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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: December 2019

Chapter 6 - “A Novel Like a Documentary Film”: Cinematic Writing as Cultural Critique in John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer

from Part II - Literary Immediacy and the Cinema


The chapter argues that John Dos Passos in his novel Manhattan Transferappropriates cinematic immediacy effects and documentary aesthetics for the sake of literary innovation and cultural intervention. His formal innovations—the narrative’s montage structure, shifting focalization, and sampling of mass media item—allow the novel to convey the complexity of modern city life while opening up a critical perspective on mass media discourse and urban consumer culture. The chief strategy Dos Passos uses to critically refract popular mass culture is the creation and subsequent dissolution of immediacy effects that encourage the readers to grapple self-reflexively with the text, their reading strategies, and the represented social realities. The novel’s documentary style creates an urban world that seems recorded rather than imagined. Yet the novel continually disrupts this impression of immediacy: its disjunctive structure and surprising narrative shifts confront the readers with their interpretive routines and push them to develop new ways of reading that enable them to cope with both the novel’s experimental form and the depicted cultural practices.

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