Writing a Life
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.