John Dos Passos
January 14, 1896. Chicago
September 28, 1970 Baltimore
As I see it, John Dos Passos is a first rate second level American writer overshadowed by his one time friend Ernest Hemingway. Dos Passos does not appear much read anyone. In classes in American literature centering on the first half of the 20th century he gets left out. If I should teach such a class to undergraduates I would probably not include him in a three month long class.
Not long ago I received notice of a flash Kindle edition sale of his 1925 set in New York City novel Manhattan Transfer offered at $1.95. Having recently read a number of set in New York City short stories by Yiddish writers and the classic novel of Jewish immigrants to the city, Call it Sleep by Henry Roth and after looking at the description as well as the ratings on Amazon I hit purchase now,hoping to get an “American” take on NYC in the first two decades of the 20th century.
I throughly enjoyed Manhattan Transfer. It is kind of a literary collage stiching together vignettes of the lives of residents of Manhattan Island. We sit in on lots of conversation, many on an urban railroad, The Manhattan Transfer. We meet poorest immigrants, rubes moved up from the rural south, the really rich and the phonies, hard working family people to con artists. Dos Passos tries to present the speech patterns of different ethnic groups. I found this to be an interesting attempt, done Ok but better by others. His Jewish immigrants start sentences with “Oy”, Italians sound to me way over done, almost comically so. Maybe I am overreacting but his descriptions of African Americans came across offensively.
I am glad I read Manhattan Transfer. I like collages, visual and literary and this is very much a collage. Dos Passos studied art and you can easily see the influence of collage artists. My post read research said he was influenced yo
by James Joyce. Manhattan Transfer is easy to read.
Maybe if Ulysses is the collage of Dublin in this period and Berlin Alexanderplatz, a 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin, a collage of that city then Manhattan Transfer is the best NYC collage of this period you will find. The Kindle Edition is back to $9.95, you can get a used hard back for $0.53 plus shipping. Those wishing to expand their knowledge of American Literature of the period should add this to their one of these days list.