Reading The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick for a creative nonfiction craft lecture during the final residency for my MFA program gave me a greater appreciation for Hardwick’s work and changed the way I read. One essay from the collection,“Locations: The Landscapes of Fiction,” taught me to give more attention to objects and places in fiction instead of just viewing them as props that help set the stage or fill space. Using works from Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Wharton, and others, Hardwick explores the connections between interior and exterior landscapes in American fiction and the characters who inhabit those landscapes. She writes about how the landscapes created by these authors inform readers beyond establishing the setting. Hardwick writes:
The landscapes of fiction, the houses and things, are a shell for the creation of human dramas, the place for the seven deadly sins to do battle with probity and reality or outrageous demand and vanity. The shells, the habitations of America are volatile, inventive, unexpected, imponderable, but there they are, everywhere.
Dwellings—and the objects found in these dwellings—help form characters and their stories. Layers of landscape are placed around and within stories for readers to examine in order to grasp deeper meanings, like the rings of a tree.
Hardwick devotes a good chunk of “Locations” to fiction that takes place in New York City. She writes:
Manhattan is not altogether felicitous for fiction. It is not a city of memory, not a family city, not the capital of America so much as the iconic capital of the century. It is grand and grandiose with its two rivers acting as a border to contain the restless. Its skyscrapers and bleak, rotting tenements are a gift for photographic consumption, but for the fictional imagination the city’s inchoate destiny is a special challenge. Those who engage this “culture of congestion” today need a sort of athletic suppleness, such as we find in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Anna Qunidlen must possess the athletic suppleness Hardwick mentions; Alternate Side, a novel that unfolds in Manhattan, still contains elements of memory and family in addition to plenty of congested restlessness. Quindlen introduces the reader to the vacant lot around which Alternate Side revolves in the opening pages:
In the line of narrow townhouses that made up their side of the block, standing shoulder to shoulder like slender soldiers of flawless posture and unvarying appearance, there was one conspicuous break, a man down, a house-width opening to a stretch of macadam turned into an outdoor parking lot. It held only six cars, and since nearly everyone on the block wanted a space, it had become a hot commodity, a peculiar status symbol.
All of the residents on the block vie for one of the vacant lot’s six parking spots close to home. Those lucky enough to score one are obsessed with the lot and their spots. Convenience and comfort are powerful drugs. Feeling superior to your less fortunate, parking-spot-bereft neighbors is a powerful drug, too.
Quindlen explores themes connected to race, class, privilege, friendship, and family in ways that are only possible because of the empty lot she plops down in the middle of a rare dead-end block in Manhattan. After an act of violence occurs for reasons connected to the lot, the lucky six are no longer allowed to park their cars there. The relationships between various residents begin to unravel. Their homes start to fall apart as well, and the emptiness of the lot reflects the emptiness of some of the marriages and friendships on the street.
Early in the novel, Nora (the protagonist) contemplates the old New York of her youth compared to the current New York: the New York of her married-for-several-years-with-two-kids-in-college days. Quindlen writes:
It was crazy, but there was a small, secret part of Nora that was comfortable with trash on the street. It reminded her of her youth, when she’d first arrived in a nastier, scarier, dirtier New York City and moved into a shabby apartment with her best friend, Jenny. A better New York, she sometimes thought to herself now, but never, ever said, one of the many things none of them admitted to themselves, at least aloud: that it was better when it was worse.
Nora longs for a different New York, for a past version of herself—when a vacant lot wasn’t so important, when much of what her life has become wasn’t so important. Nora later discovers, thanks to the lot—the shell for the creation of her human drama—that people and circumstances aren’t always what they seem to be.
The hotel-cum-addiction-recovery-facility in Denis Johnson’s “The Starlight on Idaho” (from The Largesse of the Sea Maiden) serves as another notable shell. The main character in this epistolary short story, Cass, is going through detox in the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center and writes several letters to various people, including God and Satan. Cass writes a letter to his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Bob:
Dear old buddy and beloved sponsor Bob,
Now hear the latest from the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center on Idaho Avenue, in its glory days better known as the Starlight Motel. I believe you might have holed up here once or twice. Yes I believe you might have laid up drunk in room 8, this very one I’m sitting in at this desk writing this letter …
And in a letter to his father and grandmother, Cass says:
Do you remember when the Starlight was a motel? I remember when it was a motel and whores used to sit out on the bench at the bus stop across the street, really miserable gals with blotchy skin and dents in their head after getting run out of San Francisco … I mean you wouldn’t cross the street for them, but I guess once in a while some desperate character from one of these rooms in the Starlight would make the journey. Do you know what? I’ve had one or two minutes here when I might’ve done it myself. But the whores are gone, the bus-stop benches are empty. I don’t think the bus runs past here no more.
