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Master Class

Dominique Nabokov
Elizabeth Hardwick, New York City, 1991

Come again, Professor Hardwick said, doing that seesaw dance with her shoulders, as if to say, get a load of him. I’d no idea what she was talking about. She nodded toward the blue-and-magenta paperback on top of my notebook: it was by a distinguished, elderly member of the Columbia faculty. If I was reading that for a class, then I should drop that class right away. Who, she wondered, apart from the professor himself, would make students read him on the Romantics. Not much of interest there, she finished.

The exchange happened faster than it has taken me to recall it, from her getting settled in her seat, to me, the apple-polisher, claiming first chair and opening another notebook. She’d laughed at the class for our thinking we would want to take notes. Most of us persisted. She taught by quotation and aside, citation and remark, stone down the well and echo. Most of her lessons were for later. She would peer over the book and exhale, trusting to Fortuna that somebody sitting around the table might get it eventually.

Perhaps Professor Hardwick wanted to drift off, through the window and away, but she couldn’t. Literature meant too much to her and was the only kind of writing she wanted to teach, not that it could be taught. She hoped we’d learn to ask questions of ourselves as we wrote. How can you sustain this tone? Then enough was enough, on to the next person and her or his fifteen minutes of lip-parting attention. I’m afraid I don’t find that terribly interesting as an approach, she’d say. Your weekly offering was not much commented upon; she much preferred to be interested in what she was reading. Boredom was not listlessness, it was a nervous strain, while to be occupied with something like a great book could be wonderfully, sometimes painfully, liberating. Pedagogy—a word she would make fun of, starting from the dash. In the essays of Elizabeth Hardwick that dash is often a warning—beware of sting.*

We, her fascinated and silent creative writing class at Barnard College in 1973, knew who she was. Needful facts, as she would say: Elizabeth Hardwick, born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1916, left graduate school at Columbia University because she wanted to write. I don’t remember if she told the class that or not. Her first novel, The Ghostly Lover, was published in 1945. The first thing I ever read by her was the opening chapter of Sleepless Nights, the novel she was writing then under the title The Cost of Living. That stunning first chapter was published in The New York Review of Books while I was in her class. She told me later—it has been one of the honors of my life to have studied with her and to have benefited from her generous conversations about literature down through many years—that Stuart Hampshire wrote her at the time to say that the chapter was so amazing he couldn’t imagine how she’d be able to go on from there. As a beginning, it was an impossible act to follow. She said she found out that he was right and she ended up breaking up the chapter and redistributing it throughout the novel.

I was about to say that because I’d read her fiction first I always thought of her as more than a critic. But I can hear how blistering she’d be about that phrase—more than a critic. For her, literary criticism had to be up there with its subjects; real literature should elicit criticism worthy of the achievement in question. We got that from her straight off. The kind of modern literary criticism she was talking about—Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, R.P. Blackmur, John Berryman, F.W. Dupee, Mary McCarthy—was as stimulating as the work it was exploring. Then, too, she wanted us to take seriously the essay as a form. The American essay—Thoreau, Emerson—was an important part of American history.

Professor Hardwick had a fearsome reputation on campus. She wasn’t regular faculty; she was that lowly thing, the adjunct, a very New York position in a city full of writers who supplemented their income or saved themselves by the odd teaching job. She did not undertake her duties lightly. She stood for something. The New York Review of Books, for starters, and that was intimidating enough, once I learned what it was. From the very beginning, I understood that Elizabeth Hardwick was what used to be called a writer’s writer.

We would all be better off in law school, because writing wasn’t a profession exactly, and certainly not much of a life. She discovered that I thought Grub Street was a novel by Dickens. She made fun of your choices, what you were wasting your time on, but she never made you feel odd for not having heard of something. It was just what you didn’t know yet. Grub Street in Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope was an experience to look forward to, like Gissing’s novel, as she once had, up from the University of Kentucky, refusing to be buried alive in graduate school. Moreover, the more you read, the more discriminating you became about what you read. She lived to read. Her passions were instructive.

Of Hardwick’s published work, a slender volume of short stories, The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, took a lifetime to accrue, and her three novels, The Ghostly Lover, The Simple Truth, and Sleepless Nights, are separated by many years. We think of the essay as a constant in Hardwick’s writing life. She published her first review in Partisan Review in 1945. In the late 1940s, Hardwick, then in her early thirties, was already doing the “Fiction Chronicle” for Partisan Review, writing, for example, about Kay Boyle, Elizabeth Bowen, Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, and the dreadful Anaïs Nin. Philip Rahv, together with William Phillips, had revived the journal in 1937 as the organ of the anti-Stalinist left, and in the postwar years, Partisan Review, that ring of bullies, she called it, was central to the New York intellectual scene, anticommunist, dissident.

