Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

A ferry cuts across the New York Harbor, but we do not watch it arrive at the other side—this is a stubborn fragment of a sentence, a tune offered then withheld before the final beat. Smoke rises in wisps from factories, and the Brooklyn Bridge perches on the water, waiting for the day to begin. Here, viewers find themselves on the morning waterfront of Manhatta (1921), Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s silent documentary, similarly waiting for the next cue, or at least, a disruption. From these opening shots, the film cuts to an intertitle: “When million-footed Manhattan unpent / descends to its pavements.” These verses, from Walt Whitman’s “The Errand-Bearers” (1860), serve as a choreographing epigraph to the images that follow. And unpent they are, as scores of commuters rumble down the gangplank from their ferries. Beneath a spare organ accompaniment, the film invites us to conjure the sound of footsteps, rhythmic and darting. In fact, we encounter multiple lines of rhythms, those established by the quick cuts between shots, those of the syncopated musical accompaniment, and, still more, the rhythms we imagine and feel within the shots, identified as we are with the individual bodies within crowds. 

Emblematic of the era’s aesthetic attempts to understand the disruption of the metropolis, Manhatta—considered by some to be the first American avant-garde film—creates its own rhythms to match, syncopate, and sometimes soothe those of the city itself. By turns dizzying, frightening, and romantic, the film reveals its own urban ambivalence characteristic of city symphonies: they are simultaneously in awe and repulsed by the rapid industrialization and mechanism of the landscape. The emerging visual technologies at the turn of the century both informed and were informed by a new way of “looking” at this shifting world, a search for a new visual and sensuous language registered just as strikingly in American literature and across media. Manhatta’s images and sensation of a crowd’s footsteps reappear, for instance, in Fannie Hurst’s popular novel Lummox (1923), when the working-class protagonist Bertha cleans the restrooms of a movie palace and watches the steps of the passing moviegoers: “Worming with her rag in between the feet of the little groups that stood before these posters of escape,” she watches “the feet of the city. Gay feet, old feet, young feet, tired feet… the feet of the seekers after surcease from reality” (Hurst 168). In these fragmented, cinematic images, Bertha watches her own film of the city as if looking through its viewfinder. The incantatory language carries the rhythms of the footsteps onward. 

The attempt to parse the speeds, tempos, and movements of the city emerged as an aesthetic concern even earlier, in the transitional work of Henry James, whose 1909 story “Crapy Cornelia” captures with photographic clarity the tension between new and old. Later, John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925) brings this tension to the forefront through a series of montage-style impressionistic vignettes. In their use of cinematic and mechanical techniques to reveal the ambivalent, split relationship of the individual subject to the modern city, both texts echo Manhatta and other city symphonies of the era. While James is more attuned to a metropolitan transition in his portrait of a reluctant and passive observer of modern life, Dos Passos constructs a New York City decidedly of its time, with characters who have largely disavowed their pasts. Still, both works treat the slippage and instability of the relationship between residual tradition and emerging modernity. I argue that James’s “Crapy Cornelia” and Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer enact and sustain the tension between the past and the present—and between stillness and motion, or immobility and shock—through the use of the cinematic and the mechanistic in subject matter and form. They construct disillusioned views of the images and rhythms of modern life without turning to an uncritically nostalgic view of the past. The works invite readers to feel their split rhythms, their skipped and rushing beats a kind of heart palpitation in the bodies of the texts. In both, the rhythms of individuals find themselves subsumed in the deafening chorus of the city and of modern social structures, albeit with moments of resistance, of stepping out of beat. 

