De­clan Ryan

Writ­ing a Life

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The Col­lected Es­says of El­iz­a­beth Hard­wick, se­lected by Dar­ryl Pinck­ney, New York Re­view of Books, 640 pp., £14.99 (Paperback)

El­iz­a­beth Hard­wick, writ­ing a roundup piece on the let­ters of Sherwood An­der­son, Edna St Vin­cent Mil­lay and Hart Crane noted, ‘It is dif­fi­cult to think of a man ex­cept as the sum of his re­mark­able deeds’ and that pri­vate let­ters, when they re­veal any­thing, show most of­ten that ‘peo­ple do not live their bi­ogra­phies.’ Hard­wick’s bi­og­ra­phy, her own ‘re­mark­able deeds’, was the stuff of lit­er­a­ture, not only in book­ish im­mer­sion but in na­ture and drama­tis per­sonae. Born in 1916 in Ken­tucky, Hard­wick’s adult life was spent in cities real and willed; for every ‘hardly pas­sion­ate’ Bos­ton pile or Maine re­treat there was the en­croach­ing, im­plicit but as­suredly ever-present, Grub Street into which she sent her work. Her first novel, The Ghostly Lover, was pub­lished in 1945 and at best hinted at her tal­ent; there’s a slight du­ti­ful­ness in the writ­ing, an ef­fort­ful con­ven­tion­al­ity re­mark­able only in a first novel be­cause it’s her first novel; cheer­ing in its way, re­mind­ing us that, like mor­tals, her style was young once. There are still re­mark­able mo­ments in there, like this de­scrip­tion of Satur­day night as seen by a teenage nar­ra­tor for whom the plea­sures of Satur­day nights are only to be guessed at:

out of the dark houses the peo­ple would run, en­tranced, to­ward the light and noise down­town. She could al­ready see in Bruce a prepa­ra­tion for this. His face seemed to her vaguely shad­owed with the red glaze of bar lights, and she could see his face look­ing into an­other face bright with the same red glow and could feel his nos­trils pierced by the sharp­ness of an adult woman’s per­fume.

Her se­cond, The Sim­ple Truth pub­lished in 1955, is more sin­gu­lar and, de­spite its ‘ac­tion’ tak­ing place around a mur­der trial, is largely a study

in close-ob­ser­va­tion and char­ac­ter dis­sec­tion. Hard­wick’s knack for the ex­act­ing de­tail is in ev­i­dence through­out, her ear for dis­ap­point­ment, and the en­dur­ing im­por­tance of ig­nor­ing the hec­tor­ing con­sen­sus of pub­lic opin­ion, or com­mon knowl­edge. This is per­haps best shown when Anita Mitchell, an un­likely, re­tir­ing type drawn to the trial al­most as a test of her own will, learns – spoiler alert – that the boy has been ac­quit­ted:

It amazed her to dis­cover her own sud­den aver­sion for Rudy Peck. Was it only that fall­ing ca­dence one might ex­pect, that steady di­min­ish­ment of alarm and fas­ci­na­tion as the night came to an end? It seemed to her to be more than this – in his sud­den free­dom the boy had been trans­formed into medi­ocrity, his his­tory merely squalid and dark­ened with im­pon­der­ables.

Medi­ocrity was the great, per­mis­sive enemy for Hard­wick. Al­ready an ad­mired, per­cep­tive critic, in 1959 Hard­wick pub­lished in Harper’s a jeremiad dressed as an ar­ti­cle, ‘The De­cline Of Book Re­view­ing’. It’s a tour de force of mis­chievous right­eous­ness, aimed at the ‘sweet, bland com­men­da­tions’ that fall ev­ery­where in the book pages, the cloy­ing ‘cov­er­age’ which greets lit­er­a­ture and is not fit to call it­self crit­i­cism, be­ing in­stead only a re­fram­ing of the cover copy. ‘A book is born into a pud­dle of trea­cle.’ Hard­wick’s im­pulse was, de­spite its war foot­ing, one of love and en­gage­ment; she thought of the ‘high-school English teach­ers’, ‘faith­ful li­brar­i­ans’ and ‘trust­ing sub­ur­ban­ites’ who need the di­rec­tion and in­put of a se­ri­ous jour­nal­ism to bur­row their way through the slush­pile of pub­lished works to the real thing. For Hard­wick an all-ad­mir­ing cul­ture of po­lite, nudg­ing en­thu­si­asm acts only as:

