Manhatten Transfer. Dos Passos’ depiction of the city of New York and Ellen Thatcher’s & Jimmy Herfs’ perception of the world

Seminar Paper, 2007

20 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents


1. Content and Structure

2. Historical Background

3. Depiction of New York

4. Ellen Thatcher
4.1 Smell
4.2 Noise
4.3 Optical Impressions
4.4 The sense of touch
4.5 Conclusion

5. Jimmy Herf
5.1 Smell
5.2 Noise
5.3 Optical Impressions
5.4 The sense of touch
5.5 Conclusion

6. Jimmy versus Ellen



Manhattan Transfer is one of the earliest of that type of novels which has come to be known as „collectivistic“. The idea is to present a cross-section of the social structure, the social organism; an “over-view” of the subject in which details of individual lives merge in the general picture of society” (Belkind 1971:61).

This quotation by Allen Belkind shows that the American author John Dos Passos is not interested in individual characters and their lives in Manhattan Transfer but in how the characters solve the problems and their everyday life in a metropolis, in the city of New York.

I would like to deal with Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos which was first published in 1925. I will start with some autobiographical facts about Dos Passos to show how he grew up and how his life influenced his works. A short summary and the numeration of stylistic features of Manhattan Transfer will lead to the depiction of the city New York as the actual protagonist of this novel. There are different social groups such as immigrants or poor and rich people described in the book. I want to deal with Ellen Thatcher and Jimmy Herf as the protagonists, and I want to show how they perceive the world. This part is the main topic of this paper. There are numerous essays about the novel Manhattan Transfer and how it deals with New York. I am going to point out the images of New York and their effects on Ellen Thatcher and Jimmy Herf.

John Rodrigo Dos Passos was born in Chicago/ Illinois on January 14th 1896. He studied at Harvard University and in Spain. He used the experiences he made as ambulance driver and medic in the Great War (1914-1918). For his first novel called One Man’s Initiation (1917). It was first published in 1920. His breakthrough came in 1921 with his second war novel Three Soldiers. In 1925, he published the most significant big town novel of Modernism: Manhattan Transfer. In this novel he portrays an extensive image of New York’s social classes between 1890 and 1925. In the paper Facing the Chai r, Dos Passos fought for the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti who were executed after their political lawsuits[1]. In his epochal masterpiece, USA, John Dos Passos raged in one "Camera Eye" episode:

All right you have won [...] America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out [...] they have built the electric chair and hired the executioner to throw the switch […] all right we are two nations.

Sacco and Vanzetti had been found guilty for a mafia attack which ended with the death of a paymaster and his guard. The investigation of the local police had no clear indication for their guilt. Several eyewitnesses had been of Italian origin. Their trial testimonies were bad translations and failed their influence on the jury. Here, he already shows his ambitions for communism[2]. In 1935, Dos Passos wrote a screenplay for the film The Devils is a woman with Marlene Dietrich.

The new techniques to create atmosphere in films became later on the basis of all later novels, for example, the US American trilogy The 42nd parallel (1930), 1919 (1932) and The Big Money (1936). Dos Passos explains and describes the history of the United States from the end of the 19th century until the 1930’s. After 1938, after having published the complete edition, he abandoned communism. AT the same time, his style changed into a simple, unemotional way of writing (Kalaidjian 2005: 5, 46).

During the following years, Dos Passos wrote some novels such as the trilogy District of Columbia (1952), personal and historical views, guides and his autobiography The Best Times (1966).

Dos Passos died in Baltimore/ Maryland on September 28th in 1970. Posthumously, Dos Passos influenced a large number of European writers such as Don DeLillo, Camilo José Cela, Anna Seghers and Wolfgang Köppen. He is also an important example of representatives of the neo-realism and American Modernism.

1. Content and Structure

There is a clear symmetry in Manhattan Transfer which lends shape to all the scenes and episodes which are arbitrarily stringed up. Dos Passos divided the novel into three sections which one can equate with arrival, stay and farewell. These sections are further split up into chapters. Section I and III comprise five chapters, the middle section consist of eight. These chapters can also be divided, each into three party. A headline at the beginning of each chapter is followed by a kind of introduction with a different style and content. Titles of the respective chapters indicate main topics of New York’s depiction: technique, money and social upward and downward movements. One can find a large number of songs, newspaper headlines and commercials within the novel. There is quite often a change from direct to indirect speech. The actual episodes report with changing styles and lengths on several people who all have one thing in common: they all live in Manhattan. By resuming certain motives, the reader is led through the incidents.

