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On Elizabeth Hardwick

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Dominique Nabokov
Elizabeth Hardwick, New York City, 1979

In the 1950s, Americans were traveling abroad again, not having been able to go to Europe since the 1930s. Lowell and Hardwick lived in Holland and Italy for a time, excited by the art, the churches, the opera, meeting artists and writers. Lowell had come to a sort of impasse with his third book, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951). But after the death of his mother in 1954, they returned to the US. New York’s cultural life had been quickened in the previous years by the intellectuals driven out of Europe by fascism. Moreover, a new generation of American writers was emerging in the city. However, Lowell and Hardwick ended up in Boston, Lowell’s home, his inheritance. Their years in Boston saw Lowell accomplish a revolution in his work through the “confessional” poetry of Life Studies (1959). But for Hardwick, wrinkled, spindly-legged, depleted, provincial, self-esteeming Boston was a deprivation:

In Boston there is an utter absence of that wild electric beauty of New York, of the marvellous excited rush of people in taxicabs at twilight, of the great Avenues and Streets, the restaurants, theatres, bars, hotels, delicatessens, shops. In Boston the night comes down with an incredibly heavy, small-town finality. The cows come home; the chickens go to roost; the meadow is dark.2

Hardwick toiled at her fiction, and her ambivalence about the short stories she published in the 1950s, her Boston years, stemmed from her thinking them entirely too conventional in structure and intent, in her handling of character, in her just trying to have plot. But Hardwick was altogether too hard on herself in her evaluation of this work. The stories of this period are case studies, strenuous explorations of motive and temperament, a reflection maybe of the influence of psychoanalysis in the culture at the time. Hardwick once laughed that Freud had uncovered the last great plots in fiction.

In “A Season’s Romance” (1956), a bored art historian is joined by her mother in the exploitation of a generous but unsuitable man. In “The Oak and the Axe” (1956), a career woman mistakenly believes her love can redeem an indolent dreamer. Instead, his bachelor habits destroy her carefully built-up life. A professor’s sense of rivalry with a younger colleague in “The Classless Society” (1957) leads to his realization that he is trapped in his life. In “The Purchase” (1959), a successful portrait painter can’t stop himself from embarking on a possibly destructive affair with the tough wife of a rising young Abstract Expressionist. For Hardwick, the individual is also a type, doomed to struggle against his or her general outlines in the psychological drama of everyday experience.

The omniscient narrator that Hardwick employs in each story of the 1950s projects something of the gritty dynamism of the city, that feeling that one could turn a corner and one’s life could change. At the same time, her voice is somewhat remote, however forceful and fast her observations. One can almost feel Hardwick working to restrain herself as the teller, to contain her narrative energy, to stay behind the camera, or offstage. Then, too, these New York stories appeared in The New Yorker and in an odd way that is what Hardwick most had against them when she was asked years later to consider collecting them. She could not forgive herself for having spent so much time trying to be accepted by The New Yorker, trying to fit herself to what in her mind was a sort of formula in fiction. It was not that she found this work insincere. If anything, it was too earnest for her, too constrictive.

As intelligent as Hardwick’s fiction of the 1950s was thought to be, her reputation, like James Baldwin’s, came more from her accomplishments in the essay. Hardwick had kept up her connection as a book reviewer for Partisan Review throughout the 1950s and the essays she wrote for Harper’s during this time were striking in their candor, literary and cultural range, and grace of expression. Her work for Harper’s was largely due to the admiration of a young editor, Robert Silvers. Hardwick and Lowell had resettled with their daughter in New York City by the time The New York Review of Books was founded in 1963, with Silvers and Barbara Epstein as its coeditors. Hardwick said more than once that her association with The New York Review saved her as a writer. She was given the freedom to be utterly herself, to contemplate works and events as she chose. She said that Robert Silvers never failed to make her feel that it was important for her to write on a given subject, that her views were needed. He had a way of coaxing the work out of her. He represented the ideal reader for her, because he was entirely of her view that the essay was as much imaginative prose as fiction.

The peculiar demands of Hardwick’s home life as Lowell’s fame increased, her constant vigils of his seasonal agitation, could accommodate the essay; she could find blocks of time in which to concentrate long enough for a certain number of pages, but not longer. In addition, the political upheavals of the time formed a tumultuous background for work, leaving little chance for the reflection she believed she needed for fiction. What was happening in the larger world did not speak to her as fiction. It was more engaging for her as a writer to be a witness, to go to the funeral of Martin Luther King, for example.