In his 1903 essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” Georg Simmel describes the sensory overload introduced by the city, and on its money economy, which reduces all interactions and relations to the transactional. Interestingly, his language is attuned not only to the mechanistic, but to the visual and cinematic textures of the city. “Lasting impressions,” he writes, “take up… less consciousness than does the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions” (Simmel 1). It is precisely this zoetrope barrage of visual ‘impressions’ which forms the city’s rhythms, so embedded in the structures of the metropolis that “it is only through such upheavals that the more conservative mind could accommodate to the metropolitan rhythm of events” (2). Since this quality of modern life depends on “the most punctual integration of all activities and mutual relations into a stable and impersonal time schedule” (3), Simmel’s argument reminds us that rhythms can only exist in time. The embodied experience of rhythm, as a series of stressed and unstressed beats which form a pattern, characterizes both the cinematic, audiovisual (imagined) experience as well as the sensuous (real) interaction with the world. It is a mode of being in time. The city articulates distinct rhythms, through clock time, rituals and routines, mass transit, and other quotidian, pervasive experiences. 

Film theorist Tom Gunning maps this onto the history of cinema, which he argues began with an “aesthetic of astonishment,” with early films focusing on spectacle and staging a “series of shocks” as opposed to adherence to linear narrative (Gunning 33). James and Dos Passos engage with this motif of the impression, the shock, or the flash as a defining feature of modern life. Both introduce patterns of procrastination, immobility, and paralysis followed by shock and forced motion. In connecting this to cinema, it is fitting that this experience of time as fragmented and disjointed parallels the intermittence of the filmic medium—itself a mechanical process built on starts and stops, the sprockets of film stock clicking through the projector in rapid succession to create the illusion of continuity through time. But in James’s story and Dos Passos’s novel, shocks function to momentarily break their narrative worlds, and to break the sense of unified, continuous time. 

In “Crapy Cornelia,” James constructs a portrait of fraught immobility, a rhythm still in step with the old and struggling to skip into the new. White-Mason, a figure associated with a pre-modern, pre-automated world, returns from Europe to his home in New York to find that the city has transformed during his leave. As a white, upper-class member of the knickerbocker society, this change evokes alienation. His is a subjectivity rife with heightened, fearful, awareness of images, fleeting impressions, and the passage of time. Yet this anxiety is hidden by a performance of indifference and detachment, the blasé attitude which Simmel argues is a defense mechanism to guard against the overstimulation of the city. White-Mason’s inertia is immediately established by the form of the opening sentence: “Three times within a quarter of an hour—shifting the while his posture on his chair of contemplation—had he looked at his watch as for its final sharp hint that he should decide, that he should get up” (James 1). In its circling repetition and halting dashes, the language performs White-Mason’s procrastination. The temporal experience is also translated into the visual, in that he can only perceive the rhythms of time by glancing at the confirmation of his watch. Furthermore, this is an image signifying not continuous, felt time, but rather its tension with mechanical clock time. In the park in which he sits cloistered away, he gazes upon a pastoral scene, a “lawn freshened by recent April showers” (1). Although echoing Chaucer’s “Aprill with his shoures soote,” White-Mason is reluctant to embark on his springtime pilgrimage, to travel through the assaults and the novel impressions of the city, eventually carrying out his plan to pay “tribute to the temple of Mrs. Worthingham’s charming presence” in a marriage proposal (2). In this ironic tone, modern life is instead figured as visually glittering, yet spiritually devoid and corrupted by financial desires. 

Further suggesting the ocularcentric nature of White-Mason’s interaction with the landscape, he subjects the other park visitors to his scrutinizing gaze. After being cued first by their voices, he immediately remarks on the sight of their frilly clothing, figured as “portentously flaunting the daughters of the strange native—that is of the overwhelmingly alien—populace at him” (1). This rhymes with Simmel’s observation of the “slight aversion, a mutual strangeness and repulsion” towards others in the city. Writing on the dual desires for anonymity and community, Simmel argues that “from both these typical dangers of the metropolis, indifference and indiscriminate suggestibility, antipathy protects us” (Simmel 4). James brings this antipathy to its extreme by casting the others as visibly racialized, ethnic Others. White-Mason is struck by this image of immigrants, who remind him of their oxymoronic, impossible status as both “native” and “alien” in the city’s shifting ethnic demographics. Like him, they are both insiders and outsiders, yet his discomfort arises from the implicit observation that they have assimilated into the city more fully than he has. Caught in “the charm of procrastination,” he convinces himself that “he had looked without seeing and listened without hearing: all that had been positive for him was that he hadn’t failed vaguely to feel” (James 1). He is a passive, somnambulist observer, an anti-flanêur figure absorbing public images and impressions only to express his disgust, as he simultaneously ponders the personal question of his stalled proposal.

