‘She Lived to Read’

The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick
Elizabeth Hardwick

“She taught by quotation and aside, citation and remark, stone down the well and echo,” writes Daryl Pinckney in his crisp introduction to six-hundred pages of Elizabeth Hardwick’s essays. The collection provides an opportunity to think about and appreciate the woman whose forty years of contributions to the New York Review of Books ran from that journal’s inception in 1963 to her death in 2003. Hardwick herself, Pinckney tells us, admired Susan Sontag for her “appreciative” way of introducing European writers to an American audience. Her own subjects were more American mainstream, some of whom we had forgotten about—like Ring Lardner, whom she reintroduces to us in four packed pages.

The impression overall of this collection is of an enormously welcoming literary imagination, that of—as Hardwick has been called—a writer’s writer. Certainly Hardwick’s sentences about Lardner look to have been carefully attended to: she writes that his “odd stories” were told with “curious speech, rush of situation, explosion of insult.” In Lardner’s world, she continues:

Even the sports world is degraded and athletes are likely to be sadists, crooks, or dumbbells. The vision is thoroughly desperate. All the literature of the thirties and forties does not contain such pure subversion, snatched on the run from the common man and his old jokes.

Writing about the letters of another writer who needs re-introducing, Hart Crane, she delivers a breathless encomium: “Crane’s letters are vivid in every respect—responsive, humorous, beautifully written, fresh—everything and more. The sheer power of mind they reveal is dazzling.” Or there is Bernard Berenson, who lived with “the silky regularity and pleasurable concentration of energies that are at once opulent and sacrificial—the prudence of the sensual.”

Such sentences remind us that Hardwick was a novelist who produced writing attractive in its own “pleasurable concentration of energies.” If she brings to mind Mary McCarthy, it is not solely, or mainly, that they were both exceedingly smart women, but that in each case the “creative” impulse was as strong as the critical. Similar claims could be made for Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal.

Near the beginning of Hardwick’s career as a critic-reviewer she was fortunate enough to latch on to the New York Review of Books, of which she and her husband, Robert Lowell, were partial founders. This meant that she never had to worry about word limit; and, as may be seen by the length of many of these pieces, that freedom proved a mixed blessing. (In addition to her essays, NYRB has republished her third and best-known novel, Sleepless Nights, plus a selection of her “New York” stories, also edited by Pinckney.) Along with literary subjects, she took on American events from the ’60s and ’70s—the march at Selma, the Watts riots, the death of Martin Luther King Jr. These efficient and well-observed pieces serve to bring back bits from a vanished, troubled time (of course the trouble has not vanished), but don’t incite much further reflection about the subjects in question.

There is something puritanical and perplexing in her lack of relaxation, her utter refusal to give an inch of the ground of her opinion.

In his selection of pieces, Pinckney has slanted the collection toward the literary; so a plausible question concerns just what kind of literary critic Hardwick aspired to be. Again the obvious comparison is with Mary McCarthy. In a review of an early collection of McCarthy pieces, Hardwick writes that McCarthy wanted to be “noticed,” indeed to be “spectacular,” and worked toward that end with “a sort of trance-like seriousness” that Hardwick wondered about:

There is something puritanical and perplexing in her lack of relaxation, her utter refusal to give an inch of the ground of her opinion. She cannot conform, cannot often like whatever her peers like.

One would not characterize Hardwick herself in similar terms. She doesn’t aspire in her criticism to be “spectacular”; “puritanical” fits her not at all; and the confident ease of her writing, while not to be thought of as “relaxation,” gives off little of the tense, embattled air to be detected more than once in McCarthy. Reading Hardwick gives one the sense that this is a writer who, among other things, is positively enjoying herself. After McCarthy died, Hardwick saluted her with a tribute that admired her “wit” and her “great learning.” Hardwick herself has plenty of wit, and if great learning isn’t the first term that comes to mind in assessing her, a reader of these essays will be convinced of how wide and effortless seems the application of her knowledge—knowledge that consists of nothing less than a lifetime of serious reading. As Pinckney puts it, succinctly, “She lived to read.”

He also notes that for Hardwick “What mattered most in the end was a writer’s language.” I don’t exactly disagree, yet would want her to specify more carefully how language mattered to her as a critic. Again, McCarthy’s practice is a useful contrast. There is nothing in Hardwick’s literary criticism to compare in intensity with McCarthy’s demonstration of the centrality of language to, say, the novels of Vladimir Nabokov or Ivy Compton-Burnett. McCarthy’s penchant for the spectacular may be observed in the grand opening of her brilliant analysis of Nabokov’s Pale Fire: “Pale Fire is a jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself kit.” The writing calls attention to itself in a way that Hardwick’s seldom does, and it is prelude to a lengthy, exacting account of the linguistic invention Nabokov wields so mightily in that book.