a hid­den dis­suader, gen­tly, blandly, re­spect­fully deny­ing what­ever vi­va­cious in­ter­est there might be in books…the flat praise and the faint dis­sen­sion, the min­i­mal style and the light lit­tle ar­ti­cle, the ab­sence of in­volve­ment, pas­sion, char­ac­ter, ec­cen­tric­ity – the lack, at last of the lit­er­ary tone it­self.

Her pas­sion for char­ac­ter, in­volve­ment and ec­cen­tric­ity wasn’t only due to

her pos­sess­ing them, in in­dus­trial quan­ti­ties, but her ap­proach to lit­er­a­ture it­self. High-minded, per­cep­tive, in­sight­ful, Hard­wick was none­the­less a prag­ma­tist. As much as she loathed the dis­in­ter­ested plat­i­tude, she equally ab­horred don­nish steril­ity or pre­cious­ness; for her, writ­ing was a way of a mak­ing a liv­ing, books pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment, but lit­er­a­ture a higher form, a ver­dict, rare and rar­efied and in need of alert con­ser­va­tion. As a re­sult of her 1959 ar­ti­cle, Hard­wick founded, along­side her hus­band Robert Low­ell, Robert Sil­vers and Bar­bara Ep­stein, the New York Re­view of Books. The NYRB was in­tended as a place where the sort of ‘cov­er­age’ Hard­wick had evis­cer­ated could be coun­tered with lit­er­ate, par­ti­san writ­ing which was fit com­pany for its sub­ject, and it gave Hard­wick’s own jour­nal­ism a vaunted home for the rest of her life.

‘Art is a pro­fes­sion, not a shrine’, she wrote in a piece on me­moirs and diaries, and whether writ­ing about con­tem­po­raries like Mary Mc­Carthy and Kather­ine Anne Porter or talk­ing about Hardy’s women or Melville’s Bartleby, Hard­wick treated each writer as a peer, and their work as part of a sin­gle, on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tion into which her own es­says, nov­els and short sto­ries might hope to chime in, and – more dif­fi­cult – make them­selves heard. ‘Mak­ing a liv­ing is noth­ing: the great dif­fi­culty is mak­ing a point, mak­ing a dif­fer­ence – with words.’ The al­ter­na­tive is to be over­looked, or paid at best po­lite, mo­men­tary, at­ten­tion; an im­age from her 1963 ‘Grub Street: New York’ es­say of pages ‘cast down as if they were bits of Kleenex: clean white pa­per with noth­ing at all writ­ten on it, fall­ing into the gut­ter’, an un­der­stand­ing that to be a writer was to be ‘a cook in a house­hold of obese peo­ple.’ Hard­wick was aware of the fate of the ig­nored, and wrote of it mov­ingly in a piece on Christina Stead, all the while mak­ing a case for her pro­mo­tion to the top ta­ble.

Hard­wick was never likely to be ig­nored, but the risk with the plain-deal­ing, vine­gary ap­proach to crit­i­cism was of be­ing os­tracised or at least spite­fully avenged. Writ­ing about Mc­Carthy, Hard­wick spoke of how ‘a ca­reer of can­dor and dis­sent is not an easy one for a woman: the li­cense is jar­ring and the dare of­ten for­bid­ding. Such a per­son needs more than con­fi­dence and in­dig­na­tion.’ Hard­wick was no con­fi­dence-mer­chant, her in­dig­na­tion justly

por­tioned out, but it was her stylish­ness, her sen­tences and in­sights, which el­e­vate the es­says from the oc­ca­sional piece to en­dur­ing works of art in them­selves. In his in­tro­duc­tion to these Col­lected Es­says, Dar­ryl Pinck­ney writes that Hard­wick ‘won’t tell you what you al­ready know’, which is true in­so­far as she doesn’t talk down or par­rot the re­ceived opin­ion, the eas­ily found fact. That said, Hard­wick’s ver­dicts, when en­coun­tered, like the best po­etic analo­gies feel like an ar­tic­u­la­tion of some­thing al­ready felt on the nerve rather than an en­force­ment of opin­ion – she doesn’t hec­tor or cam­paign, but rather ar­tic­u­late and clar­ify.

