The buzz word of the Industrial Revolution was "progress" and to some, though hardly to all, it was a dirty word, a word to be rebelled against at all costs. As the New York of Miller’s childhood stacked itself upward like the enormous tower of Babel that was to become Dos Passos’ dominant trope in the novel Manhattan Transfer, as revolving doors began to spin with the steady rivers of humanity who were losing their humanity, the need for a different sort of narrator arose. Dos Passos, in his struggle against the modernization of the world and the mechanization of every day life, takes on the character of the camera’s eye, a mechanistic, seemingly "objective" third-person point of view, capable of steadying an undiscriminating gaze on the world, seemingly free from the influence of those emotions and personal relationships that were being devalued by the age. While Whitman broadened his vision with his empathic connection to the masses and Miller and Poe revealed their own delirium through their settings, Dos Passos’ cinematic flâneur narrative technique allows him to appear unintrusive and objective, as though he is there simply to observe his surroundings. His personal commentary comes into play as he assumes the role of director, selecting the details that will be explored and the metaphors that will empower those details. He observes with an agenda as he provides his readers with compound images packaged in poetic, visually charged prose, capable of expressing those ideas that the beautiful words of pre-industrial America are no longer able to inspire. In this way, Dos Passos is able to criticize without seeming overly subjective or propagandistic. Always hiding behind the camera he is a concealed eye, pushing the lens this way or that, pointing out that which we may not have already noticed as he colors his world with classical symbolism. Although he would not qualify his tactic as such until the "Camera’s Eye" of his USA trilogy, this cinematic flâneur narrative technique helps the author supply Manhattan Transfer with the unity its fragmented style requires. In this way, Dos Passos’ narrator becomes the mechanical flâneur, while his fictional counterpart, Jimmy Herf, a flesh and blood human flâneur, speaks out as the novel’s hero.
Manhattan Transfer was published in 1925, nine years after "A Humble Protest," one of the author’s many political commentaries, appeared in The Harvard Monthly. This editorial "is directed against nothing less than the Industrial Revolution, ‘that bastard of science,’ which is cluttering up the world with ‘a silly claptrap of unnecessary luxuries’ and smothering ‘the arts of life and the arts of creation’" (Hicks 16). This voiced hatred of the Industrial Revolution makes its way into his third novel, Manhattan Transfer, in which he employs the structural and literary devices that would later be refined and praised in USA (Kazin 101). In this novel, Dos Passos holds up twentieth-century American manifestations of "Renaissance culture and agrarian Spain as norms against which America’s worship of industrial progress might be questioned" (Diggins 297). Through his use of disjointed narratives, symbolic imagery, and an original structural technique, he sets the old agrarian way of life, reminiscent of the American Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, in opposition to the modern industrial life in which he wrote. Taking note of the slow but certain death of the old American way of life, by way of his cinematic flâneur narrative technique, Dos Passos predicts the death of its values, words, and principles, which he believed served as the backbone of the American ideal.
As a member of the so-called Lost Generation, Dos Passos shared in common with the other writers of his time an experience of expatriation, an exposure to the atrocities of war, a travel-enhanced expanded world view, and a feeling of responsibility to cut a new path in American literature. At the time of the publication of Manhattan Transfer, he "had come to a critical turn in his career. He had been uprooted by the war, he had fled from the peace, but he could not resolve himself in flight" (Kazin 109) so he set his thoughts to paper. Like many of the members of the Lost Generation, who were faced with the reality of a fast-paced American lifestyle upon their return home, Dos Passos, in his literary incarnation Jimmy Herf, wonders, "In Yonkers I buried my boyhood, in Marseilles with the wind in my face I dumped my calf years into the harbor. Where in New York shall I bury my twenties" (353). The novel seems to be directed in part by answering this question. What does a young writer do after an exile in culturally rich, historic Paris upon his return to a world like the New York depicted in Manhattan Transfer? The slow pace of Parisian strolls through the city has been exchanged for swiftly moving subways, elevated trains, and automobiles. Walking down Broadway, one is accosted by hordes of blank, nameless faces, joggling in the rush of the tide of time that sweeps through the Manhattan streets and steamrolls its inhabitants into the narrow doorways of skyscrapers. It is nothing like Paris with its cafes and cocktails, and slow moving clocks. It is a new world, an impersonal, mechanical world over-run by progress. Such emblems of the Industrial Revolution supply not only the backdrop of Manhattan Transfer but the basis for Dos Passos’ flâneuristic narrative technique.
