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‘Kerist I wish I was a skyscraper’: John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, skyscrapers and the predatory modern city

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John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer (1925) is one of the first American novels to significantly engage the figure of the skyscraper in modern New York City. Throughout the novel, Dos Passos employs the physical and symbolic structure of the skyscraper to examine the effects of capitalism on the spaces of the burgeoning metropolis at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the text, Dos Passos utilizes skyscrapers to critique the capitalist and overly individualized spaces of the city and the dangers that these spaces pose to the novel’s characters. The critique in the text is compounded by the fact that Dos Passos’ characters find solace neither in the opening vertical spaces of the city nor in the public spaces of the street. In the end, the novel’s characters are faced with alienating and dehumanized spaces in the hostile and predatory metropolis.
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Keywords: New York; capitalist space; literature; modernism; skyscrapers; verticality

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Elizabeth City State University

Publication date: 01 March 2018

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  • Cities have been increasingly at the forefront of debate in both humanities and social-science disciplines, but there has been relatively little dialogue across these disciplinary boundaries. Journals in social-science fields that use urban-studies methods to look at life in cities rarely explore the cultural aspects of urban life in any depth or delve into close readings of the representation of cities in individual cultural products. As a platform for interdisciplinary scholarship from any and all linguistic, cultural and geographical traditions, the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies prioritizes the urban phenomenon in order to better understand the culture(s) of cities.
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