I like a view but I like to sit with my back to it.
—Gertrude Stein

“Criticism can talk,” Northrop Frye provocatively remarked in his introduction to Anatomy of Criticism (1957), “and all the arts are dumb.” Yet in the hands of some practitioners, among them Frye, criticism itself aspires to art; a profane sort of art, perhaps, in Auden’s vocabulary (“The value of a profane thing lies in what it usefully does, the value of a sacred thing lies in what it is“)—in that criticism must always be a reaction, never quite an action; a secondary creation, and not an original. Unlike the venturesome artist who creates something out of nothing, the critic can only “create” something out of something that already exists. In another, more cinematic distinction, “Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea”—this from the foreword to Hugging the Shore (1983), John Updike’s masterly (and massive: 900 pages of Updikean prose) collection of essays and criticism. At sea, amid a beautiful blankness, we risk disaster and death; hugging the shore, we never lose our bearings and can return to land easily.

A modicum of respect for the subject, then, as the basis for the critic’s project, would seem to be a primary element of serious criticism. A measure of judiciousness, tact, sympathy, and empathy; an awareness of historical and cultural context; an awareness of the “life and times”; an intimacy with the actual texts to be considered—these are perhaps not necessary for all intelligent and useful criticism, but their absence weakens the critic’s effort and can make of it mere opinion-mongering—your word against mine. “Letting the mind play freely around a subject”—in Matthew Arnold’s words—presupposes an interesting and informed mind. Add to such an ideal-critic portrait an accomplished prose style that would seem to mimic (and, in the reading, inspire in readers) the subtle modulations of a first-rate sensibility; and, not least, though rarely if ever acknowledged, the persuasive power of graciousness—that mysterious yet unmistakable quality of personality cherished in personal life yet ignored and undervalued in critical discourse.

These are qualities of high value in civilization, and criticism of such a kind might be said to be synonymous with civilization, though “art” may well predate civilization. For here we have the refined, reflective, idealized voice of the conscience of the race beside which, in fact, the arts are dumb, or mute; that is, presenting themselves directly without polemics or explanation. Without such criticism, we lose our cultural memory; all is a blooming, buzzing present, a vast tide of “entertainment.”

In reading literary criticism that qualifies as art, whether by Henry James, Virginia Woolf, V.S. Pritchett, John Updike, or Gore Vidal, or Elizabeth Hardwick—in their obviously very different ways—we confront a subject through the prism of a sensibility that “judges” in such a way as to expand the significance of the subject; to leave it, in a sense, altered from what it was. To read Edith Wharton, Henry James, Margaret Fuller, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Bishop, Nadine Gordimer, the “windy” prairie poets Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsey, and Edgar Lee Masters, among diverse others, in tandem with Elizabeth Hardwick’s exemplary essays on these subjects is, to use an irresistible critical cliché, apt in this context, illuminating.

Hardwick’s Sight-Readings, her fourth and perhaps strongest collection of essays, written between 1982 and the near-present, will provide for many readers a genuine enhancement of familiar works (Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Henry James’s Washington Square, fiction by Katherine Anne Porter), and a way in, like the cracking of a code, to certain obscure or obdurate literary figures (Margaret Fuller, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes). Hardwick’s commentary on literary biographies (notably biographies of Edmund Wilson, Katherine Anne Porter, Carl Sandburg, Norman Mailer, and the “crocodilian” celebrity-writer Truman Capote) is, quite simply, brilliant, the most reasoned and responsible thinking on the subject the general reader is likely to encounter, and the more persuasive in that Hardwick herself is, characteristically without ostentation or polemics, a gifted miniaturist biographer. (See also the sympathetic but not sentimental portraits of literary and fictional women in Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal, 1974.)

Sight-Readings is not lacking in literary close analysis and assessment of a more traditional nature, but for most readers it will shine as a gallery of memorably sketched portraits. Among twentieth-century literary essayists only Virginia Woolf has created comparable likenesses, in her own brilliant if slightly cranky prose. Yet Hardwick is never provincial, censorious, or frankly jealous, as Woolf was; impossible to imagine her sniffing with bourgeois disdain at Ulysses as an “illiterate, underbred book…the book of a self taught working man” (Diary, August 16, 1922) or asserting that, for all his youthful reputation, Ernest Hemingway is “not an advanced writer” (in a review of Men Without Women, 1927). It was Virginia Woolf’s secret conviction, though she did review contemporaries often, that “no creative writer can swallow another contemporary” (Diary, April 20, 1935). Hardwick’s essays refute that contention.


Sight-Readings consists of eighteen essays on mostly American writers (Nadine Gordimer, a sort of glittering caboose at the rear of the book, is the lone exception), female and male, exclusively Caucasian and predominantly middle-class; though within this territory there is much diversity of subject matter, genius, literary accomplishment, success, fame, and failure. Sight-Readings—the title—with its suggestion of quick-study mastery and facility, would seem to set the wrong, even a contrary tone for Hardwick’s essays; how more appropriate a title would have been Depth-Readings.