What she remembered as the cutting reviews of her youth were long ago. Attacks on inflated reputations were moral battles for young writers just starting out. She said often that it is much harder to write about what you like than it is to write about what you don’t like. One of the things she admired about Susan Sontag, she said much later, was that her essays were mostly appreciations, enthusiastic introductions to an American audience of the avant-garde European culture she cared about.

It was a pleasure to discover a forgotten writer—one who was worth it. Sometimes a campaign on someone’s behalf doesn’t work. Hardwick didn’t think she’d done anything for Christina Stead—as yet. But one day her view of Stead might be more widely shared. She was amused by Gore Vidal’s attempts to revive Frederic Prokosch’s fortunes. When Dawn Powell’s novels were coming back into print, Hardwick said she knew that Powell had had a hard life and it was very much like a man for Edmund Wilson to have lost interest in her because she was not pretty, but even so she did not want to write about her enough to do it. Sympathy for an intention was not going to make a book any better than it really was, and the danger of writing from a preconceived position was the harm having to be false does to a writer. No constituency was worth the sacrifice, she cautioned, in those days of feminist and black-nationalist pressure.

Elizabeth Hardwick wrote about what engaged her. Over the years, I would hear her say that she’d had to tell an editor she didn’t want to write about a certain book or author because she found she didn’t have anything interesting to say after all. It pleased her that John Updike reviewed books, so few novelists of his stature did. She paid attention to what went on in her world, that of serious literature, in English and in translation, and matters of cultural and social interest, an all-hands-on-deck kind of service. She was reasonably aware of audience, of just who was picking up what at the newsstand. But it didn’t matter if she was writing for glossy publications with her eye on the word count, for a venerable quarterly with a thick spine, or for a newspaper book-review section not looking for controversy. Every assignment got Hardwick at full sail, all mind and style. Nothing is casual, she said. You are always up against the limits of yourself.

Hardwick published four original volumes of essays in her lifetime. The majority of the essays gathered in A View of My Own: Essays on Literature and Society (1962) first appeared in Partisan Review. Several of them are, as she would say, of considerable length, and in them she is reading letters, diaries, memoirs, newspapers, novels, poetry, sociology, psychology; she is going to plays and looking back on cities where she has lived. The title perhaps asserts the value of her opinions, of their being hers—when A View of My Own was published she had been married for more than a dozen years to Robert Lowell. She’d been one of the few women writers associated with Partisan Review, and she was the only other one to join Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt as women writers who had their own identities at the magazine and weren’t known as literary wives.

In 1959, in an article that appeared in Harper’s, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” Hardwick attacked what she described as the “unaccountable sluggishness” of book-review sections. There “had been room for decline…and the opportunity has been taken.” Sunday mornings with the book reviews is “often a dismal experience.” She was just getting started. “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—have made The New York Times into a provincial literary journal.” The drama of the book world was being slowly, painlessly killed, she went on; she deplored the lack of strong editorial direction in such publications:

The communication of the delight and importance of books, ideas, culture itself, is the very least one would expect from a journal devoted to reviewing of old and new works. Beyond that beginning, the interest of the mind of the individual reviewer is everything. Book reviewing is a form of writing.

In Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi’s documentary about The New York Review of Books, The 50 Year Argument (2014), Robert Silvers reads from Hardwick’s article on book reviewing. He’d been the young editor, just back from The Paris Review and his houseboat on the Seine, who urged her to write the article. In the film, he tells the Town Hall audience commemorating the Review’s fiftieth anniversary that Elizabeth Hardwick’s words were on his mind when, in 1963, Hardwick, Lowell, Jason Epstein, and his wife, Barbara Epstein, founded The New York Review of Books. They asked Silvers to be co-editor, along with Barbara Epstein. For Hardwick, The New York Review was freedom. Whenever she chose, what she wrote could now have the most honorable of destinations. “The drama of real life will not let down the prose writer,” she observes in “Grub Street: New York,” her first published essay in The New York Review.

Dominique Nabokov
Elizabeth Hardwick with New York Review editors Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein, New York City, 1980s

The New York Review distinguished itself for its unaccommodating reflections by some of our best writers on the catastrophe of the Vietnam War. Hardwick liked what she thought was Poe’s phrase—it is Shelley’s, someone wrote in to the editors years ago—“the intense inane.” In her own pieces for “The Paper,” as the founders called it, during the turbulent 1960s, she thinks about Selma and Watts, and goes to the march of the striking garbage collectors for whom Dr. King had come to Memphis, Tennessee, when he was killed. She considers the coarse power of popular works about the sexual revolution. Her candor is a pleasure, her judgments unexpected. She once said that Lowell was made uneasy by the thought of what she might contribute to The New York Review. After her essay on Robert Frost appeared, Lowell complained to her, only half jokingly, that she was just going to attack all his friends.

