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John Dos Passos: Manhattan Transfer

Dos Passos used this novel as a trial run for his more famous U.S.A. trilogy but this novel is still a very fine piece of work in its own right. If there is a plot, it is the story of Ellen Thatcher but, while her life story or at least, her life from birth to what may be her third marriage, might be a plot, it is as subservient to the overall novel as Bloom’s story in Ulysses for, like Ulysses, this novel is more a kaleidoscopic portrait of a city – in this case, of course, New York – than a conventional tale. Ellen is part of the city but only part of it, just as much as all the many, many other characters are part of it.

Dos Passos clearly had many influences in writing this book. He had spent much time in France and must have been acquainted with some of the modern poets, such as Apollinaire as well as the Surrealists. We know that he had read Joyce. He was also familiar with some of the techniques being developed in cinema by artists such as D W Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein. Indeed, he drew on the whole range of popular culture. However, it is film that seems to be the main influence as we jump from scene to scene, often in the middle of a key piece of action, sometimes to return but sometimes not. The effect is often exhilarating though those more used to conventional novels might call it confusing. However, the result, which is clearly what was intended by Dos Passos, is to give the image of a city permanently in motion. That Ellen and, to a lesser extent, her second husband, the reporter Jimmy Herf, based on Dos Passos himself, react to these various stimuli – note react rather than observe – shows how the city affects them and everyone else in it. They are, whether they like it or not, very much part of the city and that, in this novel, is their role. It remains a first-class city novel.

Publishing history

First published 1925 by Harper