Perfect-Bound: On Elizabeth Hardwick

Perfect-Bound: On Elizabeth Hardwick

Elizabeth Hardwick found New York’s jittery impermanence and inchoate density to be an obstacle for the fiction writer.


Elizabeth Hardwick’s name is so synonymous with the essay—especially with the errant, genre-busting, quicksilver sort of undertakings that she brought to perfection during her long career—that it’s hard to believe she made her initial breakthrough with a short story. Yet it’s true. In 1939 she arrived in New York City from Lexington, Kentucky, with the avowed goal of transforming herself into a New York Jewish intellectual. (She went two for three: not bad.) Her initial idea was to get a doctorate from Columbia, where she studied John Donne and the rest of the metaphysical posse. But Hardwick eventually drifted away from academia, and in 1944 she published her first short story, "The People on the Roller Coaster," in The New Mexico Quarterly Review.

These days, a debut in a respectable but somewhat off-the-radar quarterly would be the occasion for a well-deserved pat on the back plus two free copies of the magazine. In Hardwick’s youth, it was possible to make more of a splash—or so she told Hilton Als in a 1998 New Yorker profile. "If you published a story then," she noted, "even in The New Mexico Quarterly, the publishers would call." Soon Hardwick obtained a contract for her first novel, The Ghostly Lover, whose appearance in 1945 caught the attention of Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv. He admitted the newcomer to his stable of sharpshooting critics, which included James Agee, Mary McCarthy and James Baldwin. Soon enough the preternaturally witty, gimlet-eyed essayist, who gave to the form "everything and more than would be required in fiction," nudged aside the writer of short stories.

Yet she kept writing them, in an on-and-off, left-handed manner. The collection that Darryl Pinckney has assembled in The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick does not include all the short fiction by Hardwick published before her death in 2007 (it omits "The People on the Roller Coaster" and several other stories). Presumably Pinckney made these cuts in the name of quality control and geographical unity.