In this period, Hardwick went to the theater a great deal. (Lowell’s adaptations for the stage were written in the 1960s.) Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts opened down the street from where she and Lowell and their daughter, Harriet, lived—the Epsteins and their two children were only a few doors away—and maybe she could escape her family obligations long enough to immerse herself in a fleeting experience, in imagining others. She has a way in her theater reviews of sounding as though she has just come in, still talking about what she has seen. Moreover, she is coming through the door and analyzing real people as she takes off her coat. Nora, Hedda, their problems.

Hardwick’s detractors used to say that in her criticism she didn’t make enough distinction between fictional characters and the real world. While she was curious about different traditions in the arts, realism on stage, on the page, spoke to her with the most force. She writes somewhere that characters can make structure. But perhaps it is because in realist drama and fiction much depends on a character’s motives. It is through the conscious or not-conscious-enough depiction or projection of what is driving the work that the writer’s meaning can be discovered. Hardwick had a thing about people, whether imagined or real, and what made them tick, what their stories were. To have insights, or true insight, about human nature and human histories was the essence of her critical spirit.

An avid reader of old and new works, Hardwick never stopped thinking about the state of fiction. Then, starting in 1970, with an essay on Zelda Fitzgerald, came a series of essays on women writers, taking in treasured amateurs, Dorothy Wordsworth, Jane Carlyle, as well as the geniuses, the Brontës, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf. The essays accumulated quickly, for her, and became the volume Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (1974). The era provided occasions, new biographies of culturally important women, for instance, and there was a marked increase in interest in women writers past and present. The second wave of feminism made an immediate difference in American literature. Then, too, Hardwick’s way of seeming to understand their lives from the inside perhaps came from knowing something herself about woman’s fate. Lowell split up with her in 1970 and they were divorced in 1972. The following year, he published The Dolphin, in which he tells through his poetry his version of the end of their marriage and his move to another country in order to be with another woman.

Hardwick would draw on her work in The New York Review of Books to fill out two additional books of essays: Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays (1983), in which the malicious, handsome Frost comes to life again, and Sight-Readings: American Fictions (1998), which was somewhat revised for its paperback edition the following year as American Fictions.

I thought to look again at Melville’s story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” because it carried the subtitle: “A Story of Wall Street.”

There did not appear to be much of Wall Street in this troubling composition of 1853 about a peculiar “copyist” who is hired by a “snug” little legal firm in the Wall Street district. No, nothing of the daunting, hungry “Manhattanism” of Whitman: “O an intense life, full to repletion and varied!/The life of the theatre, bar-room, huge hotel, for me!” Nothing of railroad schemes, cornering the gold market, or of that tense exclusion to be brought about by mistakes and follies in the private life which were to be the drama of “old New York” in Edith Wharton’s novels. Bartleby seemed to me to be not its subtitle, but most of all an example of the superior uses of dialogue in fiction, here a strange, bone-thin dialogue that nevertheless serves to reveal a profoundly moving tragedy.

The essays of Sight-Readings, or American Fictions, like those of Seduction and Betrayal, have a unity just in being what they are about: the American experience, the assumptions of national character, even the influence of the landscape or the mythic landscape. For Hardwick, the poetry and novels of America hold the nation’s history.

What mattered most in the end was a writer’s language. She adored Dickens for his wildness, Conrad for his independence of usage, Henry James for his eccentricity, his stunning excess, and William James for being such a nice guy about his ease of expression. Hardwick did not write about everything that interested her. Sometimes she didn’t feel equal to the task, given what the work deserved or what had been said about it already. You always wish she’d said more about her subject—so did she, she once laughed, but she couldn’t. The helpless compression of her fiction can be felt in the essays. The economy expresses her temperament. She won’t tell you what you already know. Part of the freedom of The New York Review was that she didn’t have to spell everything out. Its readers were sophisticated, or wanted to be.

That conciseness, not wanting to waste anyone’s time or mar her style with lumber, not only meant that it took a long time for the essays to add up but that she did not conceive of book-length nonfiction projects. Spinning things out, beating things to death, going on and on just to get from cover to cover—that is what academics did, and whatever they did was not to be done. Never mind that many of the writers she respected also taught. To have come of age at Partisan Review maybe accounted for her lack of interest in the New Criticism of the McCarthy era and its concentration on the text at the expense of the social or historical context. She was similarly indifferent to deconstruction and its influence on academic criticism in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. What she held against academic criticism was that most of it was so badly written. She blamed the computer for finishing a lot of books that ought not to have been.

