyes of King C. Gillette. Then he clenched his fists, threw back his shoulders and walked into the drugstore.
His wife and daughters were out. He heated up a pitcher of water on the gasburner. Then with the scissors he found on the mantel he clipped the long brown locks of his beard. Then he started shaving very carefully with the new nickelbright safety razor. He stood trembling running his fingers down his smooth white cheeks in front of the stained mirror. He was trimming his mustache when he heard a noise behind him. He turned towards them a face smooth as the face of King C. Gillette, a face with a dollarbland smile. The two little girls' eyes were popping out of their heads. "Mommer ... it's popper," the biggest one yelled. His wife dropped like a laundrybag into the rocker and threw the apron over her head.
"Oyoy! Oyoy!" she moaned rocking back and forth.
"Vat's a matter? Dontye like it?" He walked back and forth with the safety razor shining in his hand now and then gently fingering his smooth chin.CHAPTER 2
There were Babylon and Nineveh; they were built of brick. Athens was gold marble columns. Rome was held up on broad arches of rubble. In Constantinople the minarets flame like great candles round the Golden Horn ... Steel, glass, tile, concrete will be the materials of the skyscrapers. Crammed on the narrow island the millionwindowed buildings will jut glittering, pyramid on pyramid like the white cloudhead above a thunderstorm.
When the door of the room closed behind him, Ed Thatcher felt very lonely, full of prickly restlessness. If Susie were only here he'd tell her about the big money he was going to make and how he'd deposit ten dollars a week in the savings bank just for little Ellen; that would make five hundred and twenty dollars a year. ... Why in ten years without the interest that'd come to more than five thousand dollars. I must compute the compound interest on five hundred and twenty dollars at four per cent. He walked excitedly about the narrow room. The gas jet purred comfortably like a cat. His eyes fell on the headline on a Journal that lay on the floor by the coalscuttle where he had dropped it to run for the hack to take Susie to the hospital.
MORTON SIGNS THE GREATER NEW YORK BILL COMPLETES THE ACT MAKING NEW YORK WORLD'S SECOND METROPOLIS
Breathing deep he folded the paper and laid it on the table. The world's second metropolis. ... And dad wanted me to stay in his ole fool store in Onteora. Might have if it hadnt been for Susie. ... Gentlemen tonight that you do me the signal honor of offering me the junior partnership in your firm I want to present to you my little girl, my wife. I owe everything to her.
In the bow he made towards the grate his coat-tails flicked a piece of china off the console beside the bookcase. He made a little clicking noise with his tongue against his teeth as he stooped to pick it up. The head of the blue porcelain Dutch girl had broken off from her body. "And poor Susie's so fond of her knicknacks. I'd better go to bed."
He pushed up the window and leaned out. An L train was rumbling past the end of the street. A whiff of coal smoke stung his nostrils. He hung out of the window a long while looking up and down the street. The world's second metropolis. In the brick houses and the dingy lamplight and the voices of a group of boys kidding and quarreling on the steps of a house opposite, in the regular firm tread of a policeman, he felt a marching like soldiers, like a sidewheeler going up the Hudson under the Palisades, like an election parade, through long streets towards something tall white full of colonnades and stately. Metropolis.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Manhattan Transfer"
Copyright © 1925 John Dos Passos.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Great Lady on a White Horse,
Longlegged Jack of the Isthmus,
Nine Days' Wonder,
Went to the Animals' Fair,
Five Statutory Questions,
One More River to Jordan,
Rejoicing City That Dwelt Carelessly,
The Burthen of Nineveh,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I can't believe I'm the first person to review this book. I read it for my modern fiction class and was totally blown away by it. The way in which dos Passos transcribes not only the lives of his characters - both main characters and those who only exist in a few passages - but how their lives entwine with one another is breathtaking. Truly a beautiful, well-written and poetic novel. Don't pass it up!
This book moves exremely fast and has too many story lines,but is a some what enjoyable book.