If the Romantic was the flâneur in its purest state, and Miller was its infected counterpart, Dos Passos is the flâneur gone machine. The narrative device that will become "The Camera’s Eye" in USA started in Manhattan Transfer in his cinematic, flâneuristic introductions to each chapter. Because the plot of Manhattan Transfer is not the story of merely one central character that can be traced through time, the unifying effect of Dos Passos' flâneuristic narrative technique, which manifests in brief snippets of urban life in New York, provides the reader with a symbolically charged and unifying scenic backdrop. Employing the modernist technique of collage, of cutting and pasting the lives of many characters, streets, shops, newspaper headlines, and songs, among other things, Dos Passos creates an impressionistic representation of Manhattan as a whole. At times the reader is shown mere glimpses of "Elbows joggling, faces set, gollywog eyes, fat men and thin women, thin women and fat men" (Dos Passos 228) that fill Manhattan's trains and sidewalks. Sometimes Dos Passos zooms in the camera eye to create brief but memorable sketches of individuals who never show up again, such as Antonio Marcus Zucher, the German immigrant who warns Ellen’s father, over a beer that he never pays for, that "Kids, they eat money" (Dos Passos 9). Then there are the full-blown portraits of Bud, Jimmy, Ellen, and several others, whose narratives show the full destructive power of twentieth-century industrialization and its effect on those who made their start in a different world, where people cared, democracy existed, and the American Dream was more than a filthy lure for naive immigrants. In this chapter, Manhattan Transfer will be considered for its mechanical or cinematic flâneuristic narrative technique, for the manner in which such a stylistic device provides an easy structural means of working New York’s cityscape into a mythic framework and embellishing it with symbolic meaning, and for the importance the novel places on flânerie as a means of preserving those Jeffersonian values that have fallen by the wayside in the wake of the Industrial Age--a powerful negation of both the novel’s title and the lives of those characters who are unable to flee the "City of Destruction."
The mechanical flâneur narrator has much power in a modern novel such as Manhattan Transfer. To start with, it bears with it a misleading stamp of passivity. By remaining safely hidden behind the camera’s eye, Dos Passos is able to achieve in his narrative a level of presumed objectivity that the "I am" of Whitman could never afford. He casts himself as newspaper man, Jimmy Herf, as a way of allowing his own personal opinions to find a direct verbal outlet in the story without risking an overpowering omniscience that could make his novel preachy and moralistic. However, his greatest statements are communicated through the setting that his flâneur narrator allows him to edit and enhance. He constructs a symbolic world with his montage of images and then allows the reader to play flâneur, strolling among his skyscrapers for a moment or two before being crushed by the darkening sky. This allows the reader to pass judgment, while the author sits back, assuming an "unbiased," journalistic approach to the subject matter; but this is only an illusion, and a clever one at that, for, when all is said and done, it is Dos Passos who has the final say in editing; though seemingly random, each event and image has been carefully picked to promote the author’s ideological agenda. With brief scenes that shift without warning in space and time, he gives the reader "a spatial cross section of this society" (Ruoff 72), providing his characters with "a phantasmagoric back-drop for their frustrations and defeats" (McLuhan 154). With Dos Passos’ method of transforming New York into a city of symbols (like that of Athens or Rome or Babylon), the novel’s "concern shifts from how objects and events affect people to how objects and events can express a state of mind not otherwise made known to us" (Hughson 186). One critic notes that Dos Passos’s narrative technique in Manhattan Transfer offers up a New York where the "external world has vanquished subjectivity and even after the appearance of characters remains triumphant and unchallenged" (Hughson 187). In other words, New York is the primary character of the novel, in the spotlight at all times.
The mechanical flâneur narrator not only allows Dos Passos to charge his scenes with meaning as he sees fit but also enables him to document the New York of his time, including everything from the latest in women’s fashion to popular music, to prominent billboard advertisements or popular sayings. Disregarding any need for tiresome transitional passages, Dos Passos is free to include even that which is only thematically related (Lewis 69). This allows his narrative to benefit by way of realism from the many different perspectives contained within its cluttered text. The result is a fragmented blur of loosely related lives, stories, places, and conversations. Some critics have commented on Dos Passos’ use of a fractured narrative to mirror the hurried pace of the city. The use of the "dissociated image" (Gelfant 48), "hastens the pace of the novel, [and] . . . contributes to the evocation of urban moods and rhythms" (Gelfant 48). In this way, "Manhattan Transfer acquire[s] a speed constant with the tempo of the times" (Wagner 49). Unlike the first section, which moves slowly between the stories of Bud, Jimmy, and Ellen with only a few random sketches in between, the second part of the novel jumps from one story to the next, sometimes spending as little as a page at a time on any of the various characters. This snap-shot flâneuristic narrative technique, combined with his use of flat characters, enhances the novel’s coldness and prevents the reader from focusing on a particular character as a protagonist. By creating "a montage of events that [do] not coalesce into cause-and-effect patterns implying traditional moral standards" (Wagner 47), Dos Passos is able to let the multi-colored descriptions of the city and its inhabitants make up a single protagonist. One critic claims that this technique was inspired by D. W. Griffith, a film director of whom Dos Passos was particularly fond during the 1920’s. The flicker of images, narrative sketches, and pre-newsreel collage combine to produce a sort of documentary effect, while also relating to movements in painting such as Cubism and Futurism (Foster 186). This technique frees the writer to address humanity as a whole, portraying each and every person in a naturalistic way as victims of his or her social, political, and economic surroundings.
