In the compendium ‘The American City – Literary Sources and Documents’ by the late Graham Clarke, the novel Manhattan Transfer (1925) by John dos Passos is mentioned as a book which captures the spirit of modernity of pre-war New York well:
“In relation to New York, it is the new kind of city John dos Passos attempted to image in Manhattan Transfer (1925). A novel not so much concerned with character as process, Manhattan Transfer maps out economic and technical changes as they affect the form of a new kind of urban life. Acutely alert to architecture and the iconography of urban space, Dos Passos registers the city as a “perpetuum mobile” of increasing process and disparate energies. The city is, both literally and symbolically, a text to be read, and full of clues as to the way in which underlying cultural change is usually expressed in the Manhattan of the 1900s. What is so brilliantly rendered is a sense of flux – a seemingly endless transference of meanings from sign to sign which moves beyond the extremes of negative and positive responses so characteristic of the nineteenth century. The novel is, thus, committed to a twentieth-century perspective.”
The novel is indeed distinctly different from the work of Henry James, who for instance in his New York Revisited, reflects critically about the modernisation of New York, and writes trenchantly on the development of skyscrapers. Reading parts of both books next to each other is quite illuminating. Even though the timespan in which these were written is only two decades apart, James’ writing style is flowery, turgid and moralistic, whereas Dos Passos throws you in the midst of the New York experience, of the life of waiters and sailors, lawyers and young mothers. The cut-and-paste of moving from scene to scene reminded me of the movie pulp fiction, although this is so much older! I found in both books gems of perception, uncovering what may very well be the essence of New York. What to think, for instance of the dialogue between a real-estate broker and one of his client, standing in a field on Long Island and promising that the area will only become better:
Manhattan Transfer, Penguin Paperback Edition, 1946:
There were Babylon and Nineveh; they were built of brick. Athens was gold marble columns. Rome was held up on broad arches of rubble. In Constantinople the minarets flame like great candles round the Golden Horn . . . Steel, glass, tile, concrete will be the materials of the skyscrapers. Crammed on the narrow island the millionwindowed buildings will jut glittering, pyramid, on pyramid like the white cloudhead above a thunderstorm.
Mr. Perry flicked at the burdock leaves with his cane. The real-estate agent was pleading in a singsong voice: “I don’t mind telling you, Mr. Perry, it’s an opportunity not to be missed. You know the old saying sir … opportunity knocks but once on a young man’s door. In six months I can virtually guarantee that these lots will have doubled in value. Now that we are a part of New York, the second city in the world, sir, dont forget that. … Why the time will come, and I firmly believe that you and I will see it, when bridge after bridge spanning the East River have made Long Island and Manhattan one, when the Borough of Queens will be as much the throbbing center of the great metropolis as is Astor Place today.”
“I know, I know, but I’m looking for something dead safe. And besides I want to build. My wife hasn’t been very well these last few years. … ”
“But what could be safer than my proposition? Do you realize Mr. Perry, that at a considerable personal loss I’m letting you in on the ground floor of one of the greatest real-estate certainties of modern times. I’m putting at your disposal not only security, but ease, comfort, luxury. We are caught up Mr. Perry on a great wave whether we will or no, a great wave of expansion and progress. A great deal is going to happen in the next few years. All these mechanical inventions – telephones, electricity, steel bridges, horseless vehicles – they are all leading somewhere. It’s up to us to be on the inside, in the forefront of progress. … My God! I cant begin to tell you what it will mean. …” Poking amid the dry grass and the burdock leaves Mr. Perry had moved some thing with his stick. He stooped and picked up a triangular skull with a pair of spiralfluted horns. “By gad!” he said. “That must have been a fine ram.”
Although the end of the real-estate deal between Mr. Perry and the broker is not revealed in the novel, the finding of the ram skull gives a sinister undertone to progress, just like the way in which the pyramid-shaped profile of skyscrapers is compared thunderclouds in the opening of this chapter.