When Hardwick writes about Nabokov, as she does in a review of his Lectures on Literature, she calls “the brilliant Pale Fire...entirely a deranged annotation of a dreadful poem.” (But surely John Shade’s sometimes quite moving poem deserves something better than “dreadful.”) She quotes Nabokov declaring about Dickens, “Let us look at the web and not the spider,” and ends her review by stating, “The web, the illimitable web, is what these lectures are about.” Yet one seldom feels that Hardwick is wholly committed to exploring the “web” of whatever novelist she takes up. In “The Foster Children,” for example, she admires a number of Henry James’s novels and stories in which children play a central part. After surveying them agreeably enough, she closes with these words: “The fictions show an acute disillusionment with family life, perhaps a bachelor’s cool eye on the common sentiments.” A reasonable conclusion, surely, but it isn’t arrived at through close looking at Jamesian sentences.

In considering the contents of these essays, one notes how wholly poets and poetry are excluded from Hardwick’s attention. Since she must have been able to write for the New York Review about more or less whatever she pleased, it looks like a conscious avoidance. When she does treat a poet (Sylvia Plath, for instance), it is on grounds of her gender. Elizabeth Bishop appears as a writer of short fiction rather than poems. And when a writer seems to ask for close attention to a literary style that has affinities with poetry—Katherine Anne Porter is a case in point—Hardwick hesitates. Noting Porter’s “purity of style,” she then calls it “not so easy to define,” and concludes that “the writing is not plain and yet it is not especially decorative either; instead it is clear, fluent, and untroubled.” That’s as far as she goes in assessing a literary style.

It is worth reminding ourselves that Hardwick began as a novelist writing in a realistic style. It wasn’t until after Robert Lowell’s death that she brought out what most consider her most distinctive fiction, Sleepless Nights, a shifting, kaleidoscopic account of a young woman named Elizabeth and her memories of New York City. A sleazy hotel, the Hotel Schuyler, is introduced thus:

The Automat with its woeful, watery macaroni, its breaded meat loaf, the cubicles of drying sandwiches made from mud, glue, and leather, from these textures you make your choice. The miseries of the deformed diners and their revolting habits; they were necessary like a sewer, like the Bowery, Klein’s, 14th Street. Every great city is a Lourdes where you hope to throw off your crutches but meanwhile must stumble along on them, hobbling under the protection of the shrine.

In introducing the New York Review edition of Sleepless Nights, Geoffrey O’Brien says that the novel enlarges on Hardwick’s earlier ones by “allowing itself the structural and stylistic freedoms of her literary essays.” Well and good; but the effect overall is a series of highly written paragraphs, some more “brilliant” than others (and some that invite skipping). Yet it is nonetheless true that the leisurely, darkly sardonic, and noticing pace of paragraphs like the Automat one consorts happily with the novelistic way in which Hardwick writes, as a critic, about novels.

By that I mean that Hardwick is such a gifted, easy writer that her very facility may take its toll on whatever verdict she has to offer as a critic. One example is a thirteen-page essay on Philip Roth, following the 1997 publication of American Pastoral. The curious thing about the essay is how little of it is devoted to a consideration of that novel. Instead we get eight pages of run-up on Roth’s previous books, with brief mentions of Portnoy and longer treatments of Operation Shylock and Sabbath’s Theater, the two immediate predecessors of American Pastoral. In her opening paragraph Hardwick notes the centrality of sex to Roth’s novels—“Anywhere in every manner, a penitential workout on the page with no thought of backaches, chafings, or phallic fatigue. Indeed the novels are prickled like a sea urchin with the spines and a fuzz of many indecencies.” Are we invited to be a little censorious of this penitential workout, to look at the spines and fuzz of these indecencies with amused, perhaps tolerant condescension?

When Hardwick finally gets to American Pastoral, it is to tell us about the cultist aspects of American revolutionists in the 1960s and the devastated picture of Newark after the 1967 riots. Thus far we’re not sure just what attitude she’s taking toward the novel, and the essay’s sudden conclusion doesn’t clear things up. She calls it a “Dreiserian chronicle,” yet no literary style could be more different from Roth’s brilliant performance in sentences and paragraphs than the workmanlike piling-up of events in a Dreiser novel. As Hardwick closes her essay, we still await some sort of critical judgment on the novel. We get, instead, her reflection that “still, the saga of the Levov family is a touching creative act and in the long line of Philip Roth’s fiction can be rated PG, suitable for family viewing—more or less.”

Why this skittish avoidance of an evaluation, and instead the silly business about PG rating? It’s of a piece with the opening paragraph and its sea urchin, spines, and fuzz. And it illuminates why, for all her cleverness and humorous reflection, Hardwick sometimes disappointed as a critic. Roving around without a word limit in the New York Review, she was ever readable; but there remains something inconclusive and blurred about her literary judgments. She could never stop being charming, entertaining, ironic, and more than once these qualities led her into settling for less ambitious literary judgments. Too much of a writer’s writer, perhaps?

The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick
Edited by Daryl Pickney
New York Review Books, $19.95, 645 pp.

Published in the December 15, 2017 issue: 

William H. Pritchard, a frequent contributor, is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, at Amherst College.

Also by this author
The Arsonist

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads