Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Boardinghouse Life, Boardinghouse Letters

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Boardinghouse Life, Boardinghouse Letters

Article excerpt

In 1842, journalist-poet Walt Whitman could pronounce "the universal Yankee nation" "a boarding people." He went on to explain that "[m]arried men and single men, old women and pretty girls; milliners and masons; cobblers, colonels, and counter-jumpers; tailors and teachers; lieutenants, loafers, ladies, lackbrains, and lawyers; printers and parsons--'black spirits and white, blue spirits and gay'--all 'go out to board'" ("New York" 22-23). Today his pronouncement mystifies. Not only has urban boarding as a social fact all but vanished, but the boardinghouse as a cultural phenomenon, as the kind of conspicuous object-image that invited commentary to begin with, likewise has faded from view.

Yet Americans of Whitman's day truly were "a boarding people," drawn as they were to boardinghouses in astonishing numbers. While the majority of United States residents still favored the stand-alone dwelling (Martin 148), Whitman's later claim that three-quarters of Manhattan's adult population had boarded or was boarding as of 1856 hints at the central place the boardinghouse held not just in New York but in nineteenth-century American life generally ("Wicked" 95; Benedict 101). (1) But what Whitman's remarks most suggest is this: that the antebellum boardinghouse was once glaringly worth writing about and that boarding carried discursive consequences for a people pressed by urban necessity into the improvised living arrangement that once upon a time was boarding. Simply put, the process by which boardinghouse life was translated into a boardinghouse-oriented print tradition, and so became a legitimate literary genre in its own right, reveals much about the period. This essay explores that process as well as the boardinghouse's role in shaping American literary responses to the city.

To begin, where there were cities in antebellum America, there were boardinghouses. A steady stream of rural migrants and immigrants poured into the nation's urban regions between the years 1820 and 1860, precipitating a major demographic shift in the United States. As a result, citizens were increasingly urban in orientation and place of residence and living in city-boardinghouses at rates that are difficult to fathom today. Consisting of a communal housing package of food, shelter, and domestic services for five or more non-related residents, the boardinghouse--as distinct from houses that took in occasional boarders--offered dignified living in typically urban environments which otherwise were straining to provide shelter for newcomers and natives alike. Young single men on the make made a habit of boarding in the period. Families did, too, often finding it more attractive and affordable than urban home ownership despite having to share quarters with strangers under one roof. In effect, boarding out was a modern response to the metropolitan commodification of space and a concomitant nationwide industrialization; like businesses, boarders were ever-more called upon to adapt to an itinerant mode of existence that seemed here to stay (Blackmar 64-67; Blumin 138-91; Modell and Hareven 51-68; Scherzer 97-101, 264-65; Gamber 1-59).

Not only did denizens of the early nineteenth century board, they also joined with scores of European observers, befuddled by the American penchant for boarding, to make the boardinghouse a mainstay of contemporary literature. Indeed, if they seem peculiar now, literary forms like the boardinghouse sketch, tale, and novel were once popular enough to qualify as more than mere generic curiosities. Such forms in fact were once so common that they must give pause to the scholar not otherwise impressed by boarding as a strictly social phenomenon. To trace the means by which Americans came to inhabit a modern urban world is in part to re-learn how they imagined that world through the figure of the boardinghouse, in life as well as in letters.

A quick inventory of antebellum boarder-authors is telling in this respect. …

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