Thematically, the division of the novel into three parts is also confirmed. The narrator has a camera perspective. At first, the reader is on the surface and gets some general information about the characters. Then, we focus on their lives in the respective scenes. In the first section, Ellen Thatcher is born, Bud Korpenning who killed his father comes to New York with the hope to make his luck there. Jimmy and his mother come back to New York from Europe on Independence Day.

In section II, Dos Passos does not introduce new characters that will be important for later episodes. These chapters rather look at the daily life of the characters as well as Manhattan’s mechanism. The characters that were introduced partly get in contact with each other, in business and in private fields. The fragmented and different life stories seem to form a picture which depicts New York.

In the last section, new people arrive in the city. There are new contacts, others break up. Eventually, the city only allows Jimmy to leave.

2. Historical Background

The novel comprises a time period of 30 years. It starts in 1986 and it ends in 1925. Before I start with the depiction of New York, I will deal with the historical Background of the city of New York during the time frame of the novel. It starts in the 1890’s when the Republican Benjamin Harrison is in power. At the beginning of the novel, problems of immigration from the point of view of immigrants as well as the settled Americans are shown. An immigrant’s life is described as quite difficult. Many people are looking for a job, and if they get one, the pay is low. Immigrants in Manhattan Transfer are moreover afraid of the safety of their families. There is a high unemployment rate at that time, and the settled Americans blame immigrants for their problems.[3] Racial conflicts are the everyday problems since the colonization period of Northern America. After destroying Native American tribes, putting them into reservations, importing and seducing Africans imported by the triangular trade, immigrants from all over the world became enemies in the battle of established Americans for wealth. Several groups attack immigrants and even kill them, for instance, the Klu Klux Klan. Being a colored person at that time makes things even worse. Segregation takes place while laws separate white men from colored ones. They are constantly discriminated, and they find getting jobs very hard. Just rich farmers and owner of manufactures used the lack of jobs to provide immigrants with low-paid work (Tindall/Shi 2000: 691ff.).

The United States’ politics is non-aggressive. The government does not want to be involved into European conflicts. America has separated itself from the rest of the world. The so-called Monroe Doctrine[4] still plays an important role in the States. During the Great War, America jointed an alliance with England and France against the German Empire and Austria. The involvement into war created many now jobs in the armaments industry. In the book the political systems is explained for several times. The rich get richer while they abuse the poorer ones. The classic American slogan: from rags to riches is also the story of a poor immigrant named Congo.

The First World War was a major factor to let the American economy grow. Dos Passos describes the social life in clubs and restaurant. The typical lifestyle of the time is represented for the reader. This era is refereed to the Jazz sessions and piano players as entertainment for the average and the rich public (Tindall/ Shi 2000: 902-905).

The plot continues until 1925. During this time, there are five different presidents, instead of one all have been Republicans. In Manhattan Transfer, the common people support this party because it follows traditional ways. Immigrants of the first generation come to America to find their luck, and they expect money everywhere. The following two generations do not want to change anything that proves the support of the Republican party (Tindall/ Shi 2000: 267).

Manhattan Transfer shows clearly how people enjoy their life in pubs, restaurants or bars which shows America’s benefit from the war with Germany and its allies. The American economy grows and the entrepreneurs create an economy which becomes the largest creditor in the world.


[2] Further reading: “Reading John Dos Passos. Reading Mass Culture in U.S.A.”, in Modernism, Mass Culture, and Professionalism. ed. Strychacz, Thomas (Cambridge 1993), 117-162.

[3] Further reading: Barnard, Rita: “Modern American fiction”, in American Modernism, ed. Walter Kalaidjian (Cambridge 2005), 39-68.

[4] Tindall/ Shi 2000: 310-311.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Manhatten Transfer. Dos Passos’ depiction of the city of New York and Ellen Thatcher’s & Jimmy Herfs’ perception of the world
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Institute of Anglican and American Studies - English Literature and Cultural Studies)
Fragments shored against ruins: T.S. Eliots frühe Lyrik und die Enstehung der modernistischen Avantgarde
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
494 KB
Manhatten, Transfer, Passos’, York, Ellen, Thatcher’s, Jimmy, Herfs’, Fragments, Eliots, Lyrik, Enstehung, Avantgarde
Quote paper
Sebastian Putzier (Author), 2007, Manhatten Transfer. Dos Passos’ depiction of the city of New York and Ellen Thatcher’s & Jimmy Herfs’ perception of the world, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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