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.]