Hardwick published no fiction in those years when first back in New York—apart from wicked little parodies in The New York Review under the name Xavier Prynne, such as her lampoon of McCarthy’s best seller of 1963, The Group.3 Where the frankness of the sexual scenes in McCarthy’s early fiction had been for Hardwick episodes in McCarthy’s career of dissent, The Group struck her as rather conformist and a cliché, and she noted in it also a loss of irony. But Hardwick was out of step with the sexual revolution and out of sympathy with attempts to be explicit about sex on the page. She had never taken Anaïs Nin or Henry Miller seriously; she admired John Updike, but not the male point of view in his descriptions of what went on in the back of the car. She shrank from a kind of women’s or gay fiction that was too intent on recording the sexual act. She admitted to a degree of prudery, but she was adamant nevertheless that nothing dated fiction as quickly as sex scenes. It was not what Humbert Humbert said, it was how Nabokov made him say it, “a rhapsodic call to literature itself.”

Hardwick sometimes gave the impression in the 1970s that the influence, the success, of feminism had taken her by surprise. She wished she could retract what she had written in 1952 about “the briskly Utopian” and “donkey-load undertaking” of The Second Sex. What had not been possible for women then was a different matter twenty years later. Yet she wasn’t interested in what young theorists called the critique of patriarchal society, she just couldn’t bring herself to talk that way, or to endorse hostility to men as men, or to denounce Lowell publicly for the intrusive poems of The Dolphin (1973). That all seemed a fad to her anyway. She did not need literary politics to be interested in women writers. Much as she sympathized with the effort Peter Taylor put into his work, or as fascinated as she was by Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Hardwick never wanted to be a Southern writer. But she was greatly invested in her identity as a woman writer. She cared about Hawthorne’s injustice to Margaret Fuller.

She thought about women writers and measured herself against them. She watched Joyce Carol Oates at committee meetings and concluded that she must write all the time, as if under a spell. Only Elizabeth Bishop’s stories deserved to be talked about as “Kafkaesque.” She treasured George Eliot and Joan Didion for the way they could handle information, for what she called their masculine knowledge of systems, how things work, what the world is made of. She did not subscribe to Beauvoir’s view that in essence there was no difference between men and women. (Sometime in the early 1960s in Paris at a dinner for Alice B. Toklas, by then a tiny, shriveled-up figure with a mustache, Hardwick felt someone jab her in the ribs. It was Katherine Anne Porter, who whispered, “Honey, if I looked like that I’d kill myself.”) Hardwick believed that society still had such different rules for women that they continued to experience life on another level from men—even if medical science and changed social attitudes had lifted the threat of pregnancy and the fear of disgrace, so that biology was no longer destiny only for women.

Unlike Susan Sontag, Hardwick as a woman writer did not resist the category of women’s literature and she took for granted that its natural tendency was, like black literature, toward the subversive. But it was not enough that a woman writer merely give the woman’s side of things; Hardwick was disappointed when a work of fiction by a woman did not challenge the novel as a form. It was almost a cultural obligation, given the intense experimentation in fiction that was taking place in America in the 1970s. Hardwick would assert in two provocative essays on the state of fiction that social change, life itself, had removed the traditional motives for fiction and how it was constructed.

Yet experimentation could go too far, drain the text of its pleasure—Nathalie Sarrault was not a writer to curl up with at night. By challenge, Hardwick meant something more about what the novel was looking at, how its narrative developed, because of who was doing the looking, more than she did taking hammer and chisel to the novel as an edifice. What transfixed Hardwick about Renata Adler’s Speedboat (1976) was her narrator’s indifference to anything other than her own perceptions. Involvement with a critical self suited the life of the single woman. To be a woman alone in the city in the 1970s was nothing like what it had been when Hardwick first came to New York, when to enter a bar or a restaurant unescorted was the first of many nervous calculations of an evening. Hardwick felt guilty that her first thought was of the independence she’d be giving up when in 1976 at Harvard, Lowell, exhausted by his stormy life with Blackwood, whom he still loved—she represented Aphrodite and ruin, he said—asked Hardwick if she’d consider taking him back.

It wasn’t so much that Hardwick found her voice after Lowell’s death and the publication of Sleepless Nights. She resumed use of the first person in fiction. It was a restoration of her narrative freedom, the reconciliation with the past. But the first person had been there all along at the core of her essays, so distinct was her prose style. She’d irritated Mary McCarthy in an appreciation of her friend’s work when she wondered if The Company She Keeps (1942) and Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) weren’t richer, more aesthetically satisfying than A Charmed Life (1955) or The Groves of Academe (1952) because they have an element of the dramatic tension of autobiography—self-exposure and self- justification. In Sleepless Nights, Hardwick relaxed this autobiographical element in her own writing. The work to which it perhaps can be most usefully compared is Colette’s The Pure and the Impure. Hardwick also managed to dispense with the apparatus of the novel, the frame of storytelling that she’d always found so tiresome. She reasoned that for a woman writer, sensibility is structure.

In her late short stories, Hardwick is interested in distillations of experience, moments in which a narrator and her subject, the object of her city dweller’s curiosity, meet and achieve parity, are equally aware of each other. Or her first-person narrator simply ceases to be in the picture, behaves in the grand manner of an internal narrator, and no one notices. Everything flows so naturally that readers are comfortable in their relationship with her as everybody’s narrator. It’s a tour of a mood or the inside of someone’s head and at every place where she turns aside, moves forward, backward, takes up position again, or talks to herself, she remembers her readers and appeals to their experience, like nineteenth-century novelists. She parts the shades to show another scene, before walking back on stage, into place.

