The Uncollected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, ed. Alex Andriesse. NYRB Classics, 304 pages.
Hardwickian—what is it? Why is it? How? Maybe more than anything else, it’s a degree of attenuation and coloration eluding so many today who pick up the pen or type, or even dictaphone their way into text meant for an audience. One has to concede it comes from the soul and all the brazen and thoughtless messes and recalibrations constituting that sphinx the body rests upon. Unlike some writers, Elizabeth Hardwick did not alter where she alteration found—she met the world, the people, and the arts with an adamantine sense of decorum, skepticism, and celebration. The soul of the sentence must conform to the writer’s code of ethics and certain standards handed down from the immortals, and so many hours should be devoted to reading the best of the best, and many more to the actual production, the original sheets or napkins with first thoughts that are typed up and often crossed out as they give way to the delicacies of revision that don’t dare let the shabby or the “good enough” spoil one’s name. Before such a calamity, there will be many dawns and dusks of fighting and forlorn emotions about what the public will finally be let in on—for what they read is the outpouring of that bare and forked soul, and it must sate like the infamous eros of Cleopatra, satisfying where it makes most hungry.
For me, Hardwick belongs to the great triad of late-twentieth-century United States poet-critics, along with William Gass and Cynthia Ozick (Henry James and Virginia Woolf were their ultimate precursors), who could do equivalent damage in fiction—fiction is not among Susan Sontag’s natural habitats. Like those other two, Hardwick waxed her sentences with a special essence—a gift conjoined with her eerie lexical inevitability, as Sontag wrote of her “mercurial sentence rhythms. Devising more subtle, more engorged ways of knowing, of sympathizing, of keeping at bay.” All the biographical hedges around her life, especially Robert Lowell and any insider ado about The New York Review of Books, have no interest for me—I’m interested in what the sentences became: glittering (a favorite Hardwick word) constructions, sweet to the ear and surmounting in their enfilades from page to eye. Marianne Moore said style is a radiograph of the personality, and Hardwick sinks her needle into a reader, etherizing with a charmed vocabulary and syntactically rich deviations from the tawdry and staid that hold the alternating bright light and grisaille of Woolfian prose, as when she describes that high state: “Difficulty inhabits Maine like great spruce trees.”
But so much of Hardwick’s legacy had been missing until just a few years ago, even though she died in 2007. In the early years of the last decade, I journeyed to the public library to have the basement clerks leverage out the old Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays because there were more hard to find and interesting essays in there than those in 1998’s Sight-Readings or, a year later, in American Fictions—both are more or less the same book. The complete and, more so, replete Hardwick has been difficult to conjure for the younger generations who didn’t regularly see her articles popping up in a variety of periodicals, though, through rumor and sigh, most younger writers are so in the know that no less than Sontag, Christine Schutt, and Garielle Lutz consider Sleepless Nights the crème de la crème of short, modern-age stupendous novels—and maybe Sleepless Nights was even an answer to that lately bedecked Speedboat by Renata Adler, which Hardwick had so perceptibly aped while reviewing it at around the same time she was composing what would become her most cherished work. Much of what she collected to be published and most of what Darryl Pinckney selected to be in the 2017 NYRB book, The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, are the strong reviews of other writers’ corpuses via their biographies or her terrific a cappella musings on their lives or their works, such as in 1974’s Seduction and Betrayal, with portraits of many English female writers and wives of writers, as well as essays on Ibsen plays—and they are sterling pieces.
But there is another Hardwick, whom editor Alex Andriesse is keen to deliver in the Uncollected—a more personalized one who outfits her impressions with lyrical and novelistic swerves on a variety of subjects not literary, especially in the stunning first eighty pages of this new collection, with essays on “Places, People, Things” and an essay on essays, “The Art of the Essay”—those being most redolent of Sleepless Nights. These pieces, along with the “Readings” and “Feminine Principle” sections, are unadulterated Hardwick, broadcasting her chief discernments on society, art, and relationships most abundantly, as she herself writes of the mysterious process that goes into writing the essay:
The true prose writer knows there is nothing given, no idea, no text or play seen last evening until an assault has taken place, the forced domination that we call “putting it in your own words.” Talking about, thinking about a project bears little relation to the composition; enthusiasm boils down with distressing speed to a paragraph, often one of mischievous banality. To proceed from musing to writing is to feel a robbery has taken place. And certainly there has been a loss; the loss of the smiles and ramblings and discussions so much friendlier to ambition than the cold hardship of writing.