Although those fragmented images put forth in the sensory language of the flâneuristic sections of the novel make up most of the more poetic sections, Dos Passos’ moral objective is also fixed to his thematic purposes through the greater structural devices used to arrange these episodic renderings of the city. These devices allow the author to employ the vast store of symbolically weighted images, sounds, and smells that result from his flâneuristic narrative technique in a way that reinforces the documentary-style feel of the work so that the novel does not appear as simply "an explosion in a cesspool" (More 78), as one critic has argued, but as a carefully edited collage of stories, people, and places. These images are not simply a part of the structure, adding to the poetic flow of the work, but key elements that dictate all other structural elements within the novel. The staccato effect of the blurred city images and momentary zoom-ins, provide the overall mood of Dos Passos’ Manhattan "in brief sensuous impressions, each evocative and incisive, and each giving way to the next in syncopated cinematic movement" (Gelfant 45). Thus they are an indisposable means of allowing for "range and flexibility[;] the rapid transition from one impression to another accelerates the novel’s pace to suggest the incessant restless movement within the city itself" (Gelfant 45). However, were these poetic impressions not anchored to other structural techniques, Manhattan Transfer would be referred to as a collection of poetry rather than as a modernist novel. In editing and organizing these images, Dos Passos provides the reader with a fragmented narrative that is rooted and bound by a cyclical recurring vocabulary of symbols rooted in a mythical framework.
One of the structural tactics Dos Passos’ mechanical flâneur narrative device allows him to employ in his presentation of industrial destructiveness is his use of a cyclical narrative. This novel’s tendency to circle back to itself is reminiscent of the seasonally driven agrarian way of life that Dos Passos’ Manhattan is abandoning throughout the novel. The novel begins and ends with the men in straw hats and the ferry, which brings to mind both death and renewal as well as arrival and departure (Gelfant 49-50). For Dos Passos, a return to the values of the Enlightenment is necessary if the human race is to continue to move forward. Ironically, the fast-paced, linearly directed world is not, in the author’s opinion, so much making progress as it is making a face-first lemming plunge into annihilation. Dos Passos divides the novel into three parts that mimic the negative linear progression that he feared resulted in the end of individuality and human morality. The first part, representing the tail end of the old world, contains the remnants of an age that is on its way out, such as the old values of characters like Ed Thatcher, Mrs. Herf, and Bud Korpenning. Dos Passos uses the ideas set forth in his titles, "‘Ferryslip,’ ‘Metropolis,’ ‘Dollars,’ ‘Tracks,’ and ‘Steamroller,’ . . . to build the idea of a big city with movement, power and ruthlessness" (Foster 187). By the second part of the novel, Dos Passos is representing the full-blown drama of modern industrialism with his thorough descriptions of the developing city and his long accounts of the way of life before and after the war. He also contrasts the previous section by combining "nursery rhymes, slogans, songs, fire engines, and rollercoasters . . . [to] convey the city’s fantasy, its rapid swooping movements, all underlined by a current of failure, even ruin" (Foster 187). Finally, the third part is centered on the characters’ questions and concerns about their future. It "opens and closes on an even more insistent note of doom, with chapter titles no longer from songs and stories but from the Bible" (Diggins 344). The power presented in part one manifests itself by part three in "tinkling triviality, aimless revolutions, and overweening aspiration: ȁNickelodeon,’ ‘Revolving Doors,’ ‘Skyscraper,’ finally incur the doom of the ‘Rejoicing City that Dwelt Carelessly’ and ‘The Burden of Nineveh’" (Foster 187). Through this division of the novel into three parts--past, present, and future--Dos Passos contrasts the old way of life in America with the America in which he is writing, while commenting on the possible consequences of the city’s changes as it transforms before his ever-present camera’s eye. In this way he asks the reader to look "forward to ruin, backward to hope. His attempt to recapture the moral and political milieu of the American Enlightenment was his way of asking us to appreciate a world that we have lost" (Diggins 344). The method also lends unity to his mechanical flâneuristic method of portraying the city through the senses in brief episodes, while still allowing him to be impressionistic within the sections.