Her knack for the right, elu­ci­dat­ing com­par­i­son or im­age is ev­ery­where in this var­ied and com­pre­hen­sive col­lec­tion of her crit­i­cal writ­ing. Her sim­i­les are con­sis­tently un­for­get­table: Philip Roth’s nov­els are ‘prick­led like a sea urchin with the spines and fuzz of many in­de­cen­cies’; girls tak­ing off their clothes in a hip­py­ish fit of pique in Gimme Shel­ter, a doc­u­men­tary about The Rolling Stones, ‘stand there in the crowd, en­closed in their sad flesh, as lonely as scare­crows’; Paster­nak’s mis­tress Olga is torn in her let­ters over the shift­ing na­ture of their in­ti­macy, her ‘words, in mo­ments of dis­tress, al­ways war with each other, al­though it is a rhetor­i­cal slaugh­ter be­tween dum­mies on horse­back.’ Dum­mies on horse­back! Hard­wick’s com­pas­sion­ate, at times sigh­ing, piece on John Mal­colm Brin­nin’s book about Dy­lan Thomas’s last days in Amer­ica is lit by a hard-won knowl­edge of the plea­sures and frus­tra­tions of in­dulging doomed ge­nius, sharp­ened on the grind­stone of mar­riage to the bipo­lar, be­tray­ing but never less than adored Low­ell. This sort of pas­sion, this blind-eye turn­ing in­dul­gence, has its un­der­stand­able, or­ganic, in­evitabil­ity – ‘The mad­ness of the in­fat­u­ated is, af­ter all, just an ex­ag­ger­a­tion of the rea­son­able as­sent of the dis­crim­i­nat­ing’ – but the pro­saic truth be­hind ex­cess, ill­ness and self­de­struc­tion, its flat­ten­ing te­dium, is nei­ther for­got­ten nor glossed over:

the book is not a piece of com­po­si­tion at all, but is rather the liv­ing mo­ment with its rep­e­ti­tions, its naïveté, its pe­cu­liar ac­cep­tance of and com­pul­sive at­tach­ment to every de­tail of Thomas’s sad ex­is­tence. It is as flat and true as a cal­en­dar.

She never for­gets life; the writer – how­ever ex­alted – is al­ways as much the cal­en­dar en­try as the great work in Hard­wick’s crit­i­cism. She is par­tic­u­larly, joy­ously, de­flat­ing on a cer­tain sort of rev­er­en­tial, strain­ing strand of bi­og­ra­phy, the earnest cat­a­logu­ing ap­proach, the get­ting-in of the hol­i­day itin­er­ary and shop­ping list ap­proach to writ­ing a Life.

Her piece on a bi­og­ra­phy of Ernest Hem­ing­way is a treat on its own terms, but also an in­sight into Hard­wick’s sen­si­bil­ity, her dis­il­lu­sion with the whole pro­ject glee­fully pro­nounced from its open­ing line: ‘Car­los Baker’s bi­og­ra­phy of Ernest Hem­ing­way is bad news.’ For her, this ap­proach, this re­liance on ‘raw ma­te­rial’ is a lowly form of data pro­cess­ing, there is no dis­crim­i­na­tion and thus no in­sight:

We have been told that no man is a hero to his valet. Pro­fes­sor Baker’s method makes valets of us all. We keep the cal­en­dar of our master’s en­gage­ments, we lay out his clothes, we or­der his wine, we pack the bags, we ad­just to his new wives, en­dure his friends, ac­cept his hang­overs, his fail­ings...We are of­ten thor­oughly sick of it, feel we need time off, a va­ca­tion, a raise in pay. We get the dirty work and some­body else, some­where, gets the real joy of the man, his charm, his unique­ness, his deeply puz­zling in­ner life.

