The final book and first biography that Elizabeth Hardwick wrote was Herman Melville, which appeared in 2000, the year she turned 84. Like Moby-Dick, Herman Melville underscored the impossibility of ever coming to a final account of its majestic subject. “The living Leviathan has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait,” wrote Melville in Moby-Dick. Hardwick commented, “So much about Melville is seems to be, may have been, and perhaps.”
It was not a lament. A biographical critic and an autobiographical novelist, Hardwick nonetheless relished intricate mismatches between the life as experienced and the life as written. “People do not live their biographies,” she insisted in an essay for the Partisan Review, where she began her career as an essayist in the 1940s. She cherished Melville for bearing out her early maxim. Born into a prominent New York family, Melville had shipped as a common sailor as a young man. His celebrated sea novels made pervasive reference to these experiences. And yet Melville himself was somehow elusive. Hardwick compared “Melville’s ‘I’” to the confessional “I” of Richard Henry Dana, a well-born contemporary of his who had also gone to sea and written about it. She commented disparagingly of Dana’s legible personality: “His ‘I’ is everywhere present, telling us who he is”: a “Bostonian,” or “a ‘normal’ young man,” or “one who has dropped out of Harvard but will go back at the end of the journey.” If there was one thing that did not interest Hardwick in first-person writing, it was the declaration of one’s identity. Melville’s “I,” on the other hand, exceeded his social being. An “observer” and a “narrator,” his first person was a coloring for the world. You could always tell when you were looking out at the sun from beneath its waters. But you had none too clear an idea of how far down the bottom was.
The use and misuse of the first-person pronoun were among the most enduring preoccupations of Hardwick’s long career. Hardwick held dear one of literature’s oldest ambitions: to preserve the life of the mind past the life of the body. The mind’s life was not reducible to being born in Boston, sailing around for a while, and then returning at journey’s end. But it did have something to do with such things. Melville’s “I” let the body’s biography in to the right degree and at the right time to capture the biography of the mind. This feat—how others achieved it, and how she might—was among her most lasting concerns. Hardwick told the critic Darryl Pinckney, her former student, that each piece of writing started with the claiming of a vantage point; she had to find out, “by revision after revision … who’s speaking, not speaking as a person exactly, but as a mind, a sensibility.” Who was speaking? Who was Hardwick’s “I”?
Born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1916, Hardwick was nonetheless a born New Yorker. She made her way to the city by enrolling in Columbia University’s English Ph.D. program, though she dropped out after skipping her oral exams. Academic writing exasperated her. She disliked the way scholars dodged the responsibility of judgment by throwing up a screen of unnecessary facts; she once panned an Oxonian for prose that “bristle[d] like the quills on a pestered porcupine.” Hardwick left upper Manhattan for the dodgy Hotel Schuyler in midtown Manhattan and soon wrote her first novel, The Ghostly Lover (1945). Its protagonist shares her vital stats: Kentucky native, New York dropout, resident in a flophouse. After the novel came to the attention of Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv, she became both a regular contributor to the magazine and a part of its social circle, which included the critics Lionel and Diana Trilling, the novelist Mary McCarthy, who became Hardwick’s lifelong friend, and the philosopher Hannah Arendt.
Early pieces in the Partisan Review identified the kind of life writing Hardwick would favor throughout her career: personal and idiosyncratic without being confessional. In “Memoirs, Conversations, and Diaries” (1953), she called Maxim Gorky’s memoir of Tolstoy a “masterpiece.” She would return to it twice more over the next two decades. Gorky’s Reminiscences is less inclined to divulge Tolstoy’s love affairs than to muse about topics such as what sort of fish he would be: “If he were a fish, he would certainly swim only in the ocean, never coming to the narrow seas, and particularly not to the flat waters of earthly rivers.” Gorky wrote personally without betraying confidences or bragging about access, a feat few memoirists she reviewed over the years would manage.