If Hardwick’s work in the short story shares a theme throughout her writing life, it would be her attention to urban characters, city possibilities, neglected histories. She wrote about men who did not quite add up, but not lawyers or businessmen. Her characters are people afflicted one way or another with the romance of print, the thunder of the intellectual life. Those women who have some culture in Hardwick’s stories can be consoled. As women left to fend for themselves in the city, they are softer, less bitter than those in Josephine Herbst, a writer Hardwick admired in her radical youth.

A writer’s work has a life separate from that of the writer, Hardwick maintained, but she liked to read the work in view of the life, because the act of composition was for her above all a human drama. Maybe that was why she preferred the mournfulness of Donald Barthelme to the demanding, cloaking abstractions of Thomas Pynchon. But Hardwick didn’t want anyone to say that the time in which she could have written fiction got used up taking care of husband and child. (A child is a sacred duty.) She knew that her own diffidence had as much if not more to do with how little fiction she wrote in a career that spanned six decades. She couldn’t just sit down and see what happened. That was not how she approached fiction.
She said she couldn’t start with “The sun was shining.” She had to have an idea; and always there was the problem of the idea that was not good enough. Sometimes, when at work on her late stories, a kernel of memory would stand for the idea she was trying to express, or she would find an image so haunting she would have to investigate the atmosphere around it, and the story’s details would accrue from there, as a series of illuminations. Hence, “Back Issues” (1981) is a vessel for the emotion that overcame her when she remembered the young, somberly dressed John Berryman lecturing on A Winter’s Tale. The same temperament is at work in her few late stories as in the early ones from her Partisan Review days, and sometimes in the type of narrator, the smart girl ambivalent about her small-town roots. Her voice, like Baldwin’s, never aged.

But Hardwick’s diffidence frustrated her, because she knew that it was an expression of her perfectionism. She would tell her students that genius and perfectionism only looked alike, but they were not at all the same thing. Perfectionism had an inhibiting effect. She admired fluency, expansiveness in other writers, and cursed her own inability to spin anything out. She remembered how, as a student, she would finish writing in her blue exam book, and look in amazement at the rest of the class, still scribbling away. She got poor grades, because she could not bear to repeat to teachers information she knew they had already. The waste of time was morally offensive to her young self. Better to say too little than too much, Chekhov said, and there was never anything Hardwick could do as a writer about her economy of form, her compression of language.

Hardwick’s diffidence, her perfectionism, had everything to do with her greatest passion: reading. She loved to read; she read faster than anyone in the room and she never skipped a word. When in her old age she said she’d spent the morning reading War and Peace again, she really had. She was a writer because of her love of reading. To read was such an intense experience for her, so transporting, that to write was about the only means by which she could find relief for the emotions that built up.

Virginia Woolf read poetry before she wrote, and Hardwick was touched by the echo of the Elizabethans from Leslie Stephen’s library in the dialogue of The Waves. Nadezhda Mandelstam had to commit her husband’s work to memory and Hardwick thought that Mrs. Mandelstam’s immense two- volume laying out of her husband’s and her country’s fate was that body of work releasing itself in her, uncoiling at long last. However, instead of saying that Hardwick wrote a poetic prose, one should say that she composed prose line by line, as though it were poetry. She couldn’t go on to the next sentence if the one before it wasn’t right. One line determined the color and purpose of the line immediately to follow and the one after that. Everything came back to language, or through language. Just before “Back Issues” was printed, she rushed with changes to The New York Review‘s offices. “I thought, ‘What are these prancing banalities?’ You think it has the freedom of the sketch, but once these constructions are framed, they seem too tight.” She had a special affection for the small, seemingly random lyric work—Rilke, Baudelaire.

Hardwick liked to say that there were really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge. Yet she wrote to honor the literature she cared about, which was why in fiction she was so easily discouraged. She could always think of someone whose work she liked better than what she proposed to do on the same subject. She loved the glamour of midtown, but never doubted that her true subjects were back in those bohemian rooming houses, with the socially marginal who somehow inspired her to capture the cultural drift, the movement of a life, in an arresting phrase. In her short stories, the qualities that make her prose an art that cannot be imitated, its rhythmic, pure sound, its control and texture, its daring intellectual pitch—all of these shine on and on and on.

  1. 2

    Boston,” from Harper’s, collected in A View of My Own: Essays in Literature and Society (Farrar, Straus, 1962).

  2. 3

    The Gang,” The New York Review, September 26, 1963. The two friends knew how to get at one another. McCarthy was absolutely sure that Randall Jarrell in his satire of academic life, Pictures from an Institution (1954), based the character of Gertrude on Hardwick, when Hardwick said that it was so clearly McCarthy.

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