At forty-eight years old, he views the financially opportune proposal to Mrs. Worthingham as his last chance, and in another wry reference to the divine, “he got up with the sense that time from then on ought at least to be felt as sacred to him” (2). Thus, he is poised for action. As readers attentive to these lulled rhythms, we embrace the oncoming motion and await the shock. 

This promised disruption of the narrative rhythm flashes forth when White-Mason finally makes his way to Mrs. Worthingham’s home, meeting its “gloss of new money” in the possibility of marriage into the nouveau riche (2). Mrs. Worthingham, described by White-Mason as “in the know,” represents the opportunity for his integration into modernity. While he has to force himself to move forward, she is able to effortlessly “skip by the side of the coming age… keeping step with its monstrous stride” (4). Their rhythms are thus out of sync. When he enters her home, he is stunned by the “unhushed clamour of the shock,” with every “expensive object shrieking at him in its artless pride that it had just ‘come home’” (2). The novelty signified by these objects overwhelms him and demands his attention, as the visual glare of historically unplaceable things is accompanied by the sound of screaming in a near synesthetic description of the scene. Here, James features explicitly cinematic imagery, the use of a close-up: “He met the whole vision with something of the grimace produced on persons without goggles by the passage from a shelter to a blinding light,” as if “‘snap-shotted’ on the spot” with a “scowl of anguish” (2). James makes direct reference to the era’s new visual technology, portable ‘snap-shot’ photography and the emerging film industry. 

This shock to White-Mason has shocked the reader as well, and disrupted the lilting rhythm of White-Mason’s procrastination—and of the story’s performed procrastination—by capturing and fixing a discrete moment in time. He is also halted and immobilized within this moment. As he is pinned here, the gaze turns back onto him, and he suddenly becomes the visual object shown “wounded, bleeding, blinded, from the riot of the raw” (3). In emphasizing the jolt of White-Mason’s close-up, the language models the city’s “frequent violence of transition” (2). Indeed, much of this story dwells on this violence of transition, which yields both pleasure and extreme discomfort: “He positively cherished in fact, as against the too inveterate gesture of distressfully guarding his eyeballs… an ideal of adjusted appreciation, of courageous curiosity, of fairly letting the world about him, a world of constant breathless renewals and merciless substitutions, make its flaring assault” (3). White-Mason takes Emerson’s transparent eyeball to its grotesque end-point, in which visual absorption of the surroundings gives way instead to terror. But his blinkered existence—belied by his attempts to wrest some sort of excitement or “appreciation” out of the “flaring” modern condition—reflects his contradictory relationship to the city. 

While “excesses of light” are associated with the ‘new’ world of jarring and dazzling experiences, the dark imagery of the shelter is linked to a comforting and familiar ‘old’ world (3). For instance, White-Mason is both enraptured and appalled by what the young Mrs. Worthingham represents, and his language to describe her hovers helplessly on the surface, overwhelmed by the play of light on her gilded and pearly exterior. She reflects a “lustre,” a “gleam,” an “iridescent surface,” created by the “shimmering interfusion of her various aspects” (4). The objects and figures he sees—which dissolve into one another, and which are variously associated with novelty and with the past — inundate and distort his vision “after the manner of images in the cinematograph” (4). The shadow of Cornelia, the other visitor who happens to be an old friend of his, is so “comparatively black” that he initially mistakes her figure for a sofa (3). The reference to crepe links her with dark, Victorian mourning garb, which further shrouds her from light. He notes that Cornelia’s presence, as an unwelcome reminder of his past, had “brought about the thud, not to say the felt violent shock, of his fall to earth” (5). Emerging from this violent play of light, from the excess of images and ever-shifting impressions, White-Mason experiences an aesthetic built on a series of shocks. 

