Manhattan Transfer is an experimental novel by John Dos Passos. Published in 1925, it traces the changes of urban development in New York City as it transitions from the Gilded Age to the Jazz Age. Dos Passos’s style in this work has been seen as a trial run for his ambitious U.S.A. trilogy, using as he does a large cast of characters, some of whose stories overlap, alongside clips from newspaper stories and song lyrics. Writing in the Saturday Review, Sinclair Lewis called Manhattan Transfer “A novel of very first importance…not merely for America but for the world.”1
Manhattan Transfer has been referred to as “a novel without a plot,” when in fact there are numerous plots. There is, however, no one plot throughout, and no one plot that unites all the characters. What follows is a breakdown of the major action, for a detailed breakdown of the action in each section, click here.
The novel begins with the birth of Ellen Thatcher. At the same time Bud Korpenning arrives in New York seeking a job. George Baldwin, a young lawyer trying to make his way, hears about a man, Gus McNeil, who was hit by a train. He takes the case and begins an affair with Gus’s wife.
Jimmy Herf arrives in New York with his sick mother Lily, who dies soon after. Turned over to his aunt and uncle, he makes plans to go into journalism. Bud commits suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge while Ellen tries to make it as an actress. She begins to become successful and is pursued by many men.
Joe Harland, Jimmy’s cousin, has become a poor drunk. Stan Emery, a trouble-raising student, is thrown out of Harvard, and begins an affair with Ellen, who is now married to John Oglethorpe. Jimmy, a friend of Stan’s, is also interested in Ellen, as is George Baldwin.
Gus, wealthy and influential after winning his accident case, tries to get George to run for District Attorney, something he initially shows little interest in. Upset over his relations with his estranged wife and his obsession with Ellen, George pulls a gun on Ellen but nothing happens.
With World War I in full swing, Jimmy longs to go to Europe. Ellen finds herself heartbroken when Stan marries Pearline. Soon after he dies and it is revealed that Ellen is carrying his baby, which she decides to have and raise. After a large gap in time soldiers are seen returning home. Ellen and Jimmy return to New York, married and with a child, Martin. Prohibition is in effect and they smuggle in several bottles on their person. George Baldwin decides after all to run for office, but on a reform ticket, angering Gus.
Jimmy’s friend Congo Jake, a French sailor, is now a very successful bootlegger. Through his friendship with Jimmy we see their lives develop in different directions, with Congo living the high life on Park Avenue and Jimmy becoming more and more restless and destitute. His marriage to Ellen falls apart and Jimmy quits his job as a journalist. After they divorce Ellen married George Baldwin and the novel ends with Jimmy heading out of New York.
The book is made up of 18 chapters over three sections, which are as follows:
- First Section – Chapters I-V
- I. Ferryslip
- II. Metropolis
- III. Dollars
- IV. Tracks
- V. Steamroller
- Second Section – Chapters I-VIII
- I. Great Lady on a White Horse
- II. Longlegged Jack of the Isthmus
- III. Nine Days’ Wonder
- IV. Fire Engine
- V. Went to the Animals’ Fair
- VI. Five Statutory Questions
- VII. Rollercoaster
- VIII. One More River to Jordan
- Third Section – Chapters I-V
- I. Rejoicing City That Dwelt Carelessly
- II. Nickelodeon
- III. Revolving Doors
- IV. Skyscraper
- V. The Burthen of Nineveh
The novel takes place solely in and around New York City, including Ellis Island, Broadway, and Wall Street.
List of main characters
Manhattan Transfer includes many minor and unnamed characters. What follows are the main characters.
- Ellen Thatcher – The novel opens with Ellen’s birth. Her mother dies and she grows up close to her father. Throughout the story different people refer to her using different names, including “Ellie,” “Elaine,” and “Helena.” A successful actress, she is romanced by many men and is married three times – to John Oglethorpe, Jimmy Herf, and George Baldwin. She quits the stage to raise a child.
- Jimmy Herf – Arriving in New York with his mother as a small child, he is raised by his aunt and uncle when she dies. While they seek a successful life for him, he turns to journalism and radicalism. Marries Ellen during WWI.
- Martin Herf – Ellen and Jimmy’s son, Stan Emery is his biological father.
- Stanwood Emery – A reckless young man, he comes from wealth. Kicked out of Harvard, he is the one man Ellen truly loves. Although he gets her pregnant, he marries a woman named Pearline and dies in a fire while drunk.
- George Baldwin – A struggling young lawyer who works his way up, eventually to the district attorney’s office and a run for mayor. Although elevated by characters with questionable motives, he turns his back on them to run on the Reform ticket. He marries Ellen after divorcing his wife Cecily.
- Gus McNeil – A milkman, he becomes wealthy in a lawsuit brought by George Baldwin after he is hit by a train car. Enter the political arena and tries to convince George to do the same.
For quotes from this book see Manhattan Transfer quotes
- Manhattan Transfer on Goodreads
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- “Manhattan Transfer” As a Gateway to the 1920s – The Centennial Review (Summer 1972)
- Dos Passos, John. Manhattan Transfer. Bantam Books, 1959.