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Reflection on New Concept of Cities of the 20th Century in Dos Passos' Novel 'Manhattan Transfer'

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In the twentieth century, the Old Continent was marked by the effects that the First and Second Global Wars had brought on it. Poverty, destruction, technological and cultural backwardness were concepts which hit the mind of Europeans who believed in America as a chance to improve the quality of their lives and the lives of their families: “Europe was rotten and stinking. In America a fellow can get ahead. Birth don´t matter, education don´t matter. It’s all getting ahead” (Dos Passos, 1925: 21). As a result of that, the emigration from Europe to America generated a lot of changes in the concept of city as it had been known before. Dos Passos in ‘Manhattan Thansfer’ (1925) shows how the new cities were featured and helps the reader to understand and get and image about them.

The most direct consequence of the emigration from Europe to America was the increase of population in the cities, as Dos Passos expressed in some fragments of ‘Manhattan Thansfer’ (1925): “Men and women press through the manuresmelling wooden tunnel of the ferry-house, crushed and jostling like apples fed down a chute into a press” (Dos Passos, 1925: 3), or in “The world´s second metropolis…And dad wanted me to stay in his ole fool store in Onteora” (Dos Passos, 1925: 12). The crowd of people who lived in cities had a lot of necessities, and cities had to be modified to satisfy them. New and cheaper materials were used, such as, concrete or bricks, to build edifices with more capacity: “It was a narrowwindowed sixtory tenement” (Dos Passos, 1925: 13). The huge demand of space to build was resourceful and media class citizens began to obtain benefits of the inversion in lots, seeing it as a way of life: “…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” (Dos Passos, 1925: 15).

Furthermore, new means of transports began to gain importance in that period in American cities, and then in the rest of Europe, “An L train was rumbling past the end of the street” (Dos Passos, 1925:13). Additionally, it was a moment in which America experiment a huge development of the technologies and a lot of inventions appeared to make easier humans lives. It was the beginning of an unstoppable process which still nowadays continues. This is reflected in the fragment: “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 happened in the next few years. All these mechanical inventions-telephones, electricity, steel bridges, horseless vehicles – they are all leading somewhere” (Dos Passos, 1925: 15).

However, not all were advantages in the city, the increase of people was directly related to the worsening of the hygienic conditions: “Three gulls wheel above the broken boxes, orange rids, spoiled cabbage heads that heave between the splintered plank walls , the green waves spume under the round bow as the ferry” (Dos Passos, 1925: 3), “Bud walked down Broadway, past empty lost where tin cans glittered among grass and sumach bushes and ragweed, between ranks of billboards” (Dos Passos, 1925:23), or in the extract “…West Side, where there was a smell of stables and the sidewalks were littered with scraps of garbage and crawling children” (Dos Passos, 1925:51).

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Despite that, the cities began to enrich of the diversities of cultures and ethnicities which Immigration had given to it. In the first pages of the book, we could see a lot of people who belonged to different nationalities, “He´s an Italian. His wife´s in that building” (Dos Passos, 1925:14), or “He could see beyond the stripped sheet littered with sandy hair the bobbing hammerhead of the colored boy shining his shoes” (Dos Passos, 1925: 16), and how the author used the resource of the dialogue to make the reader participant of the air filled of the exchange of languages that was characterizing the cities in that moment: “J´te dis mon vieux, moi j´fou l´camp à New York…” (Dos Passos 1925: 20) or “Congradulade me, congradulade me; mein vife has giben birth a poy” (Dos Passos 1925: 8). The majority of times, those ‘new citizens’ tried to obtained the American nationality, because it was a good way to start the ‘American dream’, “You want to make yourself an American citizen? Why not?” (Dos Passos 1925:20) and to being hired “I´m going to get a job and work” (Dos Passos 1925: 20), because that would symbolize the equality between them and the rest of Americans. Nevertheless, there was a feeling of xenophobia and racism in some sectors of the society of the cities, as it is reflected in the fragment “He´d thought we were Jews and wouldn´t have rented us the apartment” (Dos Passos 1925: 42), “New York is no longer what it used to be when Emily and I first moved […]In ten years a Christian won´t be able to make a living” (Dos Passos 1925:101) or “After all we built up this country and then we allow a lot of foreigners, the scum of Europe , the offscourings of Polish ghettos to come and run it for us”(Dos Passos 1925:102).

