Manhattan Transfer

John Dos Passos (1896-1970) has tried to compose an artwork built of the stuff: NEW YORK, – and it works like a movie script – but written in a time (1925), in which the film industry did not yet have the tremendous technical and financially possibilities available as they owe today.

Dos Passos portrayed the movement, the speed, the unstoppable energy of this city. The title “MANHATTAN TRANSFER” deciphered in the scene as ELLEN sits in a subway and the rhythmic strides seem to sound like “MAN-Hattan TRANS__FER. MAN-Hattan TRANS__FER. MAN-Hattan TRANS__FER”.

ELLEN is on the way in an unhappy partnership, it does not succeed in time to redirect, like a leaf in the wind seems to be the tempo of the city. They are simply unstoppable followers of that tempo. This is also what Dos Passos as the most impressive overall wants to feature.

The fates of many are developing a high tempo – and apparently randomly, BUD, (at the beginning of the novel incoming in the New York harbor) jumps to the end of his life (and the novel) at the same place from the bridge into the water — no into a wedding party, just because a ship below him was passing in the same moment. Fortune and misfortune, random-like are mixed in this scene: happy wedding couple and a man, trying to commit suicide.

The milk man Gus McNiel is covered by an insurance payment to him as a victim of a rich man and self-conscious politicians, Congo Jack loses at first one leg during the war, but by extensive smuggling operations and continues he at least drives jovially in a Rolls-Royce.

John Dos Passos '11, author of Three Soldiers,...

Image via Wikipedia

Jimmy Herfst, butler of Congo Jack, is leaving at the end of the novel disillusioned with the city – others have adapted it. Dos Passos has characterized NEW YORK as normally painters do – of course using other techniques: Piet Mondrian painted at the end of his life against that colorful Big Apple chaos with stripes looking like a city-map of New York. The contemporary artist James Rizzi paints skyscrapers with human faces (Dos Passos compares in his novel the multi-ballet dancer ELLEN with multi-window skyscraper).

Television series like “SEX IN THE CITY” or musical events, like Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel performed in the Central Park, singing “NEW YORK, to that tall skyline I come, flyin in … ” – All those artworks try to explain NEW YORK as a focal point of modern life – and they do not focus the images of September eleven. I hope I will experience in my lifetime, that MANHATTAN TRANSFER once is a movie.

John Dos Passos himself (sometimes compared with James Joyce or Marcel Proust or compared with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein who were friends) – he has after the completion of his novel managed to organize a movie: 1935, “Devil Is a Woman” with Marlene Dietrich

compare: my book review for


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