Until about a decade ago you hardly ever heard about Elizabeth Hardwick — that is, outside of rarefied and most likely American literary circles. The essayist, critic and (infrequent) novelist, who died in 2007, was a plain-sight secret, a giddy pleasure for connoisseurs — of what? Hardwick spent much of her life in moneyed precincts at the summit of American letters.
She was a founder of the New York Review of Books and married to Robert Lowell: his poetry, and the dissolution of their marriage in the early 1970s, overshadowed her output. But she was the author of the extraordinary Sleepless Nights (1979): crystalline autofiction that has slowly returned to fashion. In recent years her scattered essays have been gathered into two anthologies (Collected Essays and Uncollected Essays), where she is pitiless and precise on such subjects as the Brontës, Sylvia Plath, Faye Dunaway and Bill Clinton. Her style is something else: a miracle of concision and peculiar phrasing.
Late in his engaging memoir of Hardwick and more, Darryl Pinckney concludes that she “wrote to honour the literature she cared for, to be worthy of sitting on certain shelves”. Why this assertion of her seriousness? Possibly because so much of Come Back in September consists of more or less delicious gossip — a lot of it from Hardwick herself, who preferred to call gossip “character analysis”.
Pinckney, a middle-class black kid from Indianapolis, was her writing student at Columbia, an acolyte and a friend. He was privy, after a martini or two — “they explode the whole head,” she told him — to Hardwick’s unguarded opinions and confessions. On the prose of her friend Susan Sontag: great ideas, but no ear. Of her late husband, who had left her for Caroline Blackwood: “Robert Lowell never married a bad writer.” She thought Simone de Beauvoir’s veneration of Jean-Paul Sartre after his death was “like a backflip with twists on to the pyre”.
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I have a high tolerance for tales of Hardwick’s particular coterie — she was also friends with Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy — but at times Pinckney’s insider view seems a little too elevated and airless, furnished with sentences such as “Elizabeth enjoyed Susan’s party at NYU for Under the Sign of Saturn.” Fortunately, Come Back in September has a deeper and wider remit. As a young gay man in the 1970s and 1980s, Pinckney spent his nights at BDSM venue the Mineshaft, or the Mudd Club, where the B-52s were for a time the adored house band.
He was a bookish, thus faintly to be mocked, presence on a scene that included artist Nan Goldin and filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and Howard Brookner (one of many in this crowd to die from Aids). Other writers, including Pinckney’s friend and Columbia contemporary Lucy Sante, have written more intimately about alternative New York in this period. In Pinckney’s account, it’s more a telling counterpart, almost an affront, to Hardwick’s formerly bohemian, lapsing-radical sensibilities. “This endless cruising,” she’d say to her young friend.
In a style indebted to Hardwick herself, Pinckney moves abruptly but easily between high-flown talk on his mentor’s red sofa and fraught relations with family back in Indiana. Parties with Sontag and John Ashbery notwithstanding, Pinckney senior thought his son’s education inadequate. One sister wished he would get out from under Hardwick’s elegant sway, and start reading books for himself. Another sister was in and out of psychiatric hospitals: a story Pinckney scants, as he does his own time in rehab, paid for by the NYRB.
The more substantial personal narrative happens in his head and on the page, in his struggle to match Hardwick’s literary canon — mostly white or Eurocentric, though she had always known and championed black writers — with his growing knowledge of a lineage of black poets, intellectuals and artists. Contradictions abound: Hardwick spoke fondly of “Jimmy” Baldwin, but Pinckney’s father had given up on a writer who supported the Black Panthers.
Pinckney’s education, both uptown and downtown syllabi, paid off: now in his late sixties, he has written novels, plays, numerous essays. The vivid, sometimes verbless, telegraphy of Hardwick’s style can still be heard in his prose, though Come Back in September is a baggier sort of book than she might have approved, with her “roving obsession with form”. Pinckney’s letters and journals do a lot of work towards the end. But this is still a wise, rueful reflection on a lost milieu but an ever more present and essential writer. Hardwick, says Pinckney, is one of those writers we know by voice, like singers: unmistakable, airborne, indelible.
Brian Dillon’s Affinities is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in spring 2023. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s 1985 album Hounds of Love