Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos

March 27, 2011

John Dos Passos was a prominent member of “The Lost Generation”, rivaling Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner for literary preeminence. That many know nothing of him and many more have never read his work suggests a decline in his reputation. The suggestion is not false. He certainly is rarely included as high on lists of great works as either of those other three authors. This has little to do with the beauty of his early works or with his originality as an artist. Rather, it has mostly to do, I think, with his politics.

Like Hemingway, Dos Passos was an ambulance driver during World War I. He and Heminway developed a friendship and bonded over their left-leaning politics. Dos Passos’s views were driven by his dismay at the split of America, as he saw it, between the wealthy and the poor. These opinions are evident in his works mostly as a compassionately realistic rendering of his working class characters. These two most lauded of his novels (the trilogy and Manhattan Transfer) are not polemical, however, at least not in putting forth a particular political agenda. What seethes beneath is not a political agenda, but a frustration with the indignities industrial capitalism foists on ordinary people. There is the feeling in both Manhattan Transfer and his U.S.A. Trilogy that everyone, whether rich or poor, is ground down by American capitalism and the pursuit of money.

His politics shifted rightward over the years, beginning with the nomination of FDR as the Democratic nominee. Dos Passos was disappointed with the nomination. Soon thereafter, he attacked communist political theory which, of course, upset many of his fellow writers who were themselves communists and alienated many of his American and European readers. His literary status dimmed. Eventually, his anti-communist views hardened until he became at least a tentative supporter of Joseph McCarthy. This did not endear him to the artistic and literary communities. Further, though I have not read any of his writings after his shift to the right, my understanding is that his later works declined in literary quality.

All of which is to say, Hemingway and Faulkner managed to eclipse Dos Passos not through a rigorous comparison of their highest aesthetic achievements, but because Dos Passos made himself a political outcast and faltered artistically later in life. I have noted on this blog before my admiration for his U.S.A. Trilogy, so I will only say here that I thought it was a phenomenal work of astounding scope and accomplishment.

I picked up Manhattan Transfer with the trepidation typical of a return to one’s former paradise. Will it be the same? Will things seem smaller, dirtier, duller? I can say that, while this is not quite as powerful as U.S.A., I was pleasantly relieved with what I discovered.

There are too many characters and too many of them “primary” to sketch out a summarizing plot. The story is that of New York rather than any specific individuals who inhabit it, yet individuals do populate the pages and vividly. The individuals do not represent anything or any, but lead complicated lives trying to make it in New York.

One storyline begins with young attorney George Balwin reading the newspaper in his office. Having no clients, a story about a milkman seriously injured in an accident (a milkman previously introduced to the reader) provokes him:

He ought to sue the railroad. By gum I ought to get hold of that man and make him sue the railroad. . . . Not yet recovered consciousness. . . . Maybe he’s dead. Then his wife can sue them all the more. . . . I’ll go to the hospital this very afternoon. . . . Get in ahead of any of these shysters. He took a determined bite of bread and chewed it vigorously. Of course not; I’ll go to the house and see if there isn’t a wife or mother or something: Forgive me Mrs. McNiel if I intrude upon your deep affliction, but I am engaged in an investigation at this moment. . . . Yes, retained by prominent interests. . . . He drank up the last of the coffee and paid the bill.

With that, his career begins.

Emile and Congo Jake are seamen trying to decide whether to give New York life a go or to ship out. Jimmy Herf is a momma’s boy who grows up to be a journalist. Ellen Thatcher is a daddy’s girl and grows up to be many things, including a leading actress. The lives of these and many other characters are elaborately braided together to form a picture of New York society nearly from top to bottom. The picture of the African American community and other “non-whites” exists, if at all, mostly as blank space. They exist only as doormen, maids, and others whose personalities, hopes, dreams, fears, and lives are given little more attention than the automobiles or furniture in the room.