Yet in another gesture of complicating the individual’s relationship to the modern world, James exposes the oppressive social structures of the past concealed by White-Mason’s nostalgia for his studied, traditional manners. Though he claims that “in his time… the best manners had been the best kindness,” he objectifies the women around him, already having mistaken Cornelia for an ottoman (3). Furthermore, he objectifies Mrs. Worthingham by transforming her into a knick-knack, a “festooned Dresden china shepherdess” that blends in with the rest of the home’s curiosities (3). Cornelia, reduced to the “oppressive alien,” is a presence so intrusive that he leaves without proposing to the young widow (2). After further conversations with Cornelia, them being “conscious, ironic, pathetic survivors together of a dead and buried society,” White-Mason chooses to marry neither her nor Mrs. Worthingham. He decides to embrace an idealized, frozen past, signified by his steadfast grasp of a still photograph of his former lover, and his trance-like stare into the glow of Cornelia’s fireplace, this time captured by the narrative “without the scowl” (16). 

Diverging from the hyper-focused image of the individual seen in James’s story, Dos Passos offers a kaleidoscopic, sprawling view of a slew of characters in Manhattan Transfer. These overlapping stories, set in New York at the turn of the century, foreground the characters’ abilities or lack thereof to adapt to the anomie of modern urban life. In form, the novel’s fragmentary vignettes and cuts resemble the montage structure of film, in which meaning is created in the rhythmic parallels and juxtapositions between shots as well as within individual shots. In these vignettes, the city is shown as only glimpsed, fragmented into various vantage points with little transition or warning, creating the effect of jump cuts. Like “Crapy Cornelia,” Manhattan Transfer features a pattern of shocks in its characterization of the rhythm of novelty. And as in Manhatta, the novel begins on a ferry, with Bud Korpenning traveling from upstate to move to the city in search of work. We also re-encounter the motif of weighted footsteps and their association with transit and labor: “His feet were blistered, he was leadentired, but when the ferry moved out of the slip, bucking the little slapping scalloped waves of the river he felt something warm and tingling through all his veins” (Dos Passos 4). For Bud, it is his bodily contact with the rhythmic, teasing waves lapping against the ferry that foreshadows the rushing tempo of the city. There is a perpetual desire, for Bud as for other characters, “to get to the center of things,” which prefaces his repeated requests to those he meets to point him to Broadway (4). But despite Bud’s and others’ attempts to situate themselves within the punctual rhythms of the city, the center they seek proves both elusive, and when glimpsed, violent. The center breaks out in horrific spectacles — it does not hold. Thus the motion of Dos Passos’s city induces a kind of nauseating effect for its characters, with competing pulls of centripetal and centrifugal forces which both attract city-dwellers while propelling them outwards and away. 

As for the centripetal, Manhattan Transfer foregrounds the tension between the mechanical pull inward and the opportunity to move freely despite this pull, the ability to resist and step out of the mechanized. Characters are lulled into the rhythms of the city first via the train, as a symbol of both physical and socioeconomic mobility: the accelerated “rumpetybump rumpetybump” (84) pulse is transferred to language, as “the wheels rumbled in [Ellen’s] head, saying Man-hattan Tran-sfer. Man-hattan Tran-sfer” (126). The hypnotic, chanting cadence of the train becomes the rhythmic pull of the city itself, and significantly, the title of the work. When Jimmy Herf reluctantly becomes a participant in the corporate ongoings of the city, he watches crowds “elbowing, shoving, shuffling… fed in a tape in and out the revolving doors, noon and night and morning, the revolving doors grinding out his years like sausage meat” (130). The language calls to mind the imagery of city-dwellers as cogs in a massive, cyclical machine, which Simmel describes as the individual transforming into “a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers” (Simmel 7). Through Jimmy’s visualization of the revolving doors as a daily grind, Dos Passos literalizes this transformation of the subject into the object, what Simmel notes is the transformation of “subjective form into the form of a purely objective life” (7). The passersby become the force pushing forth the doors, always moving yet simultaneously remaining in the same spot as the bodies blur together. Even more alarmingly, the walkers are figured as both cogs and, through the sausage meat reference, products themselves. They are both actors and acted upon in establishing the whirring rhythm of production. Elevators serve similar functions in establishing the city’s rhythms, as they “go up empty, come down jammed… It’s ebbtide on Wall Street, floodtide in the Bronx. The sun’s gone down in Jersey” (Dos Passos 182). The novel here naturalizes the mechanical and monotonous rhythms to make sense of the arbitrariness of such movements. In cynically naturalizing these streams of movement, the novel casts doubt on the ability of characters to remove themselves from this forward momentum. The language of currents also recalls Bud’s suicide, when he throws himself off a bridge into the river below. 

