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Both Fitzgerald and Dos Passos introduced the modern metropolis as setting and issue of their novels. Written in the same year, The Great Gatsby and Manhattan Transfer present the 1920s society of New York, which was by that time the first capital of the world.
New York literature written during that period by white authors such as Edith Wharton, Theodor Dreisser and, of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos dramatizes the reach and the internal emptiness of the megalopolis.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was more interested in individuals, while Dos Passos was interested in the society composed by these individuals; though he always sympathized with the people, who were the victims of social and historical forces. As Jay Mclnerney says in his 1986 introduction to John Dos Passos' novel, Manhattan Transfer aptly takes its title from the city, as Fitzgerald's does from the individual.
Both writers have been acclaimed for their representation and criticism of the New York of that time; in fact, both novels seem to have anticipated the Great Depression which would take place just a few years later.
Parkinson (1987) states that Fitzgerald was regarded by readers of the Post as the writer who best represented images of the new post-war generation of ambitious middle-class Americans wanting to enjoy the consumer spending boom of the 1920s.
ƒ This was a period when the new millionaires were making a vulgar display of their wealth and gaining access into the closed circle of New York society. It was the period of the emergence of the industrial city, the making of great fortunes in the middle of widespread society and the increasing alienation of the individual from the traditional social and ideological structures. (Lily and Carrie)
The period covered by these two masterpieces of 20th century American literature -Manhattan Transfer from 1897 to 1924 and The Great Gatsby the years following the World War I- was of a great social upheaval in the American society. At this time, the economy changed by and large from industrial production to mass consumption; also, in the 1920s corporate concentration was again accelerated (Hurm, 1991).
Urban life was greatly affected by these changes, and in the first quarter of the 20th century, urban America doubled in population. After World War I, the city of New York came into its own as a world city and underwent an important restructuring. Apart from becoming the chief place for big business and banking, New York City also exploded in expanse and size. Besides, it had an incredibly varied and cosmopolitan amalgam of ethnic cultures as well as languages: "This is certainly the city for everyone being from somewhere else" (Manhattan Transfer, p. 67). In fact, in John Dos Passos' novel, we are presented people coming from all over the globe (German, French, Italian, Irish, Swedish, Sicilian, Polish, Russian, etc) and we are given an impression of the many languages spoken by this heterogeneous community thanks to Dos Passos' suggesting their foreign accents in a diverse phonetic orthography:
'Eh bien you like it this sacred pig of a country?' asked Marco.
'Why not! I like it anywhere. It's all the same, in France you are paid badly and live well; here you are paid well and live badly.'
'Questo paese e completamente soto sopra.'
'I think I'll go to sea againâ€¦'
'Say why de hell doan you guys loin English?' said the old man with a cauliflower face who slapped the three mugs of coffee down on the counter.
'If we talk Englees,' snapped Marco 'maybe you no lika what we say.' (Manhattan Transfer, p. 43)
The city of New York was thus characterized by a noteworthy mobility, both geographically and socially speaking. With the restructuration of capitalism, a considerable part of Manhattan office clerks were allowed to rise within the middle class and white-collar jobs prevailed, as can be seen in the first pages of Dos Passos' novel, where the reader comes across a nurse, a printer, an accountant, an import business manager, a broker and a construction manager.
Also due to the economic shift of that time, almost one and a half million middle-class citizens moved from more central areas to peripheral boroughs and the fringes of the town.
The idea of movement is crucial in Manhattan Transfer, as well as in The Great Gatsby. In John Dos Passos' novel, the ceaseless traffic and the continuous motion reflect this heightened division between work and home, shopping and residence, living and entertainment for the middle class (Hurm, 1991). In fact, the sense of motion is explicit in the title of the novel, indicating that it is about the constant movement and activity of the city, of Manhattan, which is the real protagonist of Manhattan Transfer.
Hurm (1991) points out that Dos Passos' novel omits suburban areas and commuters, and excludes the distinct forms of homogeneous upper-class living which F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby scathingly attacked in the same year, thus conveying a view that would dominate city images in the decades to come. He wanted to be a serious critic of the society in which he lived.
It is important to highlight that in the novel we can find real aspects of F. Scott Fitzgerald's own lifestyle. As Kathleen Parkinson (1987) puts it, he and his wife rented a house in Great Neck, Long Island, across the bay from where the old-established millionaire families or the first industrial boom in the late nineteenth century had their summer homes. We can see a correspondence here to the fictional locations of West Egg, where Nick Carraway lives and East Egg, where the Buchanans' estate is. They entertained on a large scale, their parties sometimes going on for several days, as Gatsby's do in the novel.
In The Great Gatsby, urban society, like the individual psyche and the cityscape, has disintegrated and "cracked-up", as Fitzgerald's own life later did (Bremer, 1992). The symbolic center of the novel, "about half way" between downtown and the suburbs, even abrogates the pastoral. Fitzgerald's famous wasteland image represents his controlling and antipastoral metaphor for megalopolis:
This is a valley of ashes - a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. (The Great Gatsby, p. 29)
Despite the fact that he differentiates suburbs from downtown, the disintegration of the valley of ashes is everywhere; it is in the indifference of East Egg, in the crassness of downtown, and in the hysteria of West Egg.