Manhattan Transfer (1925). John Dos Passos. Edited by Donald Pizer
Volume 6, Cycle 2
Spoiler alert. Just before Stan Emery, the tragic embodiment of youthful excess in John Dos Passos’ glittering Manhattan Transfer, dies in an apartment fire, he looks out onto the cityscape of Manhattan and says, “Kerist I wish I was a skyscraper!” (255). For each reader of the novel, the line will stand out. It hits the eye, a solitary line after a set of song lyrics and before a paragraph break. Its position on the page, all alone, and yet elevated above the following dense, descriptive prose carries the weight of a singular character’s lost self in a novel populated by hundreds of people navigating and often failing at survival. But, for those characters who can become like skyscrapers and lift themselves up out of the mire, readers will discover survival is possible. I begin here because it stood out to me, both for its position on the page and for its meaning upon my first read of Manhattan Transfer nearly fifteen years ago, and, second, because it stood out to my undergraduate students who read the book in my American Modernism class during Spring 2020. Several of them zeroed in on the line as carrying the central meaning of the book for them, and, during our discussion, they made carefully sustained arguments for its significance. Teaching Dos Passos requires patience and a willingness to go slow, to linger on just one line in a sea of thousands, and teaching with Clemson University Press’s new edition of the sprawling 1925 novel has the potential to offer valuable support for both educator and student.
Edited by Donald Pizer who has spent much of his academic life writing about Dos Passos and his work, the Clemson edition offers useful guideposts for readers through Pizer’s clear, informative, and accessible introduction and his explanatory, factual footnotes. Pizer’s goal with this edition is to provide “an account of the source or meaning of not only the conventionally annotated matter of titles and quotations but also of every place, person, event, and object present in the text that might be obscure today; in brief, to return the work as much as possible to a more understandable expression of the physical, social, and cultural contexts that constitute its raison d’être” (viii). In this objective Pizer succeeds in building an edition that gives readers, especially those new to the novel, starting points for contextual and intertextual research. Pizer traces the names of songs, plays, obscure celebrities and politicians, for example, for notes that offer the reader just enough to locate how the reference works into the text. Pizer does not burden references with interpretation, but he reminds readers when the return of a particular reference might be significant. For example, consider this note to contextualize Stan’s behavior just before his death; “As he did earlier in the novel (p. 145, lines 7-8), Stan misquotes lines from the English nursery rhyme ‘Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross,’ including substituting ‘make mischief’ for the original’s ‘have music’” (254n10). Readers can easily return to the earlier episode to make a richer interpretation of Stan’s recitation. Pizer also provides location descriptions and information about New York City within the contexts of the novel’s timeline—about 1896 to1924—and its evolving map during the period. In some cases, he details historical information about locations that may still exist, such as Delmonico’s, the famed steak restaurant that, until the Covid-19 pandemic temporarily suspended its operations, has served politicians, celebrities, and tourists fine cuisine for over 183 years.
One of the challenges new readers of the novel often face is in pinning down a chronology for Manhattan Transfer, and Pizer’s notes help readers scaffold a timeline. He also includes a brief addendum at the novel’s end that summarizes each section and chapter’s key date range. Another extremely useful feature missing from other editions of the novel is a character list. While it takes away the joy of painstakingly keeping track of hundreds of characters on a pencil-smudged legal pad while reading, it is ultimately a gift of a reference tool. Also unique to this edition is the inclusion of four original watercolor artworks of urban scenes made by Dos Passos between 1920 and 1924. Two of these were used as jacket art for original publications, one for his play The Garbage Man (1926), another for a book of poems The Pushcart at the Curb (1922). It is a pleasure to see Dos Passos’ artwork, Skyscrapers, serving as the cover for this new edition of Manhattan Transfer.
While the watercolors and the footnotes’ detailed provenance of particular song lyrics, poems, or advertising lines will appeal to scholars, Pizer’s edition also has the potential to become the definitive student edition. However, before educators rely solely on this edition when teaching Manhattan Transfer, the press will need to attend to multiple errors in proofing and typesetting of the text in a subsequent run. This is the book’s unfortunate shortcoming. There are a number of places throughout where a footnote references incorrect lines or cross-references previous notes erroneously. It is not clear to this reader whether the errors are Pizer’s or the result of the production process, which included transferring Harper’s 1925 edition into digital form (see Acknowledgements), but one example is in the note reproduced above where lines seven and eight should be lines thirteen and fourteen. Another is in the detail about the Hotel Brevoort, which first appears on page 143 when Ellen meets George for a drink. There is no note to describe the Brevoort on page 143, so one might at first assume it to be a fictional location. On pages 170 and 171, when Ellen has left her first husband and moved to the Brevoort, there are two notes that refer back to page 143 for information about the hotel. Perhaps the Brevoort note was accidentally dropped in the editing stage, but for those readers who do use footnotes for cross-referencing, it is a glaring omission. Additionally, both references on pages 170–71 indicate the hotel is mentioned in line nine of page 143, when, in fact, it is mentioned in line eleven. Because the intention of the edition is focused on providing accurate information about real people, places, events, and movements, it is essential that this information is also accurately proofed and cross-referenced. It is not just that this error affects the goal of accuracy, but that such inaccuracies and omissions come up against the fact that Dos Passos often inserts fictional places, references, and people into his real-world setting, merging words together and inventing new words. These intersections between the real and the made-up are an essential part of Dos Passos’ experimental style and help to create the often confounding and stimulating sensations of the city that are integral to the reader’s experience. Because the Clemson edition introduces errors into the notes and occasionally in the text itself (“clay” on page 171 should be “day”; “Eilen” on page 341 should be “Ellen”), readers may assume that what looks like an error is an error rather than part of the original composition of the novel.
Despite the flaws, my students appreciated all the assistance provided by the paratexts and footnotes throughout. But those who read closely and noticed the errors were upset that they paid thirty-five dollars for a book with mistakes when they could have bought a used Mariner edition for just a few dollars. When choosing texts for teaching, we all pay close attention to the value added by a scholarly edition and most of us are mindful about the price we ask our students to pay for such course materials. It is my hope that a corrected edition will be produced soon because Pizer’s work in contextualizing Dos Passos’ New York City of the early twentieth century adds much value to Manhattan Transfer for a twenty-first century audience.