There is no accident in these strict ligatures, tied by her “cold hardship of writing”—I define “Hardwickian” by these words as well. As Ozick said of Gass, Hardwick is an essayist who writes in “the subjective style of impressionism, wherein the criticism of the text vies as a literary display with the text itself, and on a competitive level of virtuosity, even of ‘beauty.’” Certainly essays do offer information, but Hardwick contends that “a peculiar condition of reciprocity, reader participation, prevails” and “hidden in its clauses is an intelligence uncomfortable with dogmatism . . .”—the very mantra of most of the best poet-critics. Another ingredient is simply: location, location, location (recall her essay “Locations: The Landscapes of Fiction” in the Collected, in which she wrote how those locations, houses, and other things in literature “are a shell for the creation of human dramas”). The three pole positions of Hardwick’s life were Lexington, Manhattan, and Castine, Maine, where she spent many summers. In the Uncollected, the first section begins with sublime essays on each place—she integrated some parts of the Lexington piece into Sleepless Nights, which also features the tussle between life in Lexington and that in Manhattan, though less so than that in Maine.
She seemed to be very attuned to those who struggle, those not fortunate enough—what well-to-do writer would put the homeless front and center in an essay (not a journalistic assignment) about New York? But there it is, as she animates a ubiquitous scene all too real that I can attest to after having worked outreach in Manhattan for seven years:
But utter not the word shelter just now, here where it has acquired or grown a scrofulous hide. Will you not come with me to the Shelter on this icy evening, dear, old homeless one, stuffed into your bag of rags and surrounded by up-standing pieces of cardboard, making as it were a sort of private room on the freeze of concrete near a corner or before a storefront? No, you f—ing little, rat-faced volunteer on vacation from the country club of Wellesley College or piling up credit at the Fordham School of Social Work.
These concerns branch out and undergird her project, as the project of writers departed, or what they stood for, is molded in their language’s deliverance. She is an empath in her writing (more in the olden sense, when the watchword might have been “kindhearted,” not in today’s gloss, suggestive of a healer wearing white and putting her hand on another’s heart)—while Gass and Ozick are not—and she wears it well, displaying the right amount of “tough love” to discourage codependence. The first NYRB collection includes pieces on Watts, Selma, and Martin Luther King Jr., and an essay entitled “The Insulted and Injured: Books about Poverty.” But where did this feeling come from? What trials shaped Hardwick, ostensibly a New Yorker and high-society figure, to squint and disregard the flamboyance and cruel, sloppy mistakes of so many of the rich (as we shall see) and yearn for salt-of-the-earth people? Primarily, it was her childhood in Lexington, Kentucky, which she captures in that eponymous essay, detailing how certain new sections of the city did little for her:
The newer “East End” with its 1920 stuccos and colonials, its nice tree-lined strips, its Drives and Ways and Avenues, its complacent children, its new Episcopalians and Christian Scientists: all of this was handsome and prosperous and comfortable and yet it lacked any compromising hint of history, seemed an elaborate defense against all the sufferings except alcoholism. There were, out there, no Negroes just around the corner, no truck routes to Ohio, no bums in cheap hotels, or country people arriving on Saturday.
And in the triumphant third paragraph of that piece, she pulls back to consider the history, the sanctions, the dominant psychologies: “So much that is mean and unworthy in our country is appearance: people are always acting a part, banal, tacky, unfelt, inauthentic. Social wickedness and follies are ‘received’ just as the emotion we feel sometimes about the flag in a breeze; they seem to unite the one with the many,” she writes, before tackling what so many, especially then, didn’t know how to face or even have a language for: “There is a dreamlike, piercing pleasure in whiteness whenever it stands, even on a precipice, within sight of blackness. Poor people have lived on that alone, amidst every diminishment and insult, returning to it, as to the awakening sun in the morning.” Here those more “engorged ways” of “keeping at bay” threaten to burst the pustule forming in a twenty-first-century reader’s throat—the latter sentence begs to be read carefully, not sneered at. The recto of this verso? Our location, the ground beneath our feet, stamps us much more than we think, as she elsewhere argues against the rebuilding of downtown Atlanta: “ . . . the schlock and kitsch of the architecture, the dead shops, the superfluous fountains dripping over plastic rocks: this creation is close to the vision that made Las Vegas out of a wasteland . . . ”
In turn, she could cast a cold eye on the bilious shows of obscene money, and by extension, on a whole class of people in New York, including this vacuous couple:
Nothing much came forth from the red lips, the lithe, stalky, skin-and-bone woman in a mink tent getting out of the long, black, hired car. She emerges from the tomb and from the defiant optics of the black limousine windows, opaque as death on the outside, but from which she, inside, can look out to see a white poodle on its leash. I wish I had one, she says, and he, from the hearse in which they are driven, says, If you want one, buy one, for God’s sake.