Bud, a young man who came to the city from upstate New York, first finds work as a dishwasher. The description of his first day on the job is both impressive in the manner Dos Passos conveys the drudgery and shocking in the way racial attitudes are presented.

Plates slip endlessly through Bud’s greasy fingers. Smell of swill and hot soapsuds. Twice round with the little mop, dip, rinse and pile in the rack for the longnosed Jewish boy to wipe. Knees wet from spillings, grease creeping up his forearms, elbows cramped.

“Hell this aint no job for a white man.”

“I dont care so long as I eat,” said the Jewish boy above the rattle of the dishes and the clatter and seething of the range where three sweating cooks fried eggs and ham and hamburger steak and browned potatoes and cornedbeef hash.

“Sure I et all right,” said Bud and ran his tongue round his teeth dislodging a sliver of salt meat that he mashed against his palate with his tongue. Twice round the little mop, dip, rinse and pile in the rack for the longnosed Jewish boy to wipe. There was a lull. The Jewish boy handed Bud a cigarette. They stood leaning against the sink.

“Aint no way to make money dishwashing.” The cigarette wabbled on the Jewish boy’s heavy lip as he spoke.

“Aint no job for a white man nohow,” said Bud. “Waitin’s better, they’s the tips.”

This offhanded racism is, while not prevalent, at least significant in this work (as it was in U.S.A.). The racism is that of the characters and is likely an accurate depiction of the common attitude. The scorn is not restricted to African Americans but also to Italians (“wops”), Irish, Indians, and others who were considered categorically different somehow:

Imagine living down here among low Irish and foreigners, the scum of the universe.

As someone else has noted, these scense are uncomfortable because they are so casually tossed off. There is about them no sense of awareness on the part of the author (either as opposing or promoting the views) of the ugliness. Given Dos Passos’s considerable interest in the plight of the downtrodden, his apparent obliviousness to racial and ethnic injustices is at least puzzling. It cannot be swept away with the recognition that politics are often treated in a similarly nonjudgmental way because, ultimately, both Manhattan Transfer and U.S.A. do make powerful statements about the political state of the city and nation, respectively. I have neither a sufficiently broad nor sufficiently deep knowledge of his work to go any further in what could certainly be a dissertation on the depiction of race in Dos Passos. It exists as it did exist, it is ugly as it was ugly.

I think Dos Passos manages more with respect to gender. He recognizes the inequality. In the following, Ed Thatcher has struck up a conversation with old man down on his luck. His daughter Ellen is uncomfortable.

”Daddy let’s go away. I dont like this man,” whispered Ellen tremulously in her father’s ear.

“All right we’ll go and take a look at the sealions. . . . Good day.”

“You couldn’t fahnd me the price of a cup o coffee could you now sir? I’m fair foundered.” Thatcher put a dime in the grimy knobbed hand.

“But daddy, mummy said never to let people speak to you in the street an to call a policeman if they did an to run away as fast as you could on account of those horrible kidnappers.”

“No danger of their kidnapping me Ellie. That’s just for little girls.”

“When I grow up will I be able to talk to people on the street like that?”

“No deary you certainly will not.”

“If I’d been a boy could I?”

“I guess you could.”

As with the racial epithets, no further attention is drawn to the scene, but the feeling is different. This exchange seems important precisely because of the gender issues inherent in both the daughter’s and father’s reactions. The impression that Dos Passos’s concerns go deeper as the women in his novel struggle against convention, traditional roles, and the peculiar perils of sex for them. Their reputations with respect to sexual virtue matter whereas, with the men, it does not. Further, the facts of unwanted pregnancies, illegitimacy, and abortion are starkly presented. Also, one character is homosexual and his difficulties, both socially and psychologically, are dealt with in a sympathetic and convincing way. The character is neither caricatured nor condemned. Rather, the difficulties of being a homosexual in early 1900s New York is explored in a surprisingly modern way. Dos Passos can engage interestingly in such social issues without resorting to either preachiness or stereotype.

