Manhattan Transfer Summary – First Section (Chapters I-V)

Front Cover of John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer
Bantam Books Classic edition published in 1959 (Purchase on Bookshop.org) – affiliate link

The following is a summary of the First Section (Chapters I-V) of John Dos Passos‘s 1925 novel Manhattan Transfer.

The chapters in this section are as follows:

I. Ferryslip
II. Metropolis
III. Dollars
IV. Tracks
V. Steamroller

See also: Second Section, Third Section

First Section

I. Ferryslip

Bud Korpenning on a ferry to New York, New York, looking for “the center of things.” Stops at a lunch wagon. Came from upstate, looking for a job.

Ed Thatcher, accountant, “a little man with two blonde wisps of mustache and washedout gray eyes.” Goes into a hospital looking for his wife who just gave birth to a girl, their first child. After leaving the hospital meets another new father and gets drunk with him.

Susie Thatcher, Ed Thatcher’s wife, has just given birth to their first child, Ellen, nicknamed “Ellie.” When brought the baby she panics, says it’s not hers.

Marcus Antonius Zucher, a German printer who gets drunk with Ed Thatcher. His wife has just given birth to their sixth child, the first boy.

II. Metropolis

Ed Thatcher is dreaming of what he’ll make, pondering New York as the “World’s Second Metropolis.” He runs to see a tenement house on fire. There he runs into the person who set the fire and runs back to his apartment in fear.

Mr. Perring is meeting with a real estate agent, wants to buy something safe.

Bud is getting a shave and a haircut. He reads the newspaper.

Emile a French cabin boy, wants to become a United States citizen. Congo, Emile’s shipmate, is an Italian.

Susie Thatcher is sick in bed, Ed returns with their daughter.

Bud looking for a job

Slats, a gambler, is playing craps.

Emile becomes a waiter in a French restaurant, learning from experienced waiter Marco. Long scene of a birthday party for Fifi Waters, a stage star, at the French restaurant. Lots of back and forth talking, heavy drinking. When she finally arrives she goes to kick the hat off of a man’s head and kicks him in the eye instead. She ends up sobbing in the party disbands. Congo arrives and he, Emile, and Marco go to a lunch wagon. Congo has been fired from his job. They all discuss what they should do, as well as the plight of the worker.

Mr. William Olafson is looking at an apartment with his wife, Bertha. Assistant General Manager of Keating and Bradley, Sanitary Engineers, he is described as “a big shambling man with eyes of a washed out blue deep set in a white infantile head.”

Bud gets a job washing dishes. Unhappy, he complains about the work and end up sneaking out to dodge  a man who might be a detective.

Ellen in bed, alone at night, frightened by shadows.

Gus McNiel, a milkman, finishes his rounds and goes to a bar. Walking, he dreams of a farm, ends up on the tracks and his milk wagon is hit in a large crash.

III. Dollars

George Baldwin, attorney-at-law, brand-new, sitting in his office, described as “a leanfaced young man with steel eyes and a thin high-bridged nose.” He goes to a chophouse for lunch and reads in the paper about how Gus McNiel was severely injured, comes up with a scheme to sue the railroad. George goes to see Gus’s wife, Nellie. She has a young child. He finds her beautiful and starts in on the case.

Ellen and her friend Alice are walking through the park. Ellen calls Alice a scaredy cat and Alice runs away. Ellen then gets scared and runs, finds Gloria Drayton, a friend, and stops.

Gus still in the hospital, George and Nellie are having an affair.

Scene in a bar. A cop is talking about a boat sinking and how all of the survivors, mostly women, ended up living on an island. Emile and Congo are there, drinking. Emile  leaves the bar to go uptown to see Madame Rigaud, a widowed shop owner. She sings for him and he waits on customers.

Bud on a street corner. A cabinet pulls up with a man and woman, the man inside it shoots himself.

An unnamed man tries to buy a prostitute.

Ed Thatcher and his daughter are on a bench at the Battery, watching the ships. An old sailor talks to them, asks for money.

Bud offers to move a load of coal for an old woman, she says she’ll pay him a dollar. After he does so she gives some stale food and a quarter and kicks him out.