But the essay will further plunge into a necessary divergence about the land under those towers and streets full of taxis and limos: “Slavery came to the Manhattan shores with great promptitude, came to New Amsterdam with black souls gathered up by the prudent Dutch at Curaçao, another of the country’s far-flung “interests.” Anyone trying to make a truthful account of The City and all of its vicissitudes has to look to history, and Hardwick’s literary criticism is full of these saturations. She was as interested in American Empire as Gore Vidal was, and it fueled her pages devoted to Herman Melville (here there is a short piece on Billy Budd), though throughout everything in the books there is scant mention of the people she probably loathed most: Nixon and Reagan.
When the rich and powerful seem to get their compromised comeuppance in the “Piety and Politics” section, with long NYRB articles on the scandals du jour of the 1990s—the Menendez Brothers, O.J., The Kennedy scandals, and Clinton and Monica Lewinsky—I wrinkled my brow to endure reading about each of these figures that I would welcome never hearing about again. It’s not that Hardwick doesn’t get some good body blows in (“President Clinton: shallow, reckless, a blushing trimmer; Monica Lewinsky, aggressive, rouge-lipped exhibitionist; Judge Kenneth Starr, pale, obsessive Pharisee”), but I wondered why she fixated on these reprehensible public figures when she couldn’t find much that was sympathetic about them (and shouldn’t have attempted to)—they were not worthy of her words, with the cheap perfume of celebrity memoirs swirling about each piece, whereas Watts, the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the candidacy of George Wallace (warning of his bigotry) were. But, of course, the bloodlust of today teeters on the sweaty backs of these noxious events that buffered cable TV to new heights, with most terminating in the fiasco-controlled judicial or governmental chambers. In Sleepless Nights one deft, dagger-like sentence opening Part Two could serve to comment on it all: “Everything groans under treachery.”
In the section of the book called “The Feminine Principle,” there are seven weighty pieces—five written in the early 1970s, mostly in Mademoiselle or Vogue. Hardwick directed them toward people who read for such advice—drained of much metaphor, these pieces are the X-rays behind those in Seduction and Betrayal. Here she comes at matters like suicide, childbearing, vulnerability, and the American woman as “snow queen” straight on. She looks at the girls with wonder and anxiety: “I do not know whether they will be free—the only certainty is that many will be adrift.” She restricts herself to speaking from experience, and this comes out in the last essays of the section, which are bathed in a strange, Emersonian radioactivity that is not so much didactic as guru-like—a tone readers of Mademoiselle might have dismissed in the time of rising feminism and the sexual revolution: “Only the assurance of being loved by someone can produce the patience necessary for survival,” and “Always what is most important in one’s personal life is to forgive the unforgivable,” yet she adds: “Some of the greatest shocks of life are the recognition that others simply do not want always to be responsible for us.” These latter two sentences are from 1973’s “When to Cast Out, Give Up, Let Go,” which will certainly feed those looking for a backhanded comment on Hardwick’s heartbreak with Lowell. These essays are quite unlike the vaunted ones, but they are forthright, assured, and wise—I can almost imagine her being the mother hen that younger women sued to impress their problems on, to see what oracular advice might rise, resembling that in her books. And even in the earliest (“Snow Queen,” from 1951), certain complaints take one’s breath away, for instance when she writes of American love dynamics, with something no self-help book could impress so poetically: “Love can never be an art with us or even exceptionally artful, because we think it real only when it appears without human aid; it is rain from heaven, not the work of a clever imagination.”
In effect, Hardwick played the game—she showed up at some literary parties and then went home to brood, to commune with her innermost self (that narrator of Sleepless Nights and many bejeweled essays) because there were a variety of disturbances: relationships, the city, the country, and the behaviors of its citizens. She would often, to my mind, describe the scene of saying goodbye, of the door closing, of the tree leaves in free fall, and would double the melancholy by cinematically zooming back to show herself in the midst of an ode to the faded color of a bureau she lived with for thirty years—and still lived with, though it was gone. It was as if she were an ageless wonder, some fantastical wood nymph with a driver’s license and a submerged cackle that she would release only in unguarded moments—but she would be in safety, on the house-side of the window, a little like the famous still of Maya Deren, palms on the glass and the reflection of a tree obscuring her hair, in Meshes in the Afternoon, a title drunk with that Hardwickian melancholy. Through her sentences, both the comely and the sly would enter the reader’s consciousness. It might be a saddening snapper: “Poor neighborhoods are vulnerable to winter. Gray sky and bare lawns, stripped trees reveal every weakness, every sagging seam and rotting board.” Or it might be with one of a more sinuousness: “We are often accused of triviality in this respect and perhaps we are the only country that wants to send the leukemia victim a present so that he may have his Christmas in November—a gruesome notion of the last pleasures of life, even a child’s life.” The great congregations of Hardwick sentences are elegies for the people who, try as they might, can’t see their cruelty, and for those trees, rivers, mountain rocks, and the towering mansions or hodgepodge shacks, made from woodpiles and quarries, that surround us.