And then she did commit to a book-length project, a critical biography of Herman Melville for the Penguin short biography series. She said somewhere that Faulkner was the greatest American writer, but in spite of his unevenness she maybe loved “the extraordinary American genius” of Melville more. Herman Melville, her astonishingly moving study, was published in 2000. It was to be Hardwick’s last major creative effort. An unkind review from someone who, she said, clearly had never read Moby-Dick made her resigned, diffident about bringing out anything else.

Her late essays in The New York Review showed her fascination with sensational murder cases of the 1990s. She was looking for a way to write about murder in literature and murder in real life, the difference being that in literature you can study motive, get reliably on the other side of the lies. She kept fewer notes on the subject as time went by. She never liked publishing a book anyway, she said. The vulnerability, she did not need to say. To publish in The New York Review meant that she was protected; but it also spurred her on to do her best because of the essays that she knew were going to surround her, the company she was going to keep.

Elizabeth Hardwick’s nonfiction—imaginative prose, she called it—spans six decades and includes book reviews, theater reviews, thoughts on opera, travel writing, literary criticism, social essays, memoir. Most of the essays in the new collection are of her literary subjects, her excited contemplations of writers on their paths. She approaches their work through their lives, or looks from a work to the life. Hart Crane’s letters tell her that maybe he didn’t jump overboard, maybe he was having a happy life as a lover of men and of the grape. Three volumes of George Eliot’s letters reveal the drama of a woman of melancholy genius at the mercy of her intelligence. Hardwick paid attention to the domestic, to the intimacy—and limitations—of letters and diaries. In her masterful essay “Memoirs, Conversations, and Diaries,” she explores what Boswell and the Goncourt brothers mean in their literary cultures.

But as interested as Hardwick was in diaries and letters, she was always troubled by biography, a genre that feeds on these things as raw material. A biography of Hemingway that she was reading is just plain “bad news”—for Hemingway. Her compassion for Dylan Thomas suggests that she may have seen him in the desperate condition of his last years, and Delmore Schwartz, too. She knew Katherine Anne Porter and had been around Frost enough to remember his aura. She wrote about Edmund Wilson and Norman Mailer and their biographies, or the mess Capote made of memoir. It is clear in her essay on Elizabeth Bishop’s prose that she knew her, but also that she found the work striking long before she met Bishop, reading her in Partisan Review down at the University of Kentucky in 1938.

Hardwick looks at the riddle of Graham Greene’s novels about sin and heresy or ponders the fates of the two women in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. She follows Byron’s and Pasternak’s mistresses and sad Countess Tolstoy into their afterlives. She wrote about Auden, Huxley, and Isherwood in America; the literary gifts and accumulation of losses that Nabokov brought with him to America; and the last days of Dylan Thomas in New York City. But as time went by the individual writers whose work she addressed tended to be American.

Melville, Henry James, and Edith Wharton were foundational as novelists of certain kinds of American experience that still have resonance. Carl Sandburg, Ring Lardner, Sinclair Lewis, Nathanael West, and Thomas Wolfe are in themselves American tales. Margaret Fuller, Gertrude Stein—who anticipated Philip Glass, Hardwick says—and Djuna Barnes are women writers, rebels, but also Americans abroad. Joan Didion expresses the restlessness of the America Hardwick felt around her. Yet in the provocative essays included here on the writer’s life or the changes in American fiction and its possibilities over the years, her reading is wide, international.

When you open the doors, so to speak, to one of her essays, you can sense there on the threshold that this is going to be interesting. She always makes you add to your reading list. In line after line, she is saying things you had not thought of, or telling you something that it is stirring to be told. Her love of literature has in it a profound humility. There is nothing cruel in her intelligence. Her wit and charm are unerring, unfailing. You didn’t know the skeptical mind could be so graceful. Her concentration is complete. Elizabeth Hardwick can surprise you. You didn’t know you would need to stop right there and go think about what she has just said. You reemerge, you look up, and you’d no idea her beauty of expression had taken you so far away. Or you didn’t expect such exhilaration just from reading about reading. It isn’t only what she is saying, it’s how she is saying it. Her prose style is unmistakable and like no other.

  1. *

    This essay will appear, in somewhat different form, as the introduction to The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, to be published by New York Review Books on October 17, 2017.