The Starlight helps make this story what it is. Johnson uses the Starlight as an additional character in the story, one that has gone through its own turnaround.
At the end of the story, readers learn that Cass has been told several times that he shouldn’t have survived some pretty terrible situations. But he’s still alive and he still hopes this round of recovery will stick. Perhaps some past frequenters of the Starlight Motel have ridden by—probably by accident—and noticed buses no longer serve the area; maybe they thought the motel would be abandoned and condemned but instead discovered it’s still alive, now a place where people go to recover, where people who should be dead have another chance at redemption.
I’ll keep paying more attention to locations and landscapes when I read and write now. Maybe I’ll include locations that have traits that mirror those of my characters or locations that represent a sort of redemption my characters desire for themselves. Maybe I’ll introduce locations that are unexpected, inventive, volatile.
Image: Flickr/Stephen L Harlow
One thing you could always say for me: I was a finisher. I may not have been a great reader, but by God I was dogged, and if I made it through the opening 10th of a book, then I was going all the way to the end. Though this started as merely an inclination, it eventually became a rule, for reasons I can’t quite understand. There are, after all, so many books that deserve abandonment, and to this day I admire readers like my wife, who can jump ship after 80 pages. But I suppose my years as an altar boy left their mark, both in a too-easy conflation of negligence and sin and in a deeper, anthropomorphic sense that even a bad book might at the last minute change into something singular and not-to-be-missed. “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life,” as Grace Paley put it, in her own American idiom. And if I was to be the little god of the worlds I made when turning the pages, then who was I to let a little boredom or disappointment turn me away? I mean, isn’t the real God, if there is one, a finisher, too?
This isn’t to say there weren’t challenges. The Book of Disquiet took me over a year, and several running starts. Ditto Being & Time. Proust I read over four summers, and though there was never a moment when he sunk me in the swamps of saudade, or gave me whatever is German for brain-freeze, it took a certain monogamous willfulness to return to, say, The Fugitive when fresher titles beckoned from the shelf.
But then came baby #3. Let’s call her N. She was not, exactly, planned on, though for several consecutive springs when my manic phase rolled in I had this sense that my own open destiny would probably include throwing myself out of the fatherhood plane one more time. Capping the family at two kids would have felt like stopping Proust after book six, somehow. I hasten to say of baby N, as of Proust: totally worth it.
Except that all of a sudden I couldn’t finish anything. When N was born, back in February, The Great War raged in Robert Musil’s diary. Socialism, in G.D.H. Cole’s five-volume history, had entered its anarchist phase. Now, in December, poor Robert Musil still hasn’t reached an armistice, while socialism retains a markedly anarchist flavor.
Here was me in the first few months after the delivery: I would open a novel, read along perfectly happily for a day or two, and then let it drop. I was waiting for the thing that would sweep me up and carry me through. But perhaps my reading list was too ambitious for my circumstances. (Like, who outside of grad school reads Musil at the same time as G.D.H. Cole?) I told myself I would move, temporarily, to something more sensible. But to no avail. My study grew littered with dog-eared New Yorkers, foreshortened short stories, longreads I sputtered out halfway through. Many of which I enjoyed, and hope to finish in the near future. For now, though, my year in reading comes back to me as a mixtape, as hip-hop: a swirl of enticing samples. Bits and pieces of Laura Oldfield Ford’s ’zine cycle, Savage Messiah. Phosphorescent sentences from Jaimy Gordon’s Shamp of the City-Solo. Andrew O’Hagan’s essay on Satoshi Nakamoto. Ian Frazier’s on New Jersey Route 3. The poem “Far Rockaway” by Delmore Schwartz. The part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything when Antinous Bellori spots some angels in the woods. The part of Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil where Virgil arrives in Brundisium and the translation hasn’t yet gone bananas. The unimprovable first paragraph of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. And Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” whose allegorical valences were not lost on me. Here I was looking down from the deck of a ship, not quite where I ever thought I’d be, while down there in the water, untethered but unreachable, swam another, truer self.