The main show, however, is the struggle to survive and to “get ahead.” The fortunes of characters rise and fall, sometimes expectedly and sometimes unexpectedly. Sometimes they stagnate, as with Jimmy Herf, the momma’s boy:

”The trouble with me is I cant decide what I want most, so my motion is circular, helpless and confoundedly discouraging.”

Dos Passos sometimes powerfully evokes the emotion of the moment, as when Jimmy seems possibly to have lost a woman for whom he has fallen.

Jimmy Herf stood stockstill at the foot of the brownstone steps. His temples throbbed. He wanted to break the door down after her. He dropped on his knees and kissed the step where she had stood. The fog swirled and flickered with colors in confetti about him. Then the trumpet feeling ebbed and he was falling through a black manhole. He stood stockstill. A policeman’s ballbearing eyes searched his face as he passed, a stout blue column waving a nightstick. Then suddenly he clenched his fists and walked off. “O God everything is hellish,” he said aloud. He wiped the grit off his lips with his coatsleeve.

The fact that the woman will never see him kiss the ground conveys the depth and truth of his feeling and the futility of it. And, then, he seems to shake his desperate love, at least for a moment. The grit on his lips, though, is the masterful touch. Dos Passos can write.

I am long overdue posting this for the Classics Circuit, so I will stop somewhat abruptly here. I highly recommend Dos Passos though I suggest starting with U.S.A.. The techniques he uses here are more polished and refined in that work. That also means U.S.A. is slightly less accessible, which cuts against my advice. Dos Passos is well-worthy of exploration, wherever you start.

[Update: And, I meant to add this above, there is further discussion of this particular work at Pechorins Journal. I highly recommend checking that blog out generally and specifically with reference to this work.]

The U.S.A. Trilogy by John Dos Passos

July 22, 2009

“[M]ostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.” So says John Dos Passos in the prologue to his outstanding U.S.A., a trilogy which spans the first several decades of the 20th century. Dos Passos, talking about the country, fairly summarized his own astounding work of art.

Few literary works manage to be as distinctively original as U.S.A.. I would suggest that this alone warrants picking up the first volume of the trilogy, The 42nd Parallel, and giving it a try.TheUSATrilogy If you need more encouragement, you should know that it has received copious praise from authors as diversely talented as Jean-Paul Sartre, Norman Mailer, and E.L. Doctorow, to name but a few. Further, the trilogy utilized innovative techniques, had an original structure, was ambitious in scope, and brought depth to its subject. Add that it is an entertaining read with well-written prose. What I am saying, is that U.S.A. made it into the canon for a reason.

Now, The Second Pass suggests that Dos Passos’ U.S.A. be “Fired from the Canon.” In support of this heresy, they raise only the specter of Newsreel V from The 42nd Parallel, the first book in the trilogy. Okay, not only. There are some pejoratives leading up to the selective quotation, but, really, the only evidence they supply is Newsreel V. The problem with this criticism is that the Newsreels (a) make up a very small portion of the total, (b) are not meant to “draw in” the reader to a particular narrative, rather the static is the point of these short bits, (c) are actually incoherent out of context, (d) only have the intended effect when interspersed among the more conventional narrative pieces, (e) work better skimmed than misguidedly read for content, and (f) can be skipped entirely if the reader hates them so much that the reader otherwise will not read this fine trilogy.

I took the assault a little personally, maybe.

Had an attack on the equally experimental “Camera Eye” sections of the book been launched, a similar defense could have been raised. The Camera Eye sections consist of stream of consciousness prose in the first person:

…and everything was very kind and grave and very sorry and frigates and the blue Mediterranean and islands and when I was dead I began to cry and I was afraid the other boys would see I had tears in my eyes…I was so sorry I never remembered whether they brought me home or buried me at sea but anyway I was wrapped in Old Glory.

