The Wise Woman and the Whale

Elizabeth Hardwick
Elizabeth Hardwick; drawing by David Levine

Elizabeth Hardwick and the whale: although it is very dark inside the whiteness, she will read her way by oil lamp to Melville, “the most bookish of writers, a tireless midnight student.” Thigh-high in ambergris and spermaceti, she makes herself as much at home as on the prison ship, or the cannibal islands, or the Berkshire farm where Herman wrote in twelve-hour shifts, or inside the Manhattan townhouse down whose stairs he may have tossed his wife. Wherever and whatever—novels, letters, and biographies; marriage and derangement; carnival or crypt—Hardwick always moves in with her subject. And before she entertains, she will have picked the locks, ransacked the closets, let the madwomen out of the attic, brought up bodies from the basement, and bounced on the double bed like Goldilocks or Freud.

About this brilliant domesticity, there is also a jujitsu. “How certain human beings are able to create works of art is a mystery,” she wrote in an essay on Katherine Anne Porter, “and why they should wish to do so, at a great cost to themselves usually, is another mystery.” This seems amiable enough. Likewise, in a discussion of Nadine Gordimer, she might be describing her own critical method: “Note the way the author opens the plot, arranges the magical correspondences, finds the fixed points, and sets them in a broad open space where many drifting, always to the point, things can wander.”

We are so comfortable in such company that we lean on her, as if she were a brother or a broom. And then all of a sudden, by rag doll twinkletoes and sleight-of-hand, we are head over heels. We’ve been thrown by our own weight, tumbled into deeper meanings, rueful reflections, and surprise perspectives. (Is Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s a plagiarism of Sally Bowles in Goodbye to Berlin? In which ways did Gertrude Stein anticipate Philip Glass? And how dare Peter Conrad ever publish another book after her roadkill review of Imagining America?) If great literature is where we go, alone, to complicate ourselves, a criticism worthy of it has to be equally nuanced—not bullying, not preemptive, not reductive, and certainly not French, but nonetheless subversive of lazy or reflex opinion. Once we have read William James, Margaret Fuller, Eugene O’Neill, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or even Thomas Mann through Hardwick’s all-seeing eye, they are more interesting and so are we.

And Melville, our first modern! She has been after him for decades. He shows up in her pages almost as often as Tolstoy (The Kreutzer Sonata) and Dreiser (Sister Carrie). There was, of course, the famous essay that gave her the title for her collection Bartleby in Manhattan, in which Melville’s story—“of austere minimalism, of philosophical quietism, of radical literary shape, of consummate despair, and withal beautiful in the perfection of the telling”—sounded in her radar reading of it as if…

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