Okay, so I guess I did finish the Conrad. And by summer there were other things, small things, I was managing to see to the end. Like several short stories by Mavis Gallant, including “Speck’s Idea,” probably the single most perfect piece of fiction I read this year. Gallant at her best is every bit the equal of Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, or Joy Williams. Whose story “Stuff” was another highlight. As was Claire Vaye Watkins’s “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,” from the Granta “Best of Young American Novelists” issue.
Or like the essays in Zadie Smith’s forthcoming collection, Feel Free. Several years ago, I thought I noticed a turn in Smith’s nonfiction, a loosening of the burdens of her remarkable erudition, like an astronaut swapping out the gravity boots, or like a swimmer kicking off from land. The places she now consistently reaches in her essays—on Joni Mitchell and Get Out and Anomalisa and joy—are not only nearer to the distant philosophical goalposts of the true and the just and the beautiful…they get us there with truth and justice and beauty of their own, and with an extraordinary, dab-worthy grace. In short, I feel lucky to be alive at a time when these essays are being written.
People must have felt similarly fortunate reading A Room of One’s Own a century ago, or hearing it in its original form, as lectures. I somehow made it to 38 without having read it, and in a weird way, I’m glad I did. In a college classroom, I might not have understood it as I did this summer in Maine, as a book not only about feminism, or art (as if these were ever “only”), but about how to live, for everyone, everywhere. That was a good week for finishing things, come to think of it, because I also, finally, tackled Evan S. Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, those sterling examples of love as an act of ruthless attention. And I read much of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie, a monument of narrative nonfiction that belongs on the national required reading list.
There was, too, the compellingly terrible first couple hundred pages of Harlot’s Ghost, part of an ongoing personal Norman Mailer project I probably won’t complete short of a vasectomy. There are times these days when I find bad writing as exciting as good writing. Maybe more. And apparently it’s not just me, because Mailer seems to bring the best out of his critics. Witness Elizabeth Hardwick, in her long-overdue Collected Essays: “the demonic, original clutter of Mailer’s high style.” Or witness Jonathan Lethem: “If, as in the Isaiah Berlin formulation, ‘the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,’ then Mailer’s gift and curse was to have been a hedgehog trapped inside an exploding fox.”
Other, more recent titles I should mention: Ben Blum’s Ranger Games, a gripping and thoughtful blend of memoir and true-crime. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which I can’t make up my mind about—usually a good sign. And Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “My President Was Black,” with its arresting final cadences. I had read, and felt conflicted about, the epilogue to Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power when it appeared as a stand-alone in The Atlantic. (This is how I read now: epilogue first). If the evidence was hard to reproach, the rhetoric seemed to me flawed. But the book as a whole makes the argument far more persuasively, and—I know this is a little contrarian—I think it’s a more fully realized piece of analysis than Between the World and Me. Coates is that rare thing in our public life: a writer willing to let us see him becoming. We’ll need more of that in the year to come.
And finally, while on the subject of public life and presidents and the winter that is now upon us, I suppose it’s time—with apologies to any of his supporters left reading The Millions—to invoke He Who Must Not Be Named. For, as much as I’ve been pinning my distractibility on baby N (which would suggest I only have to persevere till she sleeps through the night), a novelist friend of mine recently proposed a counter-explanation. “Oh, yeah, man, that’s not you, it’s everyone,” he said. “All of our colleagues, everyone I talk to, my mom and stepdad, their neighbors…It’s been everyone’s worst year in reading.” His argument was that we’re so inundated just at present with narrative and fantasy—with one particular person’s narrative and fantasy—that the last thing we want in our reading lives is more imagination. If democracy dies in darkness, then dispense with the dreaming. Just give me the facts.