Hardwick’s biographical sketches in the Partisan Review and then in the New York Review of Books, which she helped found in 1963, seem influenced by Gorky’s tone and narrative positioning. She wrote as if she were a mostly dispassionate member of the circle, even when she wrote about the long dead. Hardwick’s portraits rarely rehearsed the subject’s itinerary from birth to death. Instead, she offered an imaginative portrait of the particular quality of the will and temperament that had charted that itinerary. Hardwick had a sharp eye for the fit of pique, the minor taste or habit, that indexed a whole character. From literary reminiscences of Emily Brontë, she selected a scene where “Emily is brutally beating her dog about the eyes and face with her own fists in order to discourage him from his habit of slipping upstairs to take a nap on the clean counterpanes.” She conveyed William James’s humane warmth by listing the salutations in his letters: “Glorious old Palmer,” “Beloved Royce” and “Darling Belle-Mère.”
Hardwick’s most memorable portraits of contemporaries depict members of her circle about whom she did not have so much intimate knowledge that she felt she had to censor herself. On close friends, like McCarthy, she can have a wooden air of neither confirming nor denying. But she is a delight on the Renaissance art specialist Bernard Berenson, whom she briefly knew: “He couldn’t accept Picasso, Stravinsky, T. S. Eliot, Kafka. He was apprehensive about these productions, irked by the broken forms. He liked Homer, Goethe, and Proust, but Faulkner disposed him to fretfulness. He looked upon so many contemporary things with painful distaste and something like hurt feelings.” She showed us Katherine Anne Porter in a single detail: Porter, born poor, used the earnings of a best-seller late in life to buy herself the emerald ring she had always wanted. Hardwick could disclose tragedy by capturing its pale, inverted reflection, in a whim.
In her portraits, Hardwick steered between two unacceptable extremes. She wanted to avoid the self-absorption of memoirists like Dorothy Farnan, whose “I” galled her with its obtrusive presence. Of Farnan’s Auden in Love, Hardwick commented in 1973, “I quite disapprove of the impertinence and the celestial glow around herself and her intimacy. … Such books diminish the celebrated object and aggrandize the biographer or memoirist.” But the total absence of a first-person voice was even worse. A cowardly refusal to appear in one’s own person and make one’s judgments known was among the characteristic failings of academic biography. She complained of Ian Hamilton, the biographer of her husband, poet Robert Lowell, that he put “too little of [himself] in it since most of the stage is given to raw documentation.” Memoir and academic biography represented the two extremes between which she steered in her own portrait-writing. She mined both genres for information, but she rarely met an example of either whose style or critical judgment she could praise. (When she did, as with Gorky, she never forgot it.) The “I” should be neither self-involved nor completely absent; neither lost in a thicket of its own personality, nor without any personality at all.
In the fifteenth year after her death, Elizabeth Hardwick has become the subject of a work in each of the two genres that were her Scylla and her Charybdis. Darryl Pinckney is responsible for the memoir and Cathy Curtis for the academic biography. The two works have the failings their subject would have predicted, but both are also well-supplied with the telling details she would have cherry-picked for a New York Review of Books essay on “Elizabeth Hardwick.”
Pinckney, a novelist, playwright and essayist, was Hardwick’s creative-writing student at Columbia and a regular visitor to her apartment, where Hardwick held court at what he describes as inexpertly cooked dinners. Thus began a lifelong mentorship, on which Pinckney intermittently took notes in his journals. Using these notes, he reports exact or near-exact quotes from dinner party guests such as Barbara Epstein and Susan Sontag. At its best, Come Back in September is like the Tischreden, or “table talk,” of Martin Luther: sayings of Luther’s at dinner, jotted down by his various students. When several young idealists agree amongst themselves that “poetry is everywhere,” Hardwick stands up from the table, says, “I’m sure you’re very nice, but I can’t bear that kind of talk,” and walks away. Another time, the scholar William Empson appears at Hardwick’s apartment with chewing gum in his ears; he had been trying to block the noise of an undergraduate party. The New York Review of Each Other’s Books, some slighted author calls it. “Never talk about someone you know very well to someone you know less well”—good advice from Epstein, then the editor of the New York Review of Books, to Pinckney.
Though Pinckney’s memoir is about more than Hardwick—he gives a first-person account of the AIDS crisis, the draft, his life as a young Black queer writer in New York and the magazine he ran with Lucy (then Luc) Sante—it centers on her. The most urgent motivation behind Come Back in September seems to be the desire to record everything he can still recall about his mentor—sometimes at the cost of the selectiveness that would shape memory into portraiture. That such forces of nature as Hardwick, Sontag and Lowell must decline, die and eventually be survived by no one who remembers their sparkling remarks at parties is an excoriating thought. No sentence that represents the last record of what they said or did or wore can be cut. But as Pinckney sandbags against death’s coming flood, the details themselves become the flood; an unedited Hardwick, whose every vanity of dress and speech has been preserved, is startlingly unlike the “I” of the essays. Pinckney’s battle against his hero’s oblivion is at times moving. But it prevents Come Back in September from becoming the kind of spare, artful memoir that Hardwick favored.