Thus the centrifugal nature of the city is taken to its extreme with the novel’s series of violent shocks which serve to eject characters, and readers, out of the mechanical draw of the city. Following the city symphony structure, the novel repeatedly frames a ‘day-in-the-life’ point of view of the metropolis beginning with daybreak. But deviating from Manhatta, Dos Passos tends toward his rude awakenings: “Morning clatters with the first L train down Allen Street. Daylight rattles through the windows. Shaking the old brick houses, splatters the girders of the L structure with bright confetti” (139). This quotidian moment of transition into the daytime is accompanied by rattling, skittering language that portends the shocks to come. Elsewhere, shocks are also quick to interrupt ostensibly positive images of mornings, beginnings, and births. Ellen Thatcher, the novel’s modern urban changeling, is born on the same day as the incorporation of the city boroughs in the 1890s. But notions of urban consolidation and newness are dashed by the narrative’s move toward fragmentation, when from Ellen’s birth the novel cuts to a spectacle of fire in an Eisenstein-like montage of juxtaposition. Ed Thatcher, newly a father, observes that, “something black had dropped from a window and lay on the pavement shrieking” (15). This image, already shocking in its sheer violence, strikes us as even more grotesque when paralleled with the image of birth preceding it. In the modern city, Dos Passos suggests that the shocks of birth and destruction—more specifically, of falling—are threateningly proximal spectacles. Ed later reprimands the young Ellen for stomping on newspapers: “we need construction and not destruction in this world” (20). Other rhythms of descent appear in meditations, ironically, on upward mobility through financial investment. Ed convinces himself to “take a plunge, take a plunge… Take a plunge and come up with three hundred and twentyfive thousand, six hundred and sixtysix dollars” (120). Needless to say, he does not turn a profit. Joe Harland similarly falls on hard times when he loses his fortune over the years, and even the magic of being the “Wizard of Wall Street” cannot keep him up (158). It is no coincidence that Ed’s plunging metaphor precedes Bud’s suicide. In these rhythms of faltering and descent, it seems that no one can keep pace with the demands of the city. 

Henry James and John Dos Passos articulate the rhythms of their urban imaginations through the use of cinematic and mechanical imagery, style, and references. While James focuses on the transitory relationship between tradition and modernity, Dos Passos presents a vision of a city which has lurched into an uncertain future. Read together, these texts record the inscription of the frenzied metropolis onto the American consciousness and its literary performances. But to get a sense for the overwhelmed, deep ambivalence which these innovative works impart, we might just as well return to Whitman. When read in the modernist light cast back in time by James and Dos Passos, Whitman’s 1860 poem “Manhatta” is nothing less than prophetic. He writes on the city’s name: “Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly / musical, self-sufficient.” The hypnotic, iambic lilting of the word “Manhattan” belies the unruly nature of the city of which Whitman was an early observer. The musical, staccato wave of Whitman’s description — which shifts and pulls and refuses to stay still — gracefully captures modernism’s deeply ambivalent relationship to the metropolis and its frantic, unpatterned rhythms.

Works Cited

  • Dos Passos, John. Manhattan Transfer. New York: Vintage Classics, 1925.
  • James, Henry. “Crapy Cornelia” Harper’s Magazine (October 1909).
  • Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903). In On Individuality and Social Forms
    (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), pp.324-339.
  • Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and The (In)credulous Spectator.” Art and Text 34 (1989).

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