An analytical study of John Dos Passos' Manhattan transfer

No Thumbnail Available
Magee, John D. (John David), 1937-
Sutton, William Alfred, 1915-
Issue Date
Thesis (D. Ed.)
Other Identifiers

An analysis of Manhattan Transfer yields one very formidable conclusion: it is an extraordinarily contrived work of fiction that is a work of art. The novel is extraordinary because nothing quite like it had ever been done before in American literature; contrived, because it is a carefully wrought, deliberated piece of fiction. Thus Manhattan Transfer is an experimental novel in the best sense of the word. It is not the result of any kind of "spontaneous combustion," in which the author was the mere instrument to guide the pen while wrapt in the ecstatic warblings of the muse.Dos Passos believed that he had to find a form that would capture the hum and throb, the agony and the ecstasy of the modern metropolis. He wanted to represent its kaleidoscopic variety, its noise and confusion, and, above all, he wanted to show how modern man is responsible for projecting the monster in his own soul. The monster in Manhattan Transfer is New York City, conceived and built in the image of power and success. The city is a tribute to man's genius;it is also a tribute to his greed. In his desire to succeed at all costs, man has created a labyrinthine technology that he does not understand. Man finds himself going through revolving doors endlessly, finally to the point where he himself is fed through the huge modern machines, like a tapeworm devoid of any direction and sensibility.Moreover Manhattan Transfer is an altogether American novel, because it deals with the phenomenon of the mushrooming American technology with its focus on a huge metropolis. Furthermore, because it is such an innovative novel in terms of traditional fiction, it is clearly in the American stream of literature. It points both forward and backward. It takes as its departure Whitman's tremendous achievements in language experimentation. In his essay in The New Republic (October 14, 1916), Doe Passos proded future practitioners in American literature to experiment, to look back at Walt Whitman and renew his spirit of genuine individualism and gusto. He reminded American writers to look within themselves and create forms that would speak for the times that were flexible and adaptable enough to capture the American spirit. He reprimanded those writers who would follow in the European traditions of the novel without questioning their relationship to the wholly new American experience.One need not have read much Whitman to remember that he called his Leaves of Grass, in the final analysis, a "language experiment." And one need not have read far into ManhattanTransfer to realize that it is also a language experiment. Doe Passos adores language; he is intrigued by its endless manipulatability.Manhattan Transfer is also an enviable source of important knowledge about New York City during the first two decades of the twentieth century. What was it like to live there prior to the first world war? What were the peculiar anxieties, hopes, and dreams, of the people who lived there when it was growing so rapidly into the complex metropolitan center it is today? Almost on every page one can both feel and sense the emerging bigness. The city was becoming cosmopolitan, chaotic, dazzling, and needless to say, frustratingly awesome.