Dos Passos strengthens the negative impact of his industrial flâneur narrative by rooting his novel in the mythic framework of the story of Babylon and Nineveh, in which Dos Passos finds a medium to discuss the fate of the old words of Jeffersonian democracy that could have kept the individual safe (Vanderwerken 257). Using these images of Christian mythology, he hopes to render his present world as an incarnation of the new Babylon. The references to destruction by water and fire also have grand biblical connotations, while the "Great Lady on a White Horse" can be paired with the harlot riding on the back of the beast that is referred to in the Book of Revelations. Because of the variety of languages spoken in New York, one is reminded of the confusion of tongues in the story of the Tower of Babel. Likewise, the collage-like structuring of the novel mirrors the confusion of the modern world (Vanderwerken 254). The biblical allusions in the chapter titles also solidify this mythic link between the novel and The Old Testament. In a newsreel-like section, one reads, "Declaration of war . . . rumble of drums . . . Commencement of hostilities in a long parade through the empty rainlashed streets. Extra, extra, extra. Santa Claus shoots daughter he has tried to attack. Slays Self With Shotgun" (236), and one realizes that the world in which Dos Passos is writing is one in which the traditional systems of morality, mythology, and spirituality are in a state of deterioration. Money, lust, greed, hate, violence, and death fill the streets while the survivors plan schemes to get more than their fair share. Dos Passos is successful at rendering this account of a twentieth-century New Babylon because his mechanical flâneur narrative enables him to fuse various characters, situations, images, and techniques in an impressionistic fashion that, when recollected after time, seems to cover enough of the details of daily life in Manhattan to fill a library. Thus through the combined effects of focused, structurally secured narratives, a consistent vocabulary of images, an adherence to a mythic framework, and a well wrought overall structure, this novel succeeds in its ambition to bring an entire city to life and expose it as a primary protagonist.
Because Dos Passos is not limited by a first-person narrator that requires an adherence to the laws of physics or the limitations of the human body, his camera-carrying flâneur narrator possesses a voice that is as capable of bird’s-eye views of Manhattan at mid-day as it is of prying peeps into dirty tenement buildings at night. A social and historical collectivist, Dos Passos accumulates objects and then empowers them with symbolic meaning. The novel is packed with the people, places, and things that make up the city:
Covers are clicking on typewriters, rolltop desks are closing; elevators go up empty come down jammed. It’s ebbtide in the downtown district, flood in Flatbush, Woodlawn, Dyckman Street, Sheepshead Bay, New Lots Avenue, Canarsie. Pink sheets, green sheets, gray sheets, FULL MARKET REPORTS, FINALS ON HAVRE, DE GRACE. Print squirms among the shop-worn officeworn sagging faces, sore fingertips, aching insteps, strongarm men cram into subway expresses. (169)
However, there is a method to the madness. Dos Passos remains within his selected structural ambitions even throughout his clutter construction. The first images one encounters are organic. These are the images seen upon entering the city aboard the ferry in chapter one: "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 . . . settles slowly into the slip" (3). These organic agrarian images imply futility, decomposition, waste, and loss. It is as though the old agrarian world of cabbage heads and "orangerinds" is rotting away. The very next sentence, which makes up the second half of this introduction to the novel, sets up the agrarian image of small-time agricultural manufacturing that will eventually be replaced by the big time enterprises of big money: "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" (3). But the "press" will eventually be replaced by a steamroller, and the "splintered plank walls" will be knocked down and replaced with "steel and glass" (75). Even at the very start of this novel, the images of old-world America bear a weight of expiration as though the materials are just not durable enough to survive the coming years of industrial progress.
Sometimes the objects that make up the cityscape are flesh and blood. Just as the decaying morals of the city itself strip humans of their significance, Dos Passos' flâneur narrator regards each human as indifferently as it does the architecture; but the advantage of this technique is that it allows him to empower inanimate objects as though they were characters. In fact, the people who make up the city seem, like the city itself, to be undergoing a metamorphosis, changing from flesh and blood to steel and glass. The image of the milkman is one example of this. Gus McNeil is portrayed as the milkman who makes his deliveries with a horse and buggy (at a slow, walking speed) until it is smashed to bits one morning by a train. From this point on, there are no more references to the milkman. Instead we see the milktruck zipping through the city like the fire engines that seem to pass each time another leaf of grass is stamped out by the heavy foot of progress. The personal is transformed into the impersonal; people are replaced by machines. Just as milk, an emblem of the American family, is replaced by booze (Lowry 59), the life-nourishing air is being filled with intoxicating smog. The inventions of progress and connection such as elevators, revolving doors, and trains, actually flood the community instead of cultivating it. As we are warned at the onset of the novel, "All these mechanical inventions--telephones, electricity, steel bridges, horseless vehicles--they are all leading somewhere" (15). Dos Passos is trying to show us where.