Hardwick would have been the last to be surprised by this result. She thought it was all but inevitable for memoir to fail, and still she preferred a flawed memoir to a dutiful academic biography. Comparing the two genres, both disappointments to her, she came down on the side of memoir: “the spirit of many a great man has been better served by interesting ‘misconceptions’ than by these tedious, researched lives.” Academic biography, on the other hand, was “a natural occupation for professors, for only they have the inclination to look at a life as a sort of dig.” Several reviewers have marveled at the temerity of Curtis, whose attitude in A Splendid Intelligence would surely have struck her subject as archaeological. Curtis displays little of Hardwick’s verve or judgment, and virtually no “I.” Of a Hemingway biography, Hardwick quipped: “We have been told that no man is a hero to his valet. Professor Baker’s method makes valets of us all.” How did Curtis manage to quote this very passage without it prompting more self-reflection?
Curtis may have reasoned that when it came to biography, there was no pleasing Hardwick, so why try. If Curtis did refuse to be guided by Hardwick’s judgment in this instance, there would be something to be said for it. Hardwick was very funny about academic biographies. But for most of her life, she did not rightly estimate their value, which lies elsewhere than in style. The value of academic biography is to serve as an aid to the working memory of others studying the same subject. It is almost impossible to hold all the details of a life in mind, in order to see it whole. Academic biographies do some of this holding for their readers. Much of the basic biographical work on Hardwick remained to be done when Curtis came along, although by editing The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979, a collection of Hardwick and Lowell’s correspondence, Saskia Hamilton had already made a significant contribution. Hardwick is the author of three novels, a couple dozen short stories, well over a hundred essays, countless letters, several edited collections, one filmscript and an autobiography that she destroyed. One cannot perceive this career as a whole without the help that a thorough biography provides by putting all the pieces in order.
Portraitists’ swift perceptions often depend on the academic biographers’ plodding comprehensiveness. Hardwick’s Melville book relied upon Hershel Parker’s massive biography, the first nine hundred pages of which had been published at the time of her writing (with over a thousand more to come in the second volume). There is no book more likely to make a valet of you. But Hardwick courteously praises Parker’s biography as “a pleasure to read.” Was Hardwick’s compliment more of a tribute to a scholar to whom she was indebted than a literal description of her experience in reading him? Perhaps, but no matter, because the debts were real. Hardwick thought Parker failed to capture Melville’s inner life, but then she thought we all did: among those who “cannot have had any idea of this reluctant head of the household” she included “the graduate students with their theses … the biographers in long, long efforts”—Parker—“and short ones”—herself. Whatever our shared failings, Hardwick realized that she would hardly have been able to draw the connections she did—across, for example, all the reviews of Redburn—if Parker had not dug up the artifacts first. Thanks in part to Parker’s spadework, Hardwick perceived Melville’s “I.” If I can see something of Hardwick’s, Curtis has had a hand in it.
So has Alex Andriesse, editor of the new Uncollected Essays. Andriesse’s collection focuses on Hardwick’s biographical sketches and her first-person writing, and thus there is much in the Uncollected Essays to illuminate Hardwick’s “I.” This volume is the latest of New York Review Books’s reprintings of Hardwick’s work; it was preceded by Sleepless Nights, The New York Stories, Seduction and Betrayal and The Collected Essays, edited by Pinckney. Gems of portraiture to be found here include her essay on George Wallace, uncannily resonant in the Trump era: “It is as if he were a sort of mythical bearer of the meagerness and the power of America.” Hardwick had a way of being cruel while seeming to regret the necessity of cruelty, the high-style equivalent of blessing people’s hearts. The quality is on sparkling display when she says of Monica Lewinsky, “she, who has no more sense of nuance than a coyote, could well have believed that lawyers, jobs, lunches came her way because she was a friend people would naturally want to help.”