Each of the essays, even those on Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Bishop, and Truman Capote, which the author designates as “Snapshots,” is richly textured, contemplative, and wide-ranging: “Mrs. Wharton in New York” takes time to discuss William Dean Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes, and Henry James’s The American Scene and Washington Square, with inspired references to Anton Chekhov, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser; “The Genius of Margaret Fuller” closes with a startling epilogue on “perfidious” Nathaniel Hawthorne, who seems to have bitterly resented Fuller’s repudiation of a conventional female role and to have wished to slander Fuller after her death; “Gertrude Stein” refers expectedly to Hemingway, Picasso, and Joyce, and unexpectedly to Samuel Beckett and Philip Glass (“Gertrude Stein, all courage and will, is a soldier of minimalism”); “Cheever; or, The Ambiguities,” noting the “shadowy and troubled undergrowth of Cheever’s stories,” links the author with Melville’s doomed Pierre; “Citizen Updike” posits the author as one of Augustine’s “fair and fit” and includes a parenthetical aside on early Christian heresy (“Pelagius thought Adam’s sin was his alone and we must commit our own sins. But no matter”); “Into the Wasteland: Joan Didion” includes an apt quotation from Melville’s first novel Typee.

The funniest—unless it’s the saddest—essay, “Wind from the Prairie,” primarily a review of a massive biography of Carl Sandburg by Penelope Niven (“a work of exhaustive, definitive coziness in the current American mode of entranced biographical research”), considers the disastrous careers of Sandburg’s prairie coevals Vachel Lindsay and Edgar Lee Masters, and concludes with a gem of an aphorism by Franz Kafka. “Edmund Wilson,” a review-essay of a biography of Wilson by Jeffrey Meyers, expands to consider biography as a genre, with references to Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Johnson’s Life of Mr. Richard Savage, James A. Froude’s remarks on Thomas Carlyle, and Andrew Motion’s recent biography of Philip Larkin, as well as discussing with admirable succinctness the idiosyncratic and interestingly kindred geniuses of Vladimir Nabokov and Charles Dickens.

In the lyric and celebratory “snapshot” of Elizabeth Bishop we are cross-referenced to Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, Coleridge, Laforgue, Mayakovsky, and Pasternak, and learn in passing that “in the late 1930’s, the fiction in the little magazines often struggled with the challenge of Kafka.” We note, too, that “the structure of [Philip] Roth’s fiction is based often upon identifying tirades rather than actions and counteractions” and that the “profligate imagination” of Richard Ford may have provided us with the first “full recognition [of] the totemic power in American life of the telephone and the message service.” Along the way, we take down the titles of works to be read: Margaret Fuller’s essay on Goethe (“a basic document in the history of intellectual freedom in the United States”); Nabokov’s study of Gogol (“one of the most exhilarating, engaging, and original works ever written by one writer about another”); an early Wharton story, “Bunner Sisters” (“one of the author’s most interesting works and an extraordinary wandering from the enclave”).

Is it fair to judge a cover by its book? Though Sight-Readings contains vividly rendered portraits and pulses with kinetic energy, the book’s jacket art is disappointingly blurred and inconsequential, a marsh seen through smudged glasses. How much more striking would have been a reproduction of a portrait in the American mode by James McNeill Whistler, John White Alexander, or George Bellows; or a work of abstract expressionism, to suggest Hardwick’s virtuosity. And her wit: it’s rare to laugh aloud reading literary criticism, but there is much in Sight-Readings to evoke such a response. Of Edith Wharton’s lover Morton Fullerton, Hardwick remarks, “In his love life, [Fullerton] is something like a telephone, always engaged, and even then with several on hold”; Gertrude Stein, whom Hardwick much admires, is “sturdy as a turnip…a tough root of some sort,” her stubbornly eccentric art a matter of “insomniac rhythms and melodious drummings” and her prose a “wondrous contraption, the Model T of her style.” Clearly, Hardwick identifies with Stein in her funny Wildean insights.


What is the point of being a little boy if you are going to grow up to be a man?

Before the flowers of friendship faded friendship faded.

I am I because my little dog knows me.

Ezra Pound is a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if not, not.

Edgar Lee Masters “has ideas as some have freckles”; the masterwork of Vachel Lindsay, The Congo and Other Poems, is an “infernal indiscretion,” the result perhaps of the poet’s “unanchored enthusiasm” for the American Midwest:

Tramping and reciting, forever in manic locomotion with notebook in hand to scribble whatever came into his head, head to be laid down at night on a YMCA pillow, leaving little time for romantic life.

