There's a literary fault line that bisects Manhattan horizontally through midtown. Above that line — a connect-the-dots path made up of all the magazine offices and tony Ivy League clubs plunked down across West 44th — is uptown's writerly camp. It's filled with the wizened, the erudite, the elder statesmen. The establishment.
And below the fuzzy meridian roam those more daring scribes — the younger, risk-taking artists. The bohemians.
Accurate or not, the perception of two different literary worlds in Manhattan still exists. There's the old guard, which has for decades rested on its laurels in Upper West Side townhouses, taking taxi cabs and town cars to magazine offices in Midtown, where they spend their days tinkering with sentences at a painstakingly slow pace. And then there's the opposite: the upstart crew, the risk-taking kids, the slightly crazed coalition that's traditionally inhabited pockets of tenements and lofts downtown.
There's a case to be made that this is all cliche — that writers are brilliant narcissists wherever they happen to be standing. God knows Norman Mailer certainly got around, at least before he settled in Brooklyn Heights.
The truth is, neighborhoods do have character, and can influence creative imaginations, but more often than not, different writers are competing to define it. Take the downtown New York of the Beat guys. For every beautifully bizarro bon mot from William S. Burroughs — who lived on the Bowery — there's a rambling sentence from Jack Keruoac — who lived on West 8th Street — that intimates the ruble of a car barreling down a highway.
But let's not forget the great minds of Allen Ginsberg's generation spent much of their time way, way uptown in enemy territory. Kerouac first lived with Edie Parker at West 118th Street; Columbia University is how he first met Burroughs and Ginsberg. When Lucien Carr, the so-called "glue" of the Beats, popped in after stabbing David Kammerer to death, Kerouac helped him bury the knife in nearby Morningside Park.
Meanwhile, people love to talk about Edgar Allan Poe haunting Washington Square, because the thought of a moody genius among those picturesque buildings in the 19th century is New York nostalgia at its finest, but where is Edgar Allan Poe Street? West 84th. That's because in 1844, Poe fled the elite enclave due to exorbitant rents — the sort that only Henry James' grandmother, who lived there for years, could afford. Poe and his wife Virginia wound up in a farmhouse at 84th and Broadway, as everything above Greenwich was still country. This is where he would write "The Raven." Virginia died even farther north, in a little Bronx cottage.
Every writer's trajectory cuts through both regions. Bret Easton Ellis may have had dinners with Jay McInerney in Tribeca and long nights at Nell's in Meatpacking, but Patrick Bateman — the murderous villain from American Psycho — lives on the Upper West Side ("I live in the American Gardens Building on West 81st Street on the 11th floor..." goes the beginning of a very quotable monologue). Thomas Pynchon has made the same place his home since the 1990s, and his latest novel, Bleeding Edge, is set there. V., his debut, stuck its hapless hero in an uptown Puerto Rican barrio, but come the sixties, Pynchon moved to Greenwich Village. Artistic identity is just that fluid.
And so, at the end of the night, whether it's martinis or PBRs, you're still gonna have to hold your booze like Dorothy Parker did. The location within Manhattan doesn't matter all that much. If you stop worrying about exactly where the next Algonquin Round Table might materialize, you'll find yourself trading ideas with whoever is actually interesting — no matter where they happen to sleep.
[Photo credit: Flickr /Bosc d'Anjou]
Miles Klee is a reporter for The Daily Dot and author of the novel Ivyland, a finalist in the 2013 Tournament of Books. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Lapham's Quarterly, BlackBook, The Awl, Salon, The Village Voice, The New York Observer and elsewhere.