Bartleby in Manhattan, and Other Essays

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1369

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.

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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 Hardwick’s two earlier books of nonfiction, A View of My Own: Essays on Literature and Society (1962) and Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (1974). Nevertheless, Bartleby in Manhattan is coherent and consistent. In all of the essays, Hardwick exhibits a characteristic passion for understanding her subjects, a thorough and inviting probing of the concrete and abstract qualities of the experiences she describes, juxtaposing detail and philosophical inquiry in an attempt to understand the basis of the works and characters she analyzes.

This method is perhaps best illustrated in Hardwick’s theater and film reviews, though it is evident throughout Bartleby in Manhattan. In an essay on Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Laboratory Theater, Hardwick focuses on the underlying abstract qualities of the productions, their haunting lyricism and liturgical character, their sense of “transcendent pity and terror.” In succeeding passages, her vivid and thorough descriptions of staging, costuming, acting, and audience reaction permit the reader to envision the live performance. Hardwick’s essay, however, is much more than an unusually evocative drama review. It also discusses the history of the Polish theater and Slavic drama. A similar analytic method informs Hardwick’s essay on Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981). Discontent with the film’s portraits of John Reed and Louise Bryant and its insistent homage to “American radicalism,” Hardwick draws on biographies and the works of Reed and Bryant in order to grasp fully their lives and personalities, the milieu in which they worked, and their accomplishments.

Delving beneath the surface of events and personalities, Hardwick explores incongruities of character while providing strong moral assessment. The hardness and cruelty of Ring Lardner’s stories she finds inexplicable in the light of his background and apparent virtues: his “charming, talented family,” his perseverance at work, his kindness and reserve. “Why he drank,” Hardwick writes, “why his views were so bitter are a mystery.” In discussing Robert Frost, Hardwick finds irony in the contrast between his “acute” public consciousness and the poetry that “grew out” of his “isolation.” His lack of generosity and sense of “rivalry” with his contemporaries were evidence of “vanity ... not simplicity of mind.” Svetlana Stalin, Stalin’s daughter, Hardwick describes as “a worthy and attractive person,” but one who does not say what “she really feels. She doesn’t love her father and she doesn’t love Russia and she took her ultimate revenge on them by escaping to the enemy.”

Hardwick’s judgment of her subjects is not always so harsh. In “Wives and Mistresses,” for example, she focuses on the reputations of those who enter “history” through association with “celebrated artists” and political figures. Among those whose lives have somehow become “footnotes” to biographies of the great are Lady Byron and the Countess Tolstoy. Hardwick characterizes the former as deceitful and morally culpable for her brief marriage and “the lifetime of poisonous preoccupation” that followed it. The Countess Tolstoy, however, demands vindication. Though her neurasthenia caused her “intolerable frenzies of distress” and led her husband to “murderous rages against carnal passion and marriage,” the Countess’ forty-eight years of marriage, her “thirteen confinements,” and “seven copyings of War and Peace” cry “to Heaven” for justice.

To this insight into the characters of her subjects, Hardwick brings a poet’s sense of language: vivid, precise, sometimes jarring imagery reflective of the intelligence and vision of the writer. Analyzing the Warren Commission Report on Lee Harvey Oswald, Hardwick finds a text that reads “as if it were the last chorus of a tragedy by Euripides.” Oswald himself is “a ghostly anachronism in a cast of characters” that includes “seers who foretell the future and interpret the past: the social workers and psychiatrists” consulted by the Warren Commission. In “The Charms of Goodness,” Hardwick captures the confrontation between civil rights demonstrators and angry white townspeople in dramatic, filmlike sequences aided by images from the Southern landscape and William Faulkner’s novels. “The voteless blacks, waiting tentatively on the courthouse steps,” face “the angry jowls of the racists.” “The enduring Negroes, the police, the same old sheriff” act out roles seemingly created for television. In “Sad Brazil,” one of the finest pieces in Bartleby in Manhattan, Hardwick vivifies her own sharp perceptions of the Brazilian landscape with the observations of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and South American writer Euclides Da Cunha. The result is a highly original study of Brazilian politics, literature, and history. Here as elsewhere, Hardwick’s eye for the incongruous and her sharpened moral sense lend richness to the style. Brazil, personified as a giant, rises from “a thicket of sleep and the jungle of apathy.” A fallen Eden, it is a place of “mysterious, ineffable plentitude,” of “endless, blue shore lines,” and buildings of “steel and concrete, a transfiguration of metals.” Amid the activity of urban life, a “bereft, scabby” beggar sits against an old wall, “an eruption of the sores of underdevelopment.” Near him, “an explosion of automobiles and their infinite signification” whiz past.

Such an eye for visual contrasts lends depth and insight to all of the essays in Bartleby in Manhattan. The collection is an important addition to Elizabeth Hardwick’s oeuvre and a testament to her well-deserved reputation.

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