Djuna Barnes is noted to have “a crippling facility for inspired verbal cartooning”; Truman Capote’s notorious “La Côte Basque” is “a story or something” and Capote himself, following the debacle of Answered Prayers, with its cruel, assaultive portraits of friends, is envisioned by Hardwick as a “leper with a bell announcing his presence…, marked with a leper’s visible deformities, a creature arousing fear of infection.”

What was Capote thinking of? At times one is led to imagine him afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome, a disease…[that] brings on facial tics, not unusual in other physical misfortunes; the true peculiarity of the symptoms is echolalia, endless talking characterized by an uncontrollable flow of obscenities.

Because they showcase Elizabeth Hardwick’s gifts for both portraiture and a subtle form of polemic, the essays on biography may linger longest in the reader’s mind. Indeed, these should be required reading for anyone undertaking the difficult art, or craft, of biography—“the quick in pursuit of the dead,” as Hardwick wittily describes the genre. The pitfalls of contemporary biographical “entrancement” are isolated in Penelope Nivens’s exhaustive life of Sandburg, in which the biographer is primarily a collector of unedited and unanalyzed data, unwilling to make, or perhaps incapable of making, aesthetic judgment:

Having gone through the heap [the vast Sandburg archives], settled into the poet and each member of the family, reliving their nights and days with an intrusive intimacy, the biographer wants to record each scrap. The index cards or data sheets come to have a claim of their own, and the affirmation, the yes, yes, of Sandburg’s scurry through life is her own affirming journey. The book is tedious and sentimental and long, long, long…. The scholar of the papers, of the life of, knows, like some celestial Xerox machine, details that consciousness erases overnight.

Even less edited, less analyzed, and less structured than the Sandburg biography, Mailer: His Life and Times by Peter Manso is advertised as a “major biography” though in fact the huge book is little more than an assemblage of interview transcripts, originally totaling 20,000 pages; the testament of a “hippodrome of garrulity” that seems to suggest a radically new definition of what it is to be a writer: “You, and in this case your times, are what people have to say about you.” Literary accomplishment seems to be beside the point, for perhaps the biographer hasn’t had time to read the subject’s oeuvre:

The absence of [a biographer], the lack of a signature of responsibility, the conception of ideas as shadows of comment, vague and undefended, in a like way absorbs the activity of the commentator, the critic. What can be said about more than six hundred pages of anecdote?

Of course, Hardwick finds a good deal to say about this new, technology-driven “oral tradition,” and about Mailer’s kindred “non-fiction novel” The Executioner’s Song, which was similarly created out of staggering quantities of interview transcripts (beyond 16,000 pages): a “compositional blur” given a putative Western plainness and anonymity by Mailer, and shaped into a novel that would win, perhaps perversely, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction that had been denied to those novels of Mailer so much more clearly his “own.” On the process of creating something like a book out of such material, Hardwick notes:

A bit of neatening, of course, and punctuation, the period, the comma. The taped text is always a great, gluey blob, and what is needed are sentences dry and separate as kernels of corn. A close reading of taped books suggests that the invisible hand is less busy than might be imagined. Punctuation, laying it out, pasting it up. The real labor of the books returns to the source, the wretched bulk of the testimony, the horror of its vast, stuttering scale.

So, too, and perhaps more appropriately, since the last phase of his life was so frequently “party-going, forever receiving and producing banter about feckless stumblings and torrid indiscretions,” Truman Capote is the subject of another tape-recorded oral biography assembled by George Plimpton that consists of “lumps of monologue piling up one after another like wood stacked for the winter” and virtually no authorial commentary or critical assessment of Capote’s work. Perhaps—though Hardwick doesn’t so indicate, and may not have felt that this is a valid conclusion—these huge transcript-books are an inevitable consequence of the information glut of our time, electronically inspired and, as it were, subsidized; not substitutes for more authentic books, but meta-books, handbooks of undigested data, clippings, and reviews, anecdotes and gossip and trivia possessing the value to subsequent writers and scholars that unpublished archival materials have always possessed.

There are other, more traditional ways in which a biographer is unequal to his or her subject, and these, too, Hardwick thoughtfully examines. In passing, in her essay on James’s Washington Square (the introduction to the Library of America paperback edition), she alludes critically to Leon Edel’s dogged psychologizing of his subject in the five-volume life of James, finding fault with Edel’s claim that Catherine Sloper is “the image of himself [James] as victim of his brother’s—and America’s—failure to understand his feelings”; in Edel’s myopic reading of James the creative artist, it is “sibling rivalry” that is the stimulus, to be located virtually anywhere in James’s work.