This might be ap­plied as eas­ily to jour­nal­ism as bi­og­ra­phy, back to that ‘cov­er­age’ or ‘pub­lic­ity’ which is the op­po­site of in­sight, of art and serves merely to keep the presses twirling. Hard­wick’s great gift as a critic is her es­chew­ing of this valet don­key-work; her es­says feel like be­ing granted ac­cess to the din­ner ta­ble in­stead of hav­ing to sit down­stairs por­ing over the guest­book. She gives us the ‘real joy’, the ‘unique­ness’ of her sub­jects, for good or ill. She can be gen­er­ous even when swip­ing; Gra­ham Greene has fail­ings, in Hard­wick’s read­ing, some seem­ingly hob­bling and ir­recov­er­able. A Burnt-Out Case is a ‘sar­donic ash-heap’, as a nov­el­ist his world is ‘anti-psy­cho­log­i­cal; the world of psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal mo­ti­va­tion does not ex­ist…Class, child­hood, his­tory are ir­rel­e­vant too…The omis­sion of so much life and mean­ing would seem to be ul­ti­mately lim­it­ing.’ And yet, ‘Ev­ery­thing is sharper and more bril­liant than the ef­fects of other

writ­ers. God is a sort of sub-plot and the capri­cious way He treats Ro­man Catholics is a sus­pense­ful back­ground to love and bore­dom and pity. It is most per­plex­ing.’ One hears, in ‘per­plex­ing’, the same smil­ing tone of voice used when re­fer­ring to an in­ap­pro­pri­ate crush. The heart wants what it wants.

Else­where she helps her reader to see the in­ner work­ings of a writer’s style, their tricks and tics and gear-shifts. Writ­ing on Joan Did­ion, Hard­wick no­tices ev­ery­thing, she can name the in­ef­fa­ble and then go on to ex­plain it: ‘the place­ment of sen­tences on the page, abrupt clo­sures rather like hang­ing up the phone with­out no­tice’; Did­ion is a ‘mar­tyr of fac­tic­ity’; the women in her nov­els ‘suf­fer losses, se­ri­ous blows from fate that en­shroud them like the black dress Euro­pean peas­ant women wear life­long for be­reave­ment.’ Per­haps the finest of these: ‘The au­thor is in con­trol of the in­ven­tion, and if the ma­chine is a lit­tle like an elec­tric au­to­mo­bile or one run­ning on pressed grapes in­stead of gaso­line in a field of Chevro­lets, the au­ton­omy – it does run – puts the critic in an un­easy sit­u­a­tion.’

For some­one so im­mersed in the lit­er­ary world, whose shoul­ders couldn’t help but rub against those of the great and good, Hard­wick was al­ways fear­less and con­trary. Robert Frost’s great rep­u­ta­tion, the ad­mir­ing friend­ship he had with her hus­band Robert Low­ell in the years be­fore he died, didn’t in­hibit Hard­wick’s as­ser­tion that ‘sim­plic­ity and van­ity, in­de­pen­dence and jeal­ousy com­bined in [his] char­ac­ter in such un­ex­pected ways that one de­spairs of sort­ing them out. He is two pic­ture puz­zles per­versely dumped into one box’. Gen­til­ity, or civic pride, didn’t hold her back from writ­ing an anti-hymn to Bos­ton, ei­ther; her adopted home­town for many years and the seat of the Low­ell fam­ily’s in­flated so­cial stand­ing was for her – among its many fail­ings – ‘de­fec­tive, out-of-date, vain and lazy.’ Her will­ing­ness to be ornery, de­flat­ing or un­de­ceived also ex­pressed it­self in longer pieces, such as ‘Re­flec­tions on Fic­tion’, which seem pes­simistic about the fu­ture of the novel, of its pos­si­bil­ity as a form in a so­ci­ety whose at­ten­tion span was so di­min­ished, whose sur­face-level open­ness and dis­trusted new frank­ness was so per­va­sive that Freud had be­gun to seem like the last true be­liever in some­thing as ar­chaic as ‘plot’. The im­pli­ca­tion in all the work here