These sections provide a more intimate psychological look at some aspects of America without subjecting readers to an entire stream-of-consciousness book. (Not that I would have any problem with that.)42ndParallel I think the sections work. They help set the mood and, as I said, reach elements of the American psyche that cannot be illuminated via the third person narrative that makes up the vast bulk of the novel.

Basically, I think The Second Pass misunderstood the purpose and proper approach to the very short digressions (Newsreels and Camera Eyes) from the primary narrative.

The Second Pass does not attack, either explicitly or implicitly, the biographical sketches of real people that also break up the primary narrative. This is because the biographical sketches are masterpieces in miniature. Take this excerpt from the section “The Campers at Kitty Hawk” in The Big Money:

The folks claimed it was the bishop’s bringing home a helicopter, a fiftycent mechanical toy made of two fans worked by elastic bands that was supposed to hover in the air, that had got his two youngest boys hipped on the subject of flight so that they stayed home instead of marrying the way the other boys did, and puttered all day about the house picking up a living with jobprinting, bicyclerepair work, sitting up late nights reading books on aerodynamics.

Still they were sincere churchmembers, their bicycle business was prosperous, a man could rely on their word. They were popular in Dayton.

Dos Passos drops these excellent details at a point in the narrative where flight is particularly relevant. The sketches work to enhance the narrative with historical context, while providing short breaks of delicious nonfiction tidbits to be savored.1919 The execution is simply outstanding. As a quick primer on some major (and some minor) public figures of the early 20th century, U.S.A. is worth the price.

The best part of U.S.A. makes up its bulk: the more traditional narrative. I say “more traditional” because the narrative has a unique feel. Partly, this is because U.S.A. is not plot-driven. The trilogy is also not character-driven, at least in any conventional sense. Each section of the narrative is labeled after a particular character; each narrative section utilizes the omniscient third-person. Those looking for plot may be frustrated by the abrupt end to some characters or the fact that others seem sure to return, only they do not. Obviously, the same feature will frustrate those who become too focused on a character who does not subsequently return to the narrative. But no single individual is the subject.

The plot of U.S.A. is history, the central character is the United States of America. It is an American trilogy of the breadth and depth of a Tolstoy novel. While Dos Passos is earnestly concerned with the plight of ordinary individuals, this is not an examination of an everyman at a particular moment in American history as in Bellow’s Sieze the Day nor the examination of the American Dream through a single protagonist as in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Dos Passos’ subject is America writ large, particularly the gritty American experience. To this end, Dos Passos requires multiple “protagonists” who rise and fall in importance relative to the story of America that he is telling. The supporting cast Dos Passos utilizes includes the train-hopping, wannabe newspaperman Fainy McCreary, the upwardly-mobile public relations guru J. Ward Moorehouse, his administrative assistant Janey Williams, the artist and later interior decorator Eveline Hutchins, the mechanic Charley Anderson, journalist and labor-activist Mary French, aspiring actress/entertainer Margo Dowling, sailor Joe Williams, and many others. These supporting characters are all interesting and well drawn.

Dos Passos can pull readers into a scene beautifully, this from The 42nd Parallel:

After a while the boys stripped to their bathingsuits that they wore under their clothes. It made Janey’s throat tremble to watch Alec’s back and the bulging muscles of his arm as he paddled, made her feel happy and scared. She sat there in her white dimity dress, trailing her hand in the weedy browngreen water…The cream soda got warm and they drank it that way and kidded each other back and forth and Alec caught a crab and covered Janey’s dress with greenslimy splashes and Janey didn’t care a bit and they called Joe skipper and he loosened up and said he was going to join the navy and Alec said he’d be a civil engineer and build a motorboat and take them all cruising and Janey was happy because they included her when they talked just like she was a boy too.

Or this from the second novel, 1919, where two characters from the first are sitting at a small café in Europe just after Eveline has asked an intimate question of J.W.