New York and America as extension began to open to the rest of the world. It was a process called globalization, and it is reflected in the text in different aspects such as the importance that advertisements and slogans were gaining in the daily life and the way in which it incited people to acquire and test the products. The most illustrative example of that is the moment when Mr. Thatcher stared at a face in a green advertising card, and finally he bought the shaver which was announced on the advertisement. Furthermore, Dos Passos employs a few lines in the book trying to depict with a lot of details the consumerist desire which invaded Mr. Thatcher in that scene, he wanted to be successful as the man in the advert: “It was a highbrowed cleanshaven distinguished face with arched eyebrows and a bushy neatly trimmed mustache, the face of a man who had money in the bank, poised prosperously above a crisp wing collar and an ample dark cravat” (Dos Passos, 1925, 11). This was joined to the importance that personal image was obtaining in this period, because people began to take care of their external image and it was relevant in different aspect of city life, such as applying for a job: “…You go an git a shave and a haircut and brush the hayseed out o yet suit a bit before you start lookin” (Dos Passos 1925, 5).

Another aspect about the city which we should have in consideration is the growth of new ideas and concepts. Women began to be concerned about the capacity which they had of breaking the role that society had gave them, taking care of the children and trying to be the perfect wife, whose most relevant aim was satisfied his husband and children. Dos Passos in ‘Manhattan Transfer’ develops this idea in a dialogue between a mother and her daughter, in which the mother reflected the traditional concept of wife and the daughter showed the individualist term of wife, a woman could live without being dependent of a male figure. The mother told to her daughter: “But Rosie, married life ain’t all beer and skittles. A wife must submit and work for her husband” (Dos Passos 1925, 22). And Rossie, the daughter, replied: “I won’t. I can’t help it. I won’t go back to the dirty brute” (Dos Passos 1925, 22). Furthermore, a male voice represents the same concept about women in page nine: “I´d like my girl to be a quiet home girl, not like these young women nowadays, all frills and furbelows and tight lacings” (Dos Passos 1925, 9).

Following that trend of new ideas, we reach to position of God in humans’ lives. It had been the pillar of human faith. But in the twentieth Century that image had been replaced by the power of money, “The day that we stop believing in money and property it will be like a dream and we will be like a dream” (Dos Passos 1925, 38), and more explicitly in the lines “It´s all the same, in France you are paid badly and live well; here you are paid well and live badly” (Dos Passos 1925, 36). This fragment shows how money was more important than a good live quality, so he decided to go to America to enrich. In the same way, different kinds of faith began to coexist with Christianity, the main religion which had characterized the previous centuries in Europe and was brought to America when the first Europeans came to the ´New World´: “‘What, did you say Bob Ingersoll had been struck by lighting?’, cried Olga shrilly. ‘Serve him right the horrid atheist’. ‘No not exactly, but it was scared him into a realization of the important things of life and now he´s joined the Methodist church’” (Dos Passos, 1925, 31).

To sum up, this novel created by John Dos Passos in 1925 has been able to capture the new concept of cities that appeared in the twentieth century. The author reflects the anxieties of the population, their dreams and how they turned off the majority of the times. The hope of a better life, in a new continent, which is frustrated by the ineffective job search and feelings like xenophobia which began to rise in some citizens minds. Dos Passos, is very successful trying to be a kind of photographer of the city life of the moment. He uses a lot of details to make the readers understand how the new technologies, kind of transports, different ideas and ways of thinking were adapted to the heterogeneous image that immigration had created in cities. Furthermore, he employs dialogues in a lot of languages to make the reader participant of the situation that marked daily life in cities, even he depicted the image of the streets, the flats, the lots, which are the background of the story which is being told.

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Reflection on New Concept of Cities of the 20th Century in Dos Passos’ Novel ‘Manhattan Transfer’. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 10, 2023, from
“Reflection on New Concept of Cities of the 20th Century in Dos Passos’ Novel ‘Manhattan Transfer’.” Edubirdie, 01 Mar. 2023,
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Reflection on New Concept of Cities of the 20th Century in Dos Passos’ Novel ‘Manhattan Transfer’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Mar 01 [cited 2023 Jun 10]. Available from:
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