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Elizabeth Hardwick: The Mystique of Manhattan

From: Sewanee Review
Volume 121, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 600-611 | 10.1353/sew.2013.0104

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New York, as many observers have said, is a magnet city, attracting immigrants from all over the world. It also has attracted many American writers from the Midwest, the Far West, and the South. Willa Cather, a native of Nebraska, came to New York in 1906 and stayed. Elizabeth Hardwick, a native of Kentucky, came to New York in 1939 and stayed (except for a few years in Boston and Europe). Hardwick's first two novels are not set in New York, but her most famous novel, Sleepless Nights (1979), is set mainly in New York. So are many of her short stories. She was fascinated by New York, which for her meant Manhattan. In 1985 she told an interviewer: "Yes, I'm faithful to New York, one might say. It's ours, our country's, our great metropolis."

In her essay "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street," Hardwick uses the word Manhattanism several times. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Manhattanism was coined by the architectural critic Rem Koolhaas in 1978 (five years before Hardwick used it) to signify "a culture or ideology associated with modern-day life in a large city (spec. New York)." Hardwick never clearly defines Manhattanism, but she does say that Manhattan attracts people who want to live alone. She speaks of "the undomesticity of a great city like New York, undomestic in the ways other cities are not." She notes that in Whitman's day many men lived in boardinghouses. "Whitman did a lot of 'boarding round,' as he called it." Many people "lived in a space that is not biography . . . an escape from the hometown and the homestead, an escape from the given." She uses the past tense, but she seems to be referring to the present as well. Manhattan is filled with people who went there to get away from the world in which they grew up. In 1969 Hardwick wrote a vitriolic attack on her hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, yet she remained in close touch with her family there all her life.

If Manhattanism means deracination, it also means energy. The city attracts energetic and ambitious people—from stockbrokers to writers, from painters to ballet dancers. (Henry James said Manhattan "bristles.") Melville's story about Bartleby, Hardwick says, has "nothing of the daunting hungry 'Manhattanism' of Whitman." Hardwick quotes two lines from Whitman: "O an intense life, full to repletion and varied! / The life of the theatre, bar-room, huge hotel, for me!" Since Bartleby has neither energy nor ambition, he "is not a true creature of Manhattan." Melville's story, Hardwick says, is "a fable of inanition."

Nevertheless Hardwick sees Manhattanism in Bartleby: "There is something of Manhattan in Bartleby and especially in his resistance to amelioration." In the last paragraph of her essay Hardwick says: "There is Manhattanism in the bafflement Bartleby represents to the alive and steady conscience of the lawyer [the narrator of the story] who keeps going on and on in his old democratic, consecrated endurance." Deracination, energy, resistance to amelioration, bafflement—Manhattanism is an elusive notion that Hardwick does not fully clarify.

Why did Hardwick want to live in Manhattan? In an interview she gave in 1979, she says: "Even when I was in college [in Kentucky] . . . I'm afraid my aim was . . . to be a New York Jewish intellectual. I say 'Jewish' because of their tradition of rational skepticism; and also a certain deracination appeals to me." She admitted that this goal might sound "ridiculous." Six years later she qualified the remark. "I said that as a joke, but it was more or less true." So Hardwick likes Manhattan because it has so many deracinated residents, many of whom are secular Jewish intellectuals. In an essay on Henry James's Washington Square she speaks of the "fluid, inconstant, nerve-wrung landscape" of New York. But is Manhattan so different from, say, Chicago or San Francisco? Moreover aren't the landscapes of all large cities fluid and inconstant?

After marrying Robert Lowell in 1949, Hardwick lived in Boston for several years. In an essay written in the early 1960s she says Boston lacks New York's energy and liveliness. "In Boston there is...



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