The manner in which Dos Passos' mechanical flâneur portrays the sky reveals quite unabashedly how biased his narrative approach actually is, despite its seemingly objective, mechanical aspirations. The sky is constantly referred to throughout the novel and serves as a sort of omen of what is to come. In the first section, it is referred to as "dove-colored" (51), one of the few natural descriptions employed, displaying an aloof use of adjectives to describe something far off and distant--even holy; however, as the story progresses into a full-blown portrayal of modern industrialism, the sky’s descriptions become much more active, foreboding, and stifling. For example, in the opening scene of the chapter titled "Steamroller," the night sky "crushes bright milk out of archlights, squeezes the sullen blocks until they drip red, yellow, green into streets resounding with feet . . . Light spurts from lettering on roofs, mills dizzily among wheels, stains rolling tons of sky" (112). Here, the verb takes precedence over the adjective, showing hints of authorial interference in the mechanical flâneur's portrayals of the city. Already, Dos Passos’ breath seems to be clouding his lens as he imposes, with a charged vocabulary of images, his real feelings about nighttime in New York. Later, the descriptions are fueled not by emotionally charged adjectives or verbs but by cold impersonal nouns and substances. The sky is made of "slate" (207), or it is "barred with the red girder cage of a new building" (185). This cage metaphor recurs throughout the novel in the form of a song, which spells out Dos Passos’ belief that the idealistic potential of America was sold out to capitalism which has enslaved all but the privileged few:
Just a bird in a geelded cage
A beauteeful sight to see
You’d tink se vas ‘appee
And free from all care
Se’s not zo se seems to be. . . .
Tis sad ven you tink of a vasted life
For yout cannot mate vit age
Beautee vas soooold
For an old man’s gooold
Se’s a bird in a geelded cage. (60)
As the sky is slowly blotted out by the buildings and trains and bridges, Manhattan seems to become a gilded cage wrought with big money. Cassie, a Broadway actress and acquaintance of Ellen, sums up the feeling so many of the characters in this novel seem to have: "I want to do such beautiful things. I feel I’ve got it in me, something without a name fluttering inside, a bird of beautiful plumage in a howid iron cage" (162). Thus, by the end of the novel, the reader is faced with a flock of caged birds whose dreams have failed and left them with nothing more beautiful than "a sky of inconceivable bitterness" (371) into which they cannot even fly.
As the sky is slowly barred of by the material manifestations of industrial progress, the skyscraper rises up as a dominant symbol in the novel. This image of the skyscraper is essential to the novel’s relationship to biblical mythology and shows the extent to which Dos Passos’ mechanical flâneur abandons objectivity for sociopolitical commentary in his descriptions of New York. Dos Passos uses this architectural construct as a symbol for the tower of Babel (Vanderwerken 255). Big money builds the skyscrapers, complete with hanging gardens (170) in its attempt to reach the god of this new American society--the all-powerful dollar. The new American Dream is defined solely in economic terms, represented by the unbalanced distribution of wealth which results in the few and mighty big businesses that are wealthy enough to build their privately owned, publicly run towers of Babel. America has confused its own idealistic language, the language set forth by the founding fathers, with the language of financial success: "‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ have been corrupted into success, fame and the pursuit of the big money" (Vanderwerken 255). The extent to which the old words have been redefined is made evident in Jimmy Herf’s vision of the skyscraper:
Pursuit of happiness, unalienable pursuit . . . right to life liberty and. . . . A black moonless night; Jimmy Herf is walking alone up South Street. . . . a skyscraper has obsessed him, a grooved building jutting up with uncountable bright windows falling onto him out of a scudding sky. Typewriters rain continual nickelplated confetti in his ears. . . . Every time he closes his eyes the dream has hold of him, every time he stops arguing audibly with himself in pompous reasonable phrases the dream has hold of him . . . If only [he] still had faith in words. (365-366)
In this passage the old words become "fragmented and disconnected, and the bewildered and confused Herf has no idea what they mean or whether they mean anything at all" (Vanderwerken 255). These monuments of big money represent the break between America the concept and America the corporation. Skyscrapers spring up like weeds all over the city, blotting out the sky, the sun, and anything else left of the natural world that may be viewed. They are the grandest symbol of the defeat of the old agrarian way of the founding fathers. They are the final result of the steamrollers and the reason for the trains.
These trains are rarely observed by the flâneur narrator's mechanical eye for more than a phrase or two, but this is primarily because they are always speeding by, leaving only the ugly girders of tracks in their wake. The significance of trains is underscored by the titling of the work and also by their ever-present rumbling, which pervades the acoustic backdrop of the novel and unites Dos Passos’ Manhattan under a clamorous blanket of industrial noise pollution. The noise serves as a sort of interference in the communication between the novel’s characters, demonstrating in the way it is so easily ignored how these people are able to tune out the consequences of industrial progress. The noise "drowns out" (135) important parts of conversations as the trains themselves "shatter the barred sunlight overhead" (134); and their presence "makes constant reference to the external scene" (Gelfant 48), pulling the collage of images and narratives beneath the canopy of the novel’s title. Even "the tangle of girders of the elevated railroads" (124) has a foreboding quality as it begins to infect every aspect of daily life, in effect to superimpose its mechanical restlessness on even the more peaceful aspects of what is left of the natural world. The effect is described in the following passage depicting a typical Manhattan morning: "Morning clatters with the first L-train down Allen Street. Daylight rattles through the windows, shaking the old brick houses, splatters girders of the L structure with bright confetti" (129). In this passage, the flâneur narrator portrays the train as the dominant force. Even daylight becomes an object contained within its walls. Trains are also closely associated with death, as in the passage: "A trainload of jiggling corpses, nodding and swaying as the express roared shrilly towards Ninetysixth Street" (294). The connection between trains and death is also evident in that it is under the elevated train that Bud witnesses a suicide that inspires him to do the same. This mechanical plague that wraps the city in a "girder" that seems to have a life and a language of its own is probably the greatest metaphor for the destructiveness of industrialization. The original intention of using the trains to bring the people of the city closer together has been completely undermined by their cold mechanical swiftness. Manhattan Transfer is just one tiny train stop that is mentioned only once in the novel: "They had to change at Manhattan Transfer" (115). It is seemingly insignificant to the work as a whole, but in reality serves as a metaphor for the novel’s underlying theme: people pause and move on and matter very little in the long run.
