“Manhattan Morning” is fundamentally a novella of associative thinking – in essence, the commonly experienced phenomenon that one thought leads to another, and then to another, and perhaps further and further. The initial thoughts are often the result of external stimuli such as sights, sounds or smells.
As such, this work falls generally into the camp of Modernist fiction. While the story is in part narrated, the role of the narrator is minimal. Much takes place within the mind of the protagonist, Dan Morrison, as he walks through part of mid-town Manhattan on an unnecessary errand.
I am indebted to John Dos Passos and his 1925 novel “Manhattan Transfer” for the framework of my piece. I read Dos Passos' book many decades ago and was captivated by the way Dos Passos used the sights and sounds of the city to help tell his story. Long interested in doing something similar, I never re-read the book for I had no interest in being overly influenced by the specifics of the work. It was simply the idea that mattered.
Thus in "Manhattan Morning", external stimuli, for the most part, lead Dan to think about certain things – food, architecture, historic preservation, sports teams and Japan, for example. A certain type of shoes prompts him to wonder how well he knew his mother. The destination of certain buses gets him thinking about neighborhoods and who lives in them.
But most importantly, he thinks about art and fashion, and connections between the two, and those topics, in turn, get him thinking about his former wife, Helen.
At one point, overwhelmed by the bustle and noise of the city, Dan ducks into St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a few moments of temporary relief, forgetting that the interior of a church is likely to bring to mind a particularly difficult topic involving his current wife, Marcy, and his mother-in-law, Gloria. The heart of the story occurs there.
Dan’s thoughts are driven by his surroundings largely because he is “off duty.” Normally a very busy team leader for a Philadelphia-based advertising and marketing firm, his thoughts would typically be directed toward problem solving and he would in all likelihood be largely oblivious to what was happening around him as he walked a city street. This might be called practical thinking as opposed to associative thinking.
But as "Manhattan Morning" takes place, Dan is headed to California to visit a relative and he has for the moment wrapped things up at the office and put his work aside. Back in Manhattan where he once lived with nothing to do for a day, he experiences “an almost giddy sense of freedom” and that facilitates a free-wheeling thought process.
At the end of the story, Dan is brought back to the present, and problem solving, by an unexpected encounter with a woman at an eatery in Grand Central Terminal. In some respects, this dose of reality calls into question, at least in part, all that has transpired before. Dan is prompted to think about a certain aspect of what probably lies ahead for him and to wonder about his values.