Hardwick’s reading of Washington Square is, unsurprisingly, far freer, focusing upon the young woman protagonist Catherine as a vessel of “classic recognition…and the power of enlightenment.” It would seem to be Elizabeth Hardwick’s natural, and admirable, instinct to defend the writer against the biographer-critic, for who otherwise will speak for the writer, now deceased? The heavy hand of Freudian literary theory would reduce to sterile and tedious formulae the free play of the writer’s imagination, as well as restrict his or her more conscious strategies of form and structure; the writer becomes, in so claustrophobic a determinist drama, merely a conduit for the expression of the usual repressed, largely infantile fantasies.

In “The Fate of the Gifted,” Hardwick considers Djuna Barnes, “a writer of wild and original gifts” who would seem also to to have eluded her biographer, in this case Andrew Field, whose awkwardly titled Djuna: The Formidable Miss Barnes lacks a “vivacity” commensurate with its subject: the biography “is under considerable strain in all its parts and can only chatter along desperately about one who was noted for her silences.” More reprehensible, because both critically inadequate and morally suspect, is Joan Givner’s biography of Katherine Anne Porter, which pursues its hapless subject, ninety years old at the time of her death following the ravages of old age, with “root biographical facts [that] have the effect of a crushing army.” Givner’s “smug provincialism” would make of Porter’s exquisitely rendered fiction the mere repository of “problems of life,” inevitably traced back to a deprived childhood, resentments and fabrications, a “longing for love.” Hardwick’s more discerning and appreciative eye sees in the celebrated “Miranda” stories of Porter and in the extraordinary short novel “Noon Wine” the artist at work, not the neurotic; in art, detail is “transfigured,” not merely recalled and recorded.

How certain human beings are able to create works of art is a mystery, and why they should wish to do so, at a great cost to themselves usually, is another mystery. Works are not created by one’s life; every life is rich in material. By the nature of the enterprise, the contemporary biographer with his surf of Xerox papers is doing something smaller and yet strikingly more detailed than the great Victorian laborers in the form. Our power of documentation has a monstrous life of its own…. It creates out of paper a heavy, obdurate permanency.

Yet the artist may be hounded by the biographer for inconsistencies and foibles in the life (“Garrulousness and a certain untidiness in 1932 are excavated and rebuked in 1982, showing at least one of the dangers of living”); the biographer, like Givner, may take on the moral rectitude and ill-disguised malice of an independent public prosecutor, as if to demean another is to enhance oneself; as if the biographer, scavenging the life, isn’t exploiting that life, and wholly dependent upon it for the completion of a professional project. “It is not always clear that [Givner] understands the elegance of [Porter’s] prose,” Hardwick mildly remarks. Add to which deficiency the biographer’s outrage that her subject has turned out to be human, and flawed, not a figure of fantasy; and her conviction, an occupational hazard of many biographers of writers, that there is, must be, an “umbilical attachment” of the life and the work.

Biography as pathography; and as ressentiment, in Nietzsche’s notable phrase in Toward a Genealogy of Morals: the revenge of the weak against the strong by way of the tyranny of a restrictive “morality,” but also, perhaps, the revenge of the unimaginative against the imaginative. Biographies written out of such motives cast a chill over the last years of many lives, in inevitably recording the “demeaning moments of malice and decline [with] the effect of imprinting them upon the ninety years. In the biographies of today, all things are equal except that the ill winds tend in interest to be—well, more interesting.” We feel this to be true, generally; but of course there have been any number of meritorious biographies published in recent decades in which respect for the subject is balanced by documentation and analysis. Simply for the record, Hardwick might have mentioned these.

Is biographical truth possible, in any case? Unless the subject is a fanatic diarist, the greater part of his or her inner life will be lost, not simply to the biographer but to the very subject. In Hardwick’s acute observation, quoted above, the “scholar of the papers” may retain details that “consciousness erases overnight,” but no one, including even the subject, can retain the ephemera of consciousness that, like a sky of rapidly moving clouds, is ever-shifting and cannot be tracked; hardly is it there before it’s gone.

The sum of a man, says Emerson, is what he is thinking all day long. This isness is both the only true reality of our lives and, paradoxically, inaccessible to another, and only fleetingly comprehended by ourselves. Yet in this phantasmagoria, not in factual detail, and certainly not in anecdotal recollections, sometimes genial, sometimes malicious, does the mysterious personality reside. Fastening upon what can be perceived (by someone) and has been documented (by someone), biography is susceptible to the retaining of a spurious “history”: the single occasion when you wear a pink-striped shirt, not the several dozen occasions when you wear a white shirt, is likely to end up in the biography. Metonymy gone wrong. Freud remarked, “Anyone who writes a biography is committed to lies, concealments, hypocrisy, flattery and even to hiding his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth does not exist, and if it did we could not use it.” In raising such timely issues Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sight-Readings is an important as well as an immensely readable and instructive gathering of essays by one of our most esteemed writers.

This Issue

September 24, 1998