is that lit­er­a­ture is an en­dan­gered species but that it must be peren­ni­ally en­gaged with, re-read and re­freshed in or­der for it to per­sist, how­ever grand the cur­rent rep­u­ta­tion of its au­thors, other­wise it will fall into the sort of rev­er­en­tial mu­seum-piece that is the death of vi­tal­ity and, ul­ti­mately, the work it­self. Even its most valu­able toys must be played with reg­u­larly, not kept in their pack­ag­ing, ac­cru­ing only value. To be pre­cious or fussy is a dis­ser­vice; the work is only worth­while if it is use­ful, alive and cur­rent, in the way that every writer Hard­wick dis­cusses here is fully present, whether alive or dead. The note of griev­ing, her fear of the era­sure of these sources of life, is at times mov­ing and no­tice­ably for­lorn:

For the reader, the novel is the his­tory of his life­time, mark­ing his ex­is­tence from youth to old age with trem­bling rich­ness. Each work came into be­ing as a mys­tery of in­ex­pli­ca­ble strength. We look about us and feel cer­tain hu­mane joys and pow­ers re­ced­ing, quickly in some cases or slyly, slowly in oth­ers, like the bleach­ing away of the bright­ness of a shell in the sand and sun. We grieve for the time, the idle­ness, the long­ing cu­rios­ity, the en­ergy, the need for the great nov­els of the past…the end comes pain­lessly, silently.

If Hard­wick was do­ing preser­va­tive, du­ti­ful work at times on oth­ers’ be­half, this vol­ume rep­re­sents the New York Re­view of Books im­print step­ping in on hers. Its ti­tle is a slight mis­nomer; it is ‘Col­lected’ but not ‘Com­plete’, this book doesn’t con­tain Hard­wick’s many es­says on drama, in­clud­ing stun­ning es­says on Ib­sen, and other pieces on women writ­ers which were pre­vi­ously gath­ered in print by the same pub­lisher un­der the ti­tle Se­duc­tion And Be­trayal. Pedantry aside, this new Col­lected edi­tion not only re­stores a great swathe of hard-to-find writ­ing, it rep­re­sents the va­ri­ety, scope and range of Hard­wick’s mind, tak­ing in re­ports on Selma and New York slum hous­ing as well as its many lit­er­ary re­views, oc­ca­sional pieces and es­says. It might be called a mon­u­ment, but that’s too dusty, too un­ap­proach­able, for the writ­ing it con­tains – these are scin­til­lat­ing, funny, puls­ing es­says far re­moved from the aus­tere scent of the ar­chive; they are for liv­ing with and, de­spite their im­pe­rial poise and skill, refuse through their en­ergy too much def­er­ence.

Hard­wick’s bril­liance glints through­out these es­says which are, along­side her third and finest novel Sleep­less Nights (also in print from NYRB) surely enough to en­sure she is in no dan­ger – at least for many years to come – of the slow, pain­less era­sure she talked of in re­gard to oth­ers’ rep­u­ta­tions. Gen­er­ous by virtue of the at­ten­tion she paid, her hon­est, mea­sured vi­sion – which writer, which per­son, wouldn’t want to be as thor­oughly seen as El­iz­a­beth Bishop is in this ex­tract from an es­say by Hard­wick on the poet’s prose?; not so much hold­ing her in am­ber as mount­ing her in a gold frame on pos­ter­ity’s man­tel­piece, this is writ­ing as a form of love:

Many things – her or­phan­age only one of them – weighed on her spirit. She knew also the weight of drink­ing and the weight of the years of not drink­ing. She had asthma at­tacks, al­ler­gies, and love af­fairs that did not al­ways end hap­pily, far from it. She was as open to ex­pe­ri­ence in space as Mar­i­anne Moore was pleased to be con­fined. She went far out to sea in both the lit­eral and metaphor­i­cal sense. Like some fig­ure in Thomas Mann, the cold north and the treach­er­ous pas­sions of the south met in her na­ture. She loved houses and ob­jects, and she had an eye for them, for shells and feath­ered neck­laces made by the In­di­ans of Brazil, for trea­sures care­fully cho­sen and looked af­ter.

Hard­wick’s gift was rare, her mind and art at once present and in his­tory. She’s as alive on each page of this book as any of us read­ing it.

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