This is a book I recommend only to readers I know to patient. For the patient reader it is a treasure trove, a gem, and if a gem it must be emerald because it there ever was a book with a signature color it would be this one. At one point I began counting how many time the color green was mentioned, then any shade of green was mentioned. This is not to suggest that this book needed games such as mine to make it absorbing. Between the incisive character development, modern tough-sweet lyricism, the rhythmic pulse of the story Manhattan Transfer had style and substance to spare. Here is my review from when I read it in 2009 I had avoided Dos Passos novels for fear that they would be deadeningly political. Was I ever wrong? This book is wonderfully enjoyable. Told in impressionistic vignettes the book moves quickly as stars on the Manhattan stage rise and fall. Dos Passos indictment of the materialism and soulessness of turn of the century New York is told with neither sentiment nor heartlessness, but falls in a middle ground-dispassionate. The time frames can be confusing. For instance, in the beginning the book,the child Ellen is born, and carries her to a school- age. However,in the same section, the time lapse for Max, a wanderer hoping to find a job in the city, is only a few days elapse. Some characters are followed from childhood to adulthood, the two most promnient are Jimmy Herf and Ellen. Others appear briefly and then are never heard from again leaving a tantalizing void. On a peculiar note, I have never read a book where color is used in such an effective way. At times it seems as if colors shine dimly on the story, rather like gels have been but in can lights. And the color green is forever popping up. I have no idea if it was intentional. Very odd and intriguing. Really a fantastic book, and I am now going to search out more of dos Passos's books. Certainly my favorite book by a "one-eyed Portuguese bastard."
This is a dense read, but well worth the time. Dos Passos' language and metaphors are brilliant, and his characters as entertaining as they are realistic. It's a book that you need to spend time with because, fair warning, there are dozens of characters to keep track of, but the atmosphere of early twentieth century New York is flawlessly portrayed, and the book as a whole is a masterpiece of careful portrayal and interpretation. This is a book that bears up under reading and rereading, and it's worth the time to explore. It's not an easy read, but I highly recommend it when you have the time to fully escape into a piece of literature for a few days.
Dos Passos is an American writer I'm coming to appreciate more and more. This book originally published in 1925--is very experimental in nature following a variety of threads occuring often simultaneously and which more often than not resemble an impressionistic and cinematic style reliant on newspaper headlines and tin pan alley popular musical lyrics to fill the gaps between scenes and/or to flesh the scenes out. Dos Passos has a very good eye for detail and is very keen on showing the gap between the rich and the poor--those who are defeated far outweighing in numbers the success stories. The two main characters of Jimmy Herf--an orphan brought up in well to do circumstances by his mothers' wealthy family who somewhat to their chagrin rejects the opportunity to join the family business--and becomes a newspaper man instead and Elaine Thatcher an aspiring actress on Broadway being chased by a whole host of would be suitors--and both of whom over the course of events eventually hook up to raise the child of the man Elaine really loved--who had accidentally killed himself. There are however no real happy endings here. The marraige is doomed from the start and as the book ends the penniless Mr. Herf is to be seen hitchhiking out of New York out to what one would hope to be a new and better horizon.Anyway liked it very much.
Considering when it was written and the use of experimental technique, some latitude is justified in critiquing the novel. However, in the 21st century, one would expect a story with a plot, and a satisfying conclusion rather than a tour of the failings of a big city and of its inhabitants. I consider this at best a good midtown café, not an uptown fine-dining establishment. On the positive side, the descriptions and metaphors enable the reader to experience the look and feel of what life was like in those days. It seemed that the author had created a real world populated by real people. However I wish that it had been easier early on to determine which characters to focus on. Jimmy Herf and Elaine carry most of the main thread of the novel, but some important details--without disclosing the story--seem strangely blank, for example, their WWI experience. There are some “whatever happened to” characters that are not resolved satisfactorily.