By drawing our attention to Hardwick’s perspective-driven first-person essays, Andriesse lets us see how Hardwick’s rigorous “I” is more likely to incriminate her than to exculpate her; more likely to show the unflattering way that someone else sees her than to burnish her image. “New York City: Crash Course” (1990) is the star of Andriesse’s collection; its description of New York discloses layers of present homelessness and past slavery and conquest through vertiginous transitions. Hardwick cuts across a paragraph break from the “deer-fleet” and underpaid delivery worker “smelling briskly of cologne” to the “great promptitude” with which slavery arrived in Manhattan. Is it her reflection that flickers into view in this essay when she writes about a “white lunatic” who gave up fugitives from slavery to their pursuers, or about a volunteer girl, herself a cliché, who responds to someone’s comment that the homeless are a cliché: “Are they ever”? These are not exactly cameos. And yet they seem to implicate her, recalling her self-placements in writing on the civil rights movement, as when a white man in Selma tells her he is “sick” to see “white folks mixed in with the colored,” and she shows herself responding: “I did say, softly, ‘Pull yourself together.’” With that “softly,” she allows herself no more moral separation than she deserves. She used the first person to disclose that will, courage and clarity were never in sufficient supply, in much the same way that a judge might disclose a conflict of interest.
Hardwick’s strict ethics of the first person were hard-won. Andriesse includes her essay “Lexington,” which eventually became part of Sleepless Nights, the greatest piece of first-person writing she ever published. Sleepless Nights strings together a set of fragmented perceptions from a writer with a biography much like Hardwick’s (born in Kentucky, lived at the Hotel Schuyler, knew Billie Holiday slightly). It was written after a period of particularly intense struggle with life writing, both as an author and as a subject. In the early 1970s, Hardwick was working on an autobiography, Smiling Through. Meanwhile her estranged husband, Lowell, was composing The Dolphin, a book of poems about the woman for whom he had left Hardwick, Lady Caroline Blackwood, in which he included passages from Hardwick’s letters to him—some of them misleadingly altered. Hardwick destroyed Smiling Through; Lowell published The Dolphin in 1973. Hardwick was not categorically opposed to appearing in Lowell’s poetry. He had written about her before, and her first reaction to the news that he was composing something like The Dolphin was to assure him that she was not bothered by it. But when she finally read The Dolphin, she was deeply hurt by what she felt were its misrepresentations. Melville had earned the mystery of his inner life; Hardwick’s was no longer hers for the earning. At the end of her life, she would dedicate her Melville biography to “H. L.”—Harriet Lowell—and to “the memory of R. T. S. L.”—Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV—as if to say, I never wrote about you.
The composition of Sleepless Nights happened in the wake of the injury The Dolphin inflicted, and it is possible to see it as the result of an effort to reclaim an impersonal “I” after she had been invasively personalized by Lowell’s poems. Not for the first time, she wondered whether the chances of achieving such a thing might be better in fiction than in memoir. In “Writing a Novel,” the 1973 short story that would become Sleepless Nights, the narrator wonders whether it is “possible for a woman to write a memoir,” commenting, “Women do not like to tell of bastards begotten, of pawings in the back seat, of a lifetime with its mound of men climbing on and off. That will not make a heroine of you, or even a personage.” The one who typed these words had recently abandoned Smiling Through. Back in 1953, when she first wrote about Gorky, Hardwick had asked a similar question. That time, too, she had displaced the question onto a hypothetical writer, a “he.” Of Gorky’s memoir of Tolstoy, she commented:
If anyone today were capable of composing this exalted work about a living genius, he would become so befuddled, so bent and harassed with accusation, so fearful of putting in and leaving out, it would be sensible economy to leave off altogether and return to “creative” work. What to do with himself in the reminiscence? Shall he admit his own existence or is that an unpardonable self-assertion?
Hardwick followed the path of “sensible economy” with Sleepless Nights and returned “to ‘creative’ work.” She must have been aided by her conviction that unlike its elaborate nineteenth-century predecessor, the contemporary novel was bracingly open-form. “Perhaps we cannot demand a ‘novel,’” she commented; “The object in hand … is not an essay, not a short story, not autobiography since we are told so much of it is ‘made up’ and altered from the truth; it is then a novel of some kind.” Her example in this 1976 essay, “Sense of the Present,” is Renata Adler’s Speedboat, but the description also seems apt for Sleepless Nights. From the novel she wanted something of what memoir promised, but rarely delivered: the self’s perspective, without its selfishness.
