The prose poetry of John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer

John Dos Passos

The early work of John Dos Passos is among my favorite prose of the Lost Generation. While his magnum opus may be his USA Trilogy, his 1925 novel, Manhattan Transfer deserves more attention than it often gets as it was in this work that he begins to set up the experimental style that he would use for USA.

Inspired in part by James Joyce‘s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot‘s The Waste Land, Manhattan Transfer tells the story of New York City’s transformation between the Gilded Age and the Jazz Age. It has a huge cast of characters, some which appear once, and some of which are followed throughout the novel. Scenes range from a paragraph to several pages, with a number of the characters stories’ overlapping, while others remain isolated. There’s an number of things I’d like to delve into about this book, but for today I’d like to look at the prose poetry aspect of it.

Collage of Manhattan Transfer covers
Various cover art from different versions of Manhattan Transfer

To begin with, each chapter starts with what is essentially a prose poem which leads into the story that follows. For example, the first chapter, “Ferryslip” begins with this paragraph:

Three gulls wheel above the broken boxes, orangerinds, spoiled cabbage heads that heave between the splintered plank walls, the green waves spume under the round bow as the ferry, skidding on the tide, crashes, gulps the broken water, slides, settles slowly into the slip. Handwinches whirl with jingle of chains. Gates fold upwards, feet step out across the crack, men and women press through the manuresmelling wooden tunnel of the ferryhouse, crushed and jostling like apples fed down a chute into a press.”

This style can be found throughout this work, both in these chapter introductions as well is in the text itself. Dos Passos often combines two words, as seen above with “orangerinds” and “maunuresmelling,” which gives the novel a certain energy, a forward progression that the reader feels that they can’t stop, much as the characters feel the push of progress, whether they like it or not.

Here are some of my favorite quotes that I came across during this latest read through of the novel. Page numbers correspond to the 1958 Bantam Books edition. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

“Looking out the window was like looking down into water. The trees in the square were tangled in blue cobwebs. Down the avenue lamps were coming on marking off with green shimmer brickpurple blocks of houses; chimney pots and water tanks cut sharp into a sky flushed like flesh.” – Page 5

“He walks faster along roaring pavements where the sun shines through the Elevated striping the blue street with warm seething yellow strips. No more’n a needle in a haystack.” – Page 14

“He was walking through tall white highpiled streets, stalking in a frock coat with a tall white collar up tinfoil stairs, broad, cleanswept, through blue portals into streaky marble halls where money rustled and clinked on long tinfoil tables, banknotes, silver, gold.” – Page 17

“Outside the lemoncolored dawn was drenching the empty streets, dripping from cornices, from the rails of fire escapes, from the rims of ashcans, shattering the blocks of shadow between buildings. The streetlights were out. At a corner they looked up Broadway that was narrow and scorched as if a fire had gutted it.” – Page 31

“I never see the dawn that I don’t say to myself perhaps.” – Page 32

“The light of the sunset flamed in the windows of factories on the Long Island side, flashed in the portholes of tugs, lay in swaths of curling yellow and orange over the swift browngreen water, glowed on the curved sails of a schooner that was slowly bucking the tied up into Hell Gate.” – Page 52

“Mooing of steamboat whistles, ferries red and waddly likes ducks churning up white water, a whole train of cars on a barge pushed by a tug chugging beside it that lets out cotton steampuffs all the same size.” – Page 54

“Bars yawner bright to them at the corners of rainseething streets. Yellow light off mirrors and brass rails and gilt frames round pictures of pink naked women was looped and slopped into whiskeyglasses guzzled fiery with tipped back head, oozed bright through the blood, popped bubbly out of ears and eyes, dripped spluttering off fingertips.” – Page 74

“Bright topstory light brims the walnutpaneled diningroom, glints twistedly on silver knives and forks, gold teeth, watch-chains, scarfpins, is swallowed up in the darkness of broadcloth and tweed, shines roundly on polished plates and bald heads and covers of dishes.” – Page 92-3

“Sunlight dripped in her face through the little holes in the brim of her straw hat. She was walking with brisk steps too short on account of her narrow skirt; through the thin china silk the sunlight tingled like a hand stroking her back. In the heavy heat streets, stores, people in Sunday clothes, strawhats, sunshades, surfacecars, taxis, broke and crinkled  brightly about her grazing her with sharp cutting glints as if she were walking through piles of metalshavings. She was groping continually through a tangle of gritty sawedged brittle noise.” – Page 108

“Across Park Avenue the flameblue sky was barred with the red girder cage of a new building. Steam riveters rattled incessantly; now and then a donkeyengine whistled and there was a jingle of chains and a fresh girder soared crosswise in the air. Men in blue overalls moved about the scaffolding. Beyond to the northwest a shining head of clouds soared blooming compactly like a cauliflower.” – Page 147

“She is a walking in her wide hat in her pale loose dress that the wind now and then presses against her legs and arms, silkily, swishily walking in the middle of great rosy and purple and pistachiogreen bubbles of twilight that swell out of the grass and trees and ponds, bulge against the tall houses sharp gray as dead teeth round the southern end of the park, melt into the indigo zenith.” – Page 159

“The terrible thing about having New York go stale on you is that there’s nowhere else. It’s the top of the world. All we can do is go round and round in a squirrel cage.” – Page 174

“The sun is heavy like his arm across her back, strokes her bare forearm the way his fingers stroke her, it’s his breath against her cheek.” – Page 190

“Kerist I wish I was a skyscraper.” – Page 198

“They came out on deck into a dazzling September afternoon. The water was greenindigo. A steady wind kept sweeping coils of brown smoke and blobs of whitecotton steam off the high enormous blueindigo arch of sky. Against a sootsmudged horizon, tangled with barges, steamers, chimneys of powerplants, cover wharves, bridges, lower New York was a pink and white tapering pyramid cut slenderly out of cardboard.” – Page 216-17

“It was a sunny day, the sky was a robin’s egg blue. He turned north and began to walk uptown. As he got away from it the Woolworth pulled out like a telescope. He walked north through the city of shiny windows, through the city of scrambled alphabets, through the city of guilt letter signs.” – Page 273

“In Yonkers I buried my boyhood, in Marseille with the wind in my face I dumped my calf years into the harbor. Where in New York shall I bury my 20s?” – Page 275

“You are all bored, bored flies buzzing on the windowpane. You think the windowpane is the room. You don’t know what there is deep black inside…. I am very drunk. Waiter another bottle.” – Page 281

“His mind unreeling phrases, he walks on doggedly. There’s nowhere in particular he wants to go. If only I still had faith in words.” – Page 285

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