Because the image of the train is such an essential symbol of industrial progress and human destruction, it would only make sense that the act of walking would symbolize the opposite--regression and reconstruction. This particular flâneur narrator admittedly does not spend his days sauntering through the streets of Manhattan or strolling through Paris walking a turtle and staring at statues. In fact, one could say the role of flâneur has been split between the camera eye and the author’s literary incarnation, Jimmy Herf. Walking becomes a sort of act of rebellion in this novel. It is an action that speaks against the demands of this fast-paced society; it is an emblem of alienation, failure, and uselessness, and at the same time provides a way of getting back to the agrarian perspective on life. Walking is human speed; it allows time for comprehension, for acknowledging others, and for reflecting on the hidden hieroglyphics of architecture, advertisement, or fashion. In essence, it is a negation of the novel’s title, a rejection of progress and its need for speed. It is really the simplest thing a human can do. There are only two characters in this novel that do any substantial amount of walking, although their reasons for doing it are as different as their fates.
The first flâneur is Bud Korpenning. Bud walks because he has to. He has no money, no friends, no car. He is a symbol of what remains of the old agrarian way of life; he is a young man who has killed his father for making him work too hard and moved off to the big city. He is a transition of sorts, one of a dying breed. Amidst the skyscrapers that stand "like the white cloudhead above a thunderstorm" (12) grumbles a dying Manhattan that still believes in God and admonishes the "horrid atheist" (31), that distrusts "those godblamed automobiles" (25), and still believes that "In America a fellow can get ahead. Birth dont matter, education dont matter. It’s all getting ahead" (21). However, Bud cannot seem to find this Manhattan. This idealistic Manhattan, made up of mostly immigrants and old people, becomes the gradually muffled refrain of the novel that appears from time to time to remind the reader, "I remember when it was all meadows" (249), when people were more in touch with the earth and more in touch with each other, and there was hope for the small businessman, eternity in marriage, and glory for the soldier. It is this sort of world that Bud is seeking when he arrives in Manhattan aboard the ferry that opens the novel. In response to Bud’s rurally phrased question, "Say, friend, how fur is it into the city from where this ferry lands?" (3), a New Yorker’s "glance moved up from Bud’s road swelled shoes to the red wrist that stuck out from the frayed sleeves of his coat, past the skinny turkey throat and slid cockily into the intent eyes under the broken-visored cap" (4). Bud’s description differs greatly from that of his "friend," who is portrayed as "a young man in a straw hat wearing a blue and white striped necktie" (4). His naiveté is certain in his informal and friendly way of addressing strangers as "friends" and in his constant drive to "get into the center of things" (4) and put to use the fact that he "kin work all right" (5). Not only is he ignorant of the danger of automobiles (25), he is ignorant of the fact that "It’s looks that count in this city" (5). He believes that he can grasp the American Dream of financial success and freedom because of the simple fact that he’s "a good worker" (5). He represents all the hope and expectation every immigrant has upon his arrival to New York. His naive sense of hopefulness is evident in the fact that "His feet were blistered, he was leaden tired, but when the ferry moved out of the slip . . . he felt something warm and tingling shoot suddenly through all his veins" (3).
As Bud wanders down Broadway, witnessing the metamorphosis of "empty lots where tin cans glittered among grass and sumac bushes and ragweed" (23) into "windows of grocery stores, Chinese laundries, lunchrooms, flower and vegetable shops, tailors’, delicatessens" (24), he begins to ask around for a job. The only responses he gets are sarcastic replies such as "You keep right on down Broadway till you get to City Hall . . . And then you go upstairs and ask the Mayor. . . . Tell me there are some seats on the board of aldermen" (25). Because of an overall sense of coldness that pervades Manhattan, Bud is rarely met with anything other than rudeness and contempt, despite his constant efforts to make "friends" in the city. In the minds of the city’s natives, he is representative of a set of values that have long since worn thin under the steamroller of progress and industrialism and can no longer be taken seriously. Despite Bud’s obvious value as a symbol of rural and thus old American values, except for Bud’s experience of witnessing a suicide under the "L-train" on Broadway, Dos Passos neglects much of his story. With the exception of a few scenes in which he is portrayed as a bum, the reader is told little more about him until he takes his own life at the end of the chapter titled "Steamroller." Although Bud comes to New York with the intention of becoming "No more’n a needle in a haystack" (17) so that he may escape punishment for murdering his abusive father, he finds the task almost too easy. The isolation, poverty, and paranoia of being caught become too much for him, and, realizing he "Cant go nowhere now" (125), he ends his life by sliding off the Brooklyn bridge and hanging on until he can hang on no longer. Although he causes little more than a splash and an inconvenience to a passing tugboat captain, Bud’s suicide marks an important event in the novel, for it is he who symbolizes all the hangers-on that populate the streets of New York. He represents one of the dying breed of humans who believe in justice, individuality, and hard work but who just cannot seem to "get into the center of things."