Now, if I were a Trumpist, I’d probably say “just give me a break.” There goes the liberal culture industry again, blaming him for their own failings, for every last thing they don’t like. To which I simply ask: aren’t you, too, tired of it? The insults, the feuds, the hysterical touchiness, the drag masculinity, the swamping of the drain, the bull in the nuclear china shop? Not to mention the buck stopping perpetually elsewhere. If politics has become a reality show, we’ve progressed in the last 18 months from the guilty pleasure of The Apprentice to the absurdity of The Celebrity Apprentice to, like, Season 7 of Real Housewives…and did anyone not stuck on an airplane even watch Season 7 of Real Housewives? Haven’t you, too, found far more of your brain given over to Donald Trump than you should have give over to even a good president? Or to put it another way: isn’t one definition of “a good president” “one you don’t have to constantly keep your eye on?” Speaking personally, I’m realizing that I read just as much this year as any year…it’s just that hundreds of my hours were given over to news, lest I fail to be aware of some developing crisis. And in the station wagon of representative government, the driver’s not supposed to be hunched over his twitter feed, leaving everyone else to watch out for hazards. We – I mean to include Trump voters here, too – deserve better. We deserve, at a minimum, adult hands on the wheel.
As to what duties an informed citizenry does have, in this or any other time, it’s worth asking: is newspaper prose plus a handful of cultural swatches anyone’s definition of an inner life? Will even the richest fragments be enough to shield us from ruin? Somehow, I don’t think so. In the short run, the con man who now has the car keys may have exposed our gullibility, sending all of us scrambling to find out things we never had to know before. But the long-term damage may be to a quantity so abused as to have fallen into shame and disrepute: the capacity for belief. We will need, if we are to stitch ourselves together again, to find stories that bridge the unbridgeable, stories that make sense of the senseless, or simply present it in all its mystery, stories that respect the difference between facts and truth – stories worth believing in. In some small way, then, seeing a novel or a poem or a work of imaginative nonfiction through to completion may turn out to be not an irrelevance but an act of subversion. Or better yet: preparation.
Here’s to being a better finisher in 2018.
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A review of Elizabeth Hardwick is almost obliged to begin with the following facts: (1) she was born in Kentucky in 1916 and moved to Manhattan in the early 1940s with the self-declared aim of becoming a “New York Jewish intellectual;” (2) in 1963, along with Barbara and Jason Epstein and Robert B. Silvers, she helped found The New York Review of Books; (3) for more than two decades she was married to the famous—and famously “confessional”—poet Robert Lowell. Notable though these facts may be, however, they are hardly the reasons why Hardwick’s writing continues to be read. As the 55 essays gathered in the new Collected Essays make clear, Hardwick was one of the most penetrating literary critics of her time. Whether she was writing about Henry James or Renata Adler, Edith Wharton or Joan Didion, “every assignment got Hardwick at full sail,” as Darryl Pinckney says in his introduction. She was a “writer’s writer” without question—a prose stylist par excellence.
Hardwick’s style is not for everyone. Her wit is subtle, her syntax sinuous, her learning deep, which is no doubt why her work is so seldom taught in the classroom. It is, in the best sense, un-teachable. “The essayist,” Hardwick once wrote, distinguishing him from the journalist, “does not stop to identify the common ground; he will not write, ‘Picasso, the great Spanish painter who lived long in France.’” Such refusal to stop and explain might easily be mistaken for snobbery today; Hardwick, however, saw it as a gesture of respect. She was not only a “writer’s writer,” she was also—silly though the phrase may be—a “reader’s writer.” She addressed her readers as equals, never wanting to bore them with what they already knew, or what, in the course of their reading, they would soon enough find out for themselves.
Although Hardwick often made her living at universities, she kept aloof from the specialized babel of scholarship. In the Collected Essays, one finds a wonderful absence of “arguments” and a plenitude of splendid sentences, alive to nuance and allergic to jargon. Hardwick has a bit of a reputation as a doyenne of the take-down review, and it’s true that she is very good at disparagement, especially of conventional biographers and biographies. (“Full-length biographies are a natural occupation for professors,” she writes in a blistering evaluation of Carlos Baker’s Ernest Hemingway: A Life, “for only they have the inclination to look at life as a sort of dig.”) But Hardwick is equally good at formulating praise, as in her passionate plea for the reprinting of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children—a “genuine novel in the traditional meaning of the term…a story of life, faithfully plotted, clearly told, largely peopled with real souls.”
