(1925), a novel by American author John Dos Passos, takes place in Manhattan between the Gilded Age and the Jazz age; it uses a series of interconnected stories of individuals, couples, and groups to illustrate the development of urban life in New York City and create a picture of a city that is teeming with energy and restlessness but is also merciless to those who cannot keep up with its challenging pace. An early example of Dos Passos’s experimental writing style using narrative collages, which he became known for in his later work, Manhattan Transfer
explores themes of poverty, socialism, the search for love, and the struggles of what has become known as the “Lost Generation” — those who reached maturity in the aftermath of World War I. It also looks at the symbolism of signs and advertising, a field that was booming during this era. One of Dos Passos’s most discussed and analyzed books, it was listed number 78 on Le Monde
’s 100 Books of the Century.Manhattan Transfer
follows a wide array of characters in Manhattan in the waning days of the Gilded Age. They include Ellen Hatcher, a girl born to accountant Ed Thatcher and his wife Susie; Bud Korpenning, an ambitious young man from the country who arrives to New York by boat with ambitions to make his fortune in the big city; and George Baldwin, a young lawyer who has had trouble finding his first big case until he hears about a milkman who was hit by a train. Taking on the case, he meets the milkman, Gus McNeil, and his wife Nellie. Soon, George and Nellie find they have a connection, and while George is helping Gus win a settlement for his injuries, he and Nellie are beginning a passionate affair. At the same time, a young boy named Jimmy Herf arrives in the city with his mother, but soon after their arrival, his mother has a stroke and dies. Jimmy is sent to live with his aunt and uncle, who support his academic ambitions and hope for him to go to an Ivy League school so he can start a career in business. Jimmy, however, is more socially conscious and decides to pursue a career in journalism.
As time goes on, some of these people find success, and others struggle. Bud’s desperation leads him to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge. Ellen becomes a successful stage actress courted by many men. Jimmy learns that his older cousin Joe Harland, a formerly successful trader, is now a poor drunk. The economic troubles turn many people to drink, including former Harvard student Stan Emery. He meets Ellen, now married to John Oglethorpe, and they begin an affair. Gus McNeil, now a wealthy man due to the lawsuit, is active in politics. He tries to convince George to run for office as well, but George has his own concerns, including struggles with his law practice, his failing marriage, and a growing infatuation with Ellen. Many people in the town have an obsession with Ellen; George’s gets out of control when she flirts with him at a roadhouse, and he pulls a gun on her. World War I has broken out, and Jimmy expresses his desire to enlist. Stan leaves Ellen to marry a girl named Pearline and dies in a fire not long afterward. Ellen learns she’s pregnant with his baby and decides to keep it.
The story then flashes forward to the aftermath of the First World War. The soldiers, including Jimmy and his cousin James, are returning home. Jimmy and Ellen married while in Europe, and Jimmy is raising her son, Martin. George Baldwin has decided to run for office on a reform ticket; this enrages the politically radical Gus. Prohibition has been passed, leading to the rise of bootlegging. Congo Jake, a former French sailor whom Jimmy met overseas, is dominating the illegal liquor trade. He reinvents himself as a Park Avenue millionaire named Armand Duval and enters high society. Not all returning veterans are as lucky, as men like Dutch Robertson return home to no job prospects and are reduced to crime and eventually prison. Ellen and Jimmy’s relationship begins to fall apart once they return from Europe. Ellen has quit the stage, and she tells Jimmy she no longer loves him. Having had enough of the city, Jimmy quits his job as a journalist and plans to leave New York for good. Ellen and Jimmy divorce, and she reunites with George Baldwin. In the last scene, Jimmy begins his long trip away from New York.
John Dos Passos was an American novelist and artist, highly involved in the Socialist movement in the first half of the twentieth century. Best known for his highly acclaimed U.S.A. Trilogy
, he was the author of more than twenty books during a fifty-year active writing career. The John Dos Passos Prize is given out by Longwood University every year to honor his legacy.