However, because Bud is constantly asking for directions and searching for "the center of things," he is not a true flâneur, as someone such as Benjamin would have it. But the fact that his "feet were blistered" (3), his shoes were "road-swelled" (4), and he had walked fifteen miles the morning that he arrived in New York definitely classifies him as a walker. As a symbol of the agrarian way of life, Bud’s walking is of the necessary kind. Although he is in a world caged by means of swift transportation, he walks on hearing "the pounding of his feet on the hungry road" (16). Although Bud is simple-minded and does not make much sense of his surroundings, Dos Passos uses him quite effectively to do a little indirect flâneuring himself:
With long slow stride, limping a little from his blistered feet, Bud walked down Broadway, past empty lots where tin cans glittered among grass and sumach bushes and ragweed, between ranks of billboards and Bull Durham signs, past shanties and abandoned squatters’ shacks, past gulches heaped with wheelscarred rubbishpiles where dumpcarts were dumping ashes and clinkers, past knobs of gray outcrop where steamdrills continually tapped and nibbled, past excavations out of which wagons full fo rock and clay toiled up plank roads to he street, until he was walking on new sidewalks along a row of yellow brick apartment houses, looking in the windows of grocery stores, Chinese laundries, lunchrooms, flower and vegetable shops, tailors’, delicatessens. (23-24)
Although Bud is seeing all of this for the first time and makes no comment on the sort of destruction and waste he sees walking the long road into the city, Dos Passos made sure to place those things in plain view for the reader to see.
The other big walker in the novel is, unsurprisingly, Jimmy Herf, Dos Passos’ most sympathetic character. Just as Bud walked into the City of Destruction, Jimmy walks out. Jimmy, much like Bud in his naiveté, arrives in New York as a young boy, aboard the ferry filled with youthful patriotism, "Kiss the ground, kiss the ground, [echoing] in his head like a cat call" (68). His mother fills him with all the slogans of the old days, saying of the Statue of Liberty, "That’s a light, dear . . . Liberty enlightening the world. . . . And there’s Governors Island the other side . . . and see, that’s Brooklyn Bridge. That’s a fine sight" (69), as Jimmy begs for an American flag to wave while they come slowly into port. Jimmy Herf, "so old fashioned . . . such an oldfashioned child" (70), arrives in New York City on the Fourth of July, ignorant of all but the mythology of the old American way. Unlike Bud, who had been born and raised in a rural setting, Jimmy has been refined and educated in Europe; however, both perceive the city in the same naive way, holding fast to a belief in human individuality, democracy, and the American Dream, a belief soon to be rattled by the reality of post-industrial Manhattan.
While Bud meets a tragic end like a sort of agrarian sacrifice, dropping like a tear from the Brooklyn Bridge, Jimmy’s destiny in the novel is more heroic. At first it seems that Jimmy has made quite a success of his life, marrying Ellen, who has grown into a beautiful actress, and working as a journalist after traveling abroad to serve as a war correspondent in World War I. However, one must not forget that Jimmy is "oldfashioned," a trait that causes him great grief in the face of a failed marriage, a job that has lost its meaning, and a lack of community; and, ironically, it is just this trait that seems to draw people to him. In many ways, he seems to be a powerful connecting force between the disjointed lives of the novel’s characters; he communicates for a living. He is a writer, but a writer who has "lost faith in words" (366). He is, in a way, the human "Manhattan Transfer," which connects as it is supposed to and then makes its way "Pretty far" (404) out of town. To add weight to the connection between Jimmy, who has "two hundred and seventy-two pictures of locomotives" (100), and the novel’s title, he is absolutely obsessed with the idea of travel, a quality which James Merivale points out when he says, "Take Jimmy now . . . an out and out failure, a misfit from way back . . . he might have made something with his all his advantages . . . dreamer, wanderlust . . . Greenwich Village stuff" (386). But it is precisely this "wanderlust" that saves Jimmy from the modern-day Babylon. Many critics compare him to Lot in that he "is the only man allowed to flee the City of Destruction" (Vanderwerken 256). Because remaining in the city is to "risk the loss of one’s humanity" (Vanderwerken 256), his departure is a sort of narrow escape. The ending, as viewed by this critic, is a hopeful one. He is faced with choosing between "two unalienable alternatives: go away in a dirty soft shirt or stay in a clean Arrow collar" (365-366). By choosing the dirty soft shirt of the farmer as opposed to the stiff white collar (a word associated with leashes) of the modern businessman, he successfully evades the clutches of modern industrial society.
