Bartleby in Manhattan, and Other Essays Essay - Critical Essays

Elizabeth Hardwick

Bartleby in Manhattan, and Other Essays

One of the founding editors of The New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Hardwick has a formidable and well-deserved literary reputation. She is the editor of a selection of William James’s letters and an eighteen-volume collection of fiction by American women. She is also the author of three novels and numerous articles and reviews. As a critic and essayist, Hardwick excels at elegantly written explorations of literary and cultural subjects. Writing in what Richard Locke has called an “anti-academic” style, Hardwick is a personal essayist whose wide reading, varied interests, and witty style elicit comparisons with the nonfiction of Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag, and William Gass. Her subjects are cultural and social movements, historical and literary personalities, language and place, as well as drama and literature. Her probing studies are sometimes occasioned by a theatrical performance or the publication of a book, but her essays typically range far wider and deeper than most drama and literary reviews. Intelligent, thorough analyses, they have the excitement and learning of lively scholarship. Both keen moral and psychological insight and a vibrant, poetic prose style characterize Hardwick’s writing.

Bartleby in Manhattan, Hardwick’s third collection of essays, consists of twenty-four articles arranged in five parts. Nearly all originally appeared in The New York Review of Books. Selections date from as early as 1962 and as late as 1983; because there is no introduction to the book nor any precise dates accompanying the essays, it is unclear if the five-part arrangement is chronological. Subject dates several pieces and provides unity within two sections. “Out in the Country,” the first division, contains essays of social criticism clearly dating from the 1960’s. These include articles on the Selma, Alabama, civil rights marches; on Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John Kennedy; on the aftermath of the 1968 slaying of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.; and on evangelist Billy Graham. Other divisions include one of theater criticism and three combining social, cultural, and literary discussions. There are analytical essays on the lives of literary figures, such as Ring Lardner and Robert Frost, and on the novels of Thomas Mann, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895), and the university lectures of Vladimir Nabokov. Simone Weil, Svetlana Stalin, Lady Byron, and the Countess Tolstoy come under Hardwick’s probing gaze, as do journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant and the landscape and history of Brazil. The title essay, “Bartleby in Manhattan,” typifies Hardwick’s eclecticism and broad interests. Occasioned by “some lectures on the subject of New York City ... the present landscape,” the essay combines occasional social commentary with an astute and original analysis of Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener” (first published in The Apple-Tree Table and Other Sketches, 1922). Though the essay’s title suggests a discussion of setting, Hardwick’s focus is in fact Bartleby’s language, his cryptic and strangely empowering “I would prefer not to.”

Because Bartleby in Manhattan covers such a variety of subjects and ranges over more than twenty years, it lacks the thematic unity and cohesiveness of...

(The entire section is 1369 words.)