The fourth of July. Jimmy and his mother, Mrs. Herf, on board a ship, pulling into New York. They are met at the dock by Aunt Emily and from there go to Uncle Jeff’s, where they set off fireworks.

Gus and Nellie in George Baldwin’s office. Gus is out of the hospital after months. Baldwin gets a  settlement of $12,500. Gus and Nellie leave the office, Nellie goes back to kiss George. After she leaves, George meets Mr. Emery, a lawyer described as “a flatfaced man with gray hair and eyebrows and a protruding wedgeshaped jaw” on the first floor. From there George goes to see Phil Sandbourne, a draftsman, and they go to lunch.

A scene at a ferry landing, with Italian immigrants.

IV. Tracks

Jimmy Herf and mother, Lily Herf, having dinner in a hotel room. She complains of never feeling well, he suggests she’ll be better after her operation. She says he is all she has in the world. Jimmy goes out to buy candy. He returns to find her sick in bed and calls Aunt Emily to come. When she arrives Jimmy goes off to his room to read the encyclopedia. He falls asleep, wakes to find people attending his mother. He takes a look at her and runs back to his room.

Emile and Madame Rigaud in her shop, customers Billy and Norah come in, buy a chicken and leave.

George Baldwin at his desk, Nellie comes by. She says she can’t go on sneaking around, he says she should leave Gus and marry him. She refuses and they part.

Bud reading in the Seaman’s Union. He overhears two men talking. Another man, Laplander Matty, invites him to have a drink and they go to a saloon. A man insults Matty and Matty punches him out. Bud and Matty go to prostitutes.

Phineas P. Blackhead, “a lanky man with silver hair and a red hawkface,” and Schmidt, “a fat man who had shrunk,” are watching the harbor. Phineas identifies himself as representing the railroad and docking interests. He meets with Mr. Storrow and Mr. Gold about a strike.

Jimmy smashes a fly in his room with his hand. His mother has had a stroke. Unidentified boys egg him on to fight, he does, they leave calling him a crybaby. He is staying in Aunt Emily’s apartment house. She takes him to see her daughter, Maisie, a girl with “a round creamy face and a slight pugnose.” Aunt Emily’s son James arrives and they all sit down to dinner with Uncle Jeff Merivale and a man named Wilkinson. The two men discuss their hatred of foreigners while Jimmy gets lost in his memory of friends. Joe Harland, the “family skeleton,” arrives, drunk. After he leaves the children are sent off and they play “stock exchange.” Jimmy runs out.

Congo shows up at Emile’s. Congo is now a seaman and Emile is working at Delmonico’s. Unhappy about Ernestine’s refusal to commit to him, he decides to make her jealous.

Ed Thatcher talking to Viler, a man who owes Ed money. Viler tries to get him to invest in a “sure thing.” Ed is not interested and Viler stomps out. Ed is torn over taking a risk.

V. Steamroller

Jimmy walking the streets, his mother has died.

Emile is now with Madame Rigaud. May, the girl he used to make her jealous, wants her due. He kisses her and walks off. There has been another fire, this time near the deli. Police beat and carry off a black man, claiming that he’s the firebug. In her shop, Madame Rigaud says that they can marry in a month, he wants to be married sooner.

Ellen and John Oglethorpe at the train station. Just married, they get on a train headed to Atlantic City. Later on he is asleep in the hotel, she, still awake, is sick.

Jimmy and Uncle Jeff having dinner at a fancy club. Jimmy is 16 years old. His uncle, who is now his guardian, convinces him to start working at his office. Jimmy agrees but secretly hates the idea.

Bud at a flophouse, trying to sleep, can’t. Another man tells him that he should go back to the farm. Bud, now 25, shows him deep scars from being beat by his father. Tells how he ran away at age 13 after killing his father. The to make a deal to go get Bud’s father’s bankroll and spilt it 50-50. Bud goes to a lunchroom and then walks the city. He blows off the guy. Paranoid that everybody is after him he jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge. Captain McAvoy, of the tugboat Prudence, pulls him out of the water but his neck is broken.

Next: Manhattan Transfer Summary – Second Section (Chapters I-VIII)

See also

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