John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: This book began in the 1890’s. Benjamin Harrison of the Republicans was in power. The novel began by showing the problems of immigration both from the view point of the immigrant and of the already settled American. We are aware right from the first page that the life of an immigrant was extremely difficult. Jobs were extremely scarce and even when they were available the pay was low. However the immigrants had to worry about more than just jobs; they had to worry about the safely of the lives of their families. Because there was a huge number of unemployed in the cities groups such as the Klu Klux Klan (K.K.K) flourished. The unemployed blamed the immigrants for their problems, they thought that it was they who were taking away their jobs.
To relieve such anger people in groups like the K.K.K went out and attacked innocent immigrants often killing them. If one were black things were even worse. There were many laws that separated them from white men and made their lives very difficult. They were constantly beaten by white men and found getting jobs very hard. As well people became firebugs and often burned down buildings in which the immigrants lived.
The majority of Americans resented the immigrants because they represented lost jobs. the only people who did like the influx of immigrants were the rich because they represented a large pool of labour that cost next to nothing. America was very much separated from the rest of the world. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 was still a big part of life in the United States Of America and politicians made sure that they did n not get involved in European affairs. They remained unchanged until the first World War when America joined in on the side of the Allies.
This novel showed that most Americans were glad that they had joined. It created jobs for the poor and increased the wealth of many of the already very rich as well. I learned greatly how the politics of the time worked. Passos showed how the sinking of a ship carrying Americans triggered the The United States to join. Before this book I had though it ridiculous that a country would go to war over a few deaths, but the author showed how the American goverment used propoganda to make the Americans want to join in the war and fight.
Manhattan Transfer tells the tale of how a poor tailor became very rich when the were broke out. He managed to secure a contract with the government for body bags and overnight he was rich. With the war looking promising for America people started to buy again. It was in this period also that Americans began to rebuild their economy. As well they started going out to clubs quite often.
The novel spends a great deal of time on how people began to spend their money in pubs again and how their hearts began to be overjoyed as time went on and the German’s began to lose. This era is referred to by many historians as the Jazz Era. Many of the poorer characters in Manhattan Transfer made references to people such as J.P. Morgan and other Robber Barons telling great tales of their fortunes and how they too would one day do the same. This is interesting because it shows that they are not just some unknown historical characters in our history book but instead real people that everyone knew. This book continues on until the year 1925, thus through 5 different presidents such as Grover Cleveland (Republican), William McKinley (Republican), Teddy Roosevelt (Republican), Woodrow Wilson (Democrat) and Waren Hardwig (Republican). Note how four of the five presidents are Republicans.
Manhattan Transfer brings this up very well by showing that the common people supported this party because it stood for the traditional ways. This was very popular with second and third generation immigrants because they did not want change but for the newly landed immigrants this was not what they wanted. They had come to America to find streets covered in gold but when they got there they found nothing but poverty. Manhattan Transfer showed clearly how the United States benefitted from the war with the Germans. Their economy was greatly stimulated and they became the world’s largest creditor.
SYNOPSIS: This book does not have a plot as such. It is more the story of life in New York City from 4 different points of view. There are four main groups of characters in this book, 2 landed immigrants, a poor American family, a group wanting to become famous on Broadway, and a group of very rich people. Each group represents a different point of view. I am glad that the author John Dos Passos choose to show the different life styles of the Americans. The book begins with the newly landed immigrants.
We see how they struggled to find jobs, suffered from persecution and lived in horrible conditions. One little episode shows how one of the newly landed immigrants got a one day job of moving coal for a rich lady. She had promised to pay him one dollar for his work but at the end of the day when he was finished she gave him 25 cents and told him to leave before she called the police. I believe this to be a reflection of how most of the rich ,including the Robber Barons, made their money and held onto it. Throughout the novel we saw how the world has changing.
We were given many aspects to policy making in America. What struck me most about this book was how even the simple immigrant could see how the United States Of America was becoming the police officer of the world and that without America’s intervention in the first world war Germany would have won. Background On John Dos Passos: John Dos Passos (1896-1970) was the author of many dozens of books, including the U.S.A Trilogy. He is often referred to as “.. the only major American novelist..
who had the desire and power to surround the lives of his characters with what Lionel Trilling once called ‘the buzz of history.'” He was a second generation immigrant to the United States Of America and came from a poor family. Personal Comment: I personally found this book to be a real drag to read but however it did have much information of historical value. The author lived in this time era and therefore was able to show very well the situation in America. He clearly showed the average lives of American’s without editing out the sadder sides. I learned tremendously about the contrast between the rich, poor and immigrants in this story. I found that I could relate to the situation of the depression well, because of the recession in Canada right now.
Although I would not recommend this book for ‘enjoyable reading’ I would strongly encourage others to read it for historical content. I enjoyed the fact that the novel went over a period of 30 years, because we saw how the politics of the time were changed and molded by different events. Perhaps what shocked the most was the fact that the average American was glad that the United States joined the war, however reflecting back onto their economic situation I can understand because they needed the jobs and the money. However Passos did not only focus on the politics of the time. He laid a great deal of stress on the social aspects of ‘The Roaring 20’s’ as well. This is the part of his story that I enjoyed the most. He taught his readers about social wrongs and rights such as firebugs.