Hardwick began writing Sleepless Nights “because of a single line” in the story “Writing a Novel” that posed a question about pronouns, according to the account she gave Pinckney in the Paris Review interview. The line was “Now, my novel begins. No, now I begin my novel—and yet I cannot decide whether to call myself I or she.” She later condensed the story into the first part of Sleepless Nights, where that line disappears. The choice has been made; she calls herself an “I.” She had done autobiographical writing in the third person before, in The Ghostly Lover. But she told David Farrell in 1978 that Sleepless Nights is “much, much, much, much” closer to her own life than The Ghostly Lover had been. The line itself, and beyond that, the fact that it was a turning point in Hardwick’s thinking about Sleepless Nights, suggests that the novel and memoir were adjacent genres in her estimation, capable of handing material back and forth between them as the occasion required.
What was at stake in the pronoun? A third-person novel can include autobiographical material; it can create ironic distance between the person who experienced and the person who remembers; and through the use of free indirect discourse, a third-person narrative can even give a sense of the autobiographical character as a focalizing consciousness. Perhaps the “I”’s most distinctive capacity is that it can testify or, at any rate, rhetorically invoke the conditions of testimony. Testimony grounds knowledge in the experiences of a particular person, for better or worse. It calls our attention to the fact that this person may have been interested, blinkered, unobservant. But it also calls our attention to the fact that experience is not merely observed, it is undergone—even suffered. In Sleepless Nights, Hardwick did not just observe; she withstood.
The “I” of Sleepless Nights is an observer-narrator like Melville’s, but female, and therefore never neutral and never disembodied in the eyes of those who look back at it. You see this “I” appear as she appears to others, as if in regular cameos, her reflection caught in a train window or in the shine of someone’s spectacles:
His curiosity flamed over a word, an adjective, over the seductiveness of the fact that I was taking down a volume of Thomas Mann from the library shelves. Eros has a thousand friends.
Two women recently divorced came up to me with inquisitorial and serious frowns. Are you lonely? they asked.
That’s marvelous, the first one said, smiling. The second said, gravely: Terrific.
Or, deliciously, when she lets her seducer appear in free indirect discourse:
Another teacher of women. You haven’t read Gibbon? How is that possible, you with such fine legs!
The teacher of women could have been anyone—probably, given the abundance of such men, it was more than one person. It could also have been Lowell, who otherwise barely appears in Sleepless Nights. According to a story Hardwick told Pinckney, Lowell used to make up an imaginary book title and ask if she had read it. She’d say, “No, I’d like to.”
If in Sleepless Nights Hardwick recovered something of Gorky’s first-person mode, she did it with this surprising twist. While Gorky avoided solipsism by using his first-person perspective to characterize Tolstoy, Hardwick avoided it by using the first person to let others—fictional, but autobiographically rooted others—characterize her. Her reflection in a designing interlocutor’s eyes was not her “everyday person,” but it wasn’t only an observer or a narrator, either. It was an observer observed—seen, in sometimes unsettling ways, as the “everyday person” from whom her own ironic distance keeps asserting a separation.
“Style is more than personality,” Pinckney recalls Hardwick saying to her creative-writing classes. “It is your character.” If Hardwick kept returning to the “I” in spite of frequent disappointment, I think it was because she believed the writer ought to disclose her character. More than the coordinates of an identity, character was one’s moral and social being, the substrate of all one’s judgments—including whatever judgment was being expressed in the essay at hand. Heroically, she wanted readers to know how to discount her. How others saw her—as a likely sympathizer with hate, as a quick fuck—ought, in strict honesty, to be admitted. So too should she admit the pragmatic or cowardly way she had acquiesced, if the truth was that she had. Such humility expressed at any length would have become abjection. But she knew what to cut from her own manuscripts, just as well as she knew what should have been cut from the books she reviewed. The spareness of Hardwick’s sentences saved her dignity. Her fleet prose put at her disposal the “I”’s worthiest and most frightening possibility: to say your limits. The first person could rigorously ground thought in the conditions of its making. Getting it to function that way took style, or in other words, courage.
Art credit: Inge Morath, Elizabeth Hardwick, 1978. © Inge Morath / Magnum Photos.