Throughout the novel, Jimmy finds himself walking. Mostly it is his escape from uncomfortable social situations. He walks sometimes only to clear his head and sometimes out of necessity for want of cash. He walks to avoid the boredom and loneliness of his small tenement room. But most importantly, he walks out of Manhattan:
Before the ferry leaves a horse and wagon comes aboard . . . Jimmy Herf walks around it . . . A rich smell of maytime comes from it . . . Jimmy has an impulse to ask him where he is going with all of those flowers, but he stifles it and walks to the front of the ferry . . .Then he is walking up an incline . . . he stops to look back. He can see nothing . . . Then he walks on, taking pleasure in the breathing, in the beat of his blood, in the tread of his feet on the pavement . . . Sunrise finds him walking along a cement road between dumping grounds full of smoking rubbishpiles . . . Jimmy walks fast to get out of the smell. He is hungry; his shoes are beginning to raise blisters on his big toes . . . A huge furniture truck, shiny and yellow, has drawn up outside.
"Say will you give me a lift?" he asks the redhjaired man at the wheel?
"How fur ye goin?"
"I dunno. . . . Pretty far." (403-404)
The act of walking soothes him in this grave decision. Perhaps it is the feeling of genuine motion, human-generated motion--as opposed to the stationary vibrations one experiences on a train. Instead of watching the world fly by through a pane of glass, he is moving in the world on his own tired feet. Regardless of where he goes at the end of the novel, he has still acted, which is a positive thing for such a passive character. He makes a choice between the agrarian and industrial ways of life instead of spending his "whole life fleeing the City of Destruction" (366) as a journalist who has "lost faith in words" (366). However, another critic refers to his departure in a particularly negative light by saying "Although he achieves what looks like a solitary salvation by leaving New York, even this gesture, with its hint of 'symbolic suicide,' suggests merely another dead end" (Lowry 58). Another critic agrees that the ending lacks hope because Jimmy shows no sign of direction at his departure; "There’s nowhere in particular he wants to go" (366); He has no goals in view (Gelfant 52), and because of his series of disappointments he has become emotionally impotent and incapable of making a decision. In this way, this critic has compared Manhattan Transfer to The Waste Land in that it is "reducible to the conviction that modern man has died an emotional death, his potentialities for true affective response drained away by a dehumanized social order" (Lowry 55). However, another interpretation of Jimmy’s action to take leave of Manhattan on foot is that it symbolizes a positive rejection of the demands of city life and a return to the more basic, agrarian ways of life prevalent during the American Enlightenment--a gob of spit in the face of rising capitalism. By having "nowhere to go," and walking anyway, Herf has achieved the status of the flâneur--abandoning point-A-to-point-B walking as a means of reaching himself. His journey inward has begun. Perhaps it eventually leads him to write the novel the reader now holds.
Although it is through narratives such as Bud Korpenning and Jimmy Herf that Dos Passos approaches the relationship between flânerie and social conformity directly, his novel is as dependent on the setting this flânerie provides as on its characters. Through his use of a mechanical flâneur narrator that allows him to exploit the novel’s imagery as much as possible, he provides the reader with endless examples of New York daily life as it advances through the twentieth century, Dos Passos creates "a veritable kaleidoscope of apparent 'fact' about city life and then [uses] those ostensible facts for his narrative purposes" (Wagner 47). For its use of objects and the symbolic weight they carry, Manhattan Transfer has been called "one of the most ambitious experiments in the use of urban materials" (Gelfant 36). Like his narratives, his agricultural or old-fashioned images are set in opposition to his industrial and destructive images, the images which inevitably win out in the end. By the end of the novel, New York has asserted itself as a self-consuming parasite that devours any evidence of its earlier agrarian ancestors, leaving the world a cold nickel-plated place where one can only "remember when it was all meadows" (249). Through his use of these cinematic flâneur narrative tactics, Dos Passos is able to take himself out of the limelight of a first-person narrative and address society directly. The key to understanding Dos Passos’ narrator in Manhattan Transfer is not to be found in personalized prose that are self-aware and self-referential, but in the way the narrator depicts the city--as one who were walking aloof with eyes wide open, reading the hieroglyphics embedded in the city’s changing architecture. His perspective is undoubtedly that of the flâneur, but a flâneur grudgingly gone machine. Regardless of interpretation, the fact remains that Dos Passos prompts his readers to make judgments, to play God, in a sense, in his constructed world, the way he has played God in his creation of it. His narrative technique has provided his work with a colorful mood-ring backdrop that shifts and spins into psychological representations of his characters’ situations.