Eveline sat looking at him [J.W.] with her lips a little apart, her cheeks blazing. ‘Maybe it’s taken the war to teach us how to live,’ he said. ‘We’ve been too much interested in money and material things, it’s taken the French to show us how to live. Where back home in the States could you find a beautiful atmosphere like this?’ J.W. waved his arm to include in a sweeping gesture the sea, the tables crowded with women dressed in bright colors and men in their best uniforms, the bright glint of blue light on glasses and cutlery. The waiter mistook his gesture and slyly substituted a full bottle for the empty bottle in the champagnepail.

Often, Dos Passos will pull back, summarizing larger segments of time, popping in only the details that matter to his larger point as in this scene encompassing nearly two years from The Big Money:

Their first child was born in December. It was a boy. They named him Wheatley. When Gladys came back from the hospital instead of coming back to the apartment she went into the new house out at Grosse Pointe that still smelt of paint and raw plaster. What with the hospital expenses and the furniture bills and Christmas, Charley had to borrow twenty thousand from the bank. He spent more time than ever talking over the phone to Nat Benton’s [his broker’s] office in New York. Gladys bought a lot of new clothes and kept tiffany glass bowls full of freesias and narcissus all over the house. Even on the dressingtable in her bathroom she always had flowers. Mrs. Wheatley said she got her love of flowers from her grandmother Randolph, because the Wheatleys had never been able to tell one flower from another. When the next child turned out to be a girl, Gladys said, as she lay in the hospital, her face looking drawn and yellow against the white pillows, beside the great bunch of glittering white orchids Charley had ordered from the florist at five dollars a bloom, she wished she could name her Orchid. They ended by naming her Marguerite after Gladys’s grandmother Randolph.

Dos Passos manages in this paragraph to efficiently say so much about the relationships between Gladys, Charley, and Mrs. Wheatley. The paragraph starts in a disinterested, almost clinical, third person. By the fourth sentence, the third person narration has warmed, Gladys could be relating these events to a friend: “the new house….still smelt of paint…Charley had to borrow twenty thousand…He spent more time than ever talking over the phone…” Dos Passos nicely shifts from finances to the flowers. You can hear Mrs. Wheatley going on about her daughter inheriting grandmother Randolph’s affinity for flowers. But there is a small jab with a slight shift, if only for a moment, to Charley’s viewpoint. Charley sees his wife with “her face looking drawn and yellow against the white pillows” and, instead of seeing the aesthetics of the situation, he sees her surrounded by five dollar blooms.

At any rate, Dos Passos is an excellent writer of standard prose, whatever you think of the experimental “Newsreel” or “Camera Eye” breaks. The narrative portions are very engaging and enjoyable. Only if you require a tidy, conventional plot, could you be disappointed in that aspect of the book. TheBigMoneyEven so, Dos Passos creates enough urgency to keep the reader eager to turn the page. For many, if not all, of the characters, their sections, if pulled out and stitched together, would form a nice novella (for some only a short story). In some ways, the trilogy is like a series of linked short stories and novellas. The difference is that some stories begin before others have ended. Often, a character with his or her own section will show up in the section of another, sometimes with a large role, other times only making a brief appearance. In some ways, it is as if Dos Passos is holding America up to a light and slowly turning it back and forth, letting the light shine on one facet, then another, then the first again.

I would say that I have a hard time imagining there are people who do not enjoy this trilogy, but I do not have to imagine them. They exist. They include The Second Pass. The criticisms The Second Pass has are the same, limited criticisms I have heard and read elsewhere. Apparently, some readers are very turned off by the short experimental sections. As I said before, if you find that you are one of those readers, skim those sections or skip them entirely. While those sections are an important part of the overall aesthetic effect, it is better to cut them off than damn the entire work.

I am a Dos Passos booster. I admit it. Next time you see U.S.A. or The 42nd Parallel (the first book of the trilogy) on a shelf, pick it up and skip through the first Newsreel and the first Camera Eye. Start with Mac. Read a couple pages of his story. You will not regret it.

[Updated some formatting issues at 4:50pm, 7-22-09.]