“Real souls” were important to Hardwick. In her essays, as in her fiction, she combined a poet’s sensitivity to language with a novelist’s attention to character. Her great gift was to convey a sense of her subjects’ sensibilities, sketching them in a few swift strokes. Consider the beginning of her essay “Frost in His Letters”:
Simplicity and vanity, independence and jealousy combined in Robert Frost’s character in such unexpected ways that one despairs of sorting them out. He is two picture puzzles perversely dumped into one box and, no matter how much you try, the leg will never go rightly with the arm, nor this brown eye with that green one.
The progression of images here is elegant. The phrase “sorting them out” leads straight to the image of “two picture puzzles,” implying the pictures have already been cut to pieces even before they’re further jumbled in a single, person-shaped box. And this imagery isn’t just so much verbal window dressing; it’s a prelude to the rest of the essay, which will proceed to pick up some of these pieces and examine them, without ever pretending to “solve” the puzzle that is Frost. For Hardwick, a real soul is a complex one.
This is partly why she so disliked “exhaustive” doorstop biographies, with all their endless endnotes filled with archival loot filched from “pharaonic tombs.” Her own approach to biographical matters was more circumspect and more artful. She could pen indelible portraits drawn from life, as in her recollection of her longtime acquaintance Edmund Wilson—“a cheerful, corpulent, chuckling gentleman, well-dressed in brown suits and double martinis.” But she could also conjure up writers she had never laid eyes on, drawing from their work and letters. Gertrude Stein, for example, is:
as sturdy as a turnip—the last resort of the starving, and native to the old world, as the dictionary has it. A tough root of some sort; and yet she is mesmerized and isolated, castlebound too, under the enchantments of her own devising.
No critic writes this way today. Few would have the chutzpah to rely so entirely on the power of metaphor and image. But to acknowledge this is not, for once, a matter of lamenting a lost midcentury literary milieu. Hardwick was a product of her time and place, yes, but she was herself possessed of a sensibility that set her apart even from her contemporaries. Her attunement to the art of the English sentence, together with her feeling for human character—her “thing about people,” as Pinckney calls it—made her a singular talent, and an enduring one.
Her enduringness may be all the more remarkable if one considers how many of her essays began as book reviews (an ephemeral form if ever there was one). Indeed, the Collected Essays lays special emphasis on Hardwick’s work as a reviewer. Its centerpiece would seem to be “The Decline of Book Reviewing” (1959), a spirited critique of the “malaise” and tepid praise to be found in the Sunday New York Times and Herald Tribune, and which served as a fillip to the founding of the NYRB. There are several “non-review” essays in this new volume: memoirs of Italy and Brazil, profiles of Maine and Boston, reflections on the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. But there are many dozens of pieces that Hardwick wrote—for venues as various as Granta and Home & Garden—that have never been collected and that are not collected here, largely for reasons of length. In Pinckney’s introduction, he modestly compares this Collected Essays to the “first Collected Works of most poets,” because “its existence invites a revised collected.”
For a Hardwick fanatic such as myself (who has stockpiled copies of nearly every scrap she ever published, down to a 1936 review in her college paper, The Kentucky Kernel), the absence of so many pieces seems to invite not so much another Collected Essays—one could hardly ask for a better one than Pinckney’s—but an Uncollected Essays, chosen to indicate the full range of Hardwick’s curiosity. Although she, for her part, may have regarded some of her magazine contributions as little more than pecuniary means to an end, she was just as impeccable when musing on Faye Dunaway, second-wave feminism, and grits soufflé as she was on Robert Frost or Gertrude Stein. If she took book reviews as occasions for essays more insightful than most scholarly monographs, she took even “puff pieces” as occasions for meditations far deeper, and more scrupulously composed, than the glossies perhaps knew what to do with.
But The Collected Essays is in no sense a provisional volume; it’s an assemblage of essentials. Chronologically arranged as they are, these essays represent Hardwick’s intellectual autobiography, the stylish record of a reader steadily engaged by what T. S. Eliot called “the relations of literature—not to ‘life’ as something contrasted to literature, but to all the other activities, which, together with literature, are the components of life.” In Hardwick’s criticism, we discover nothing of the professor with her ax to grind or the peacock with her feathers to flaunt. We encounter an uncondescending intelligence, a humane sensibility, and a forthright independence of mind for which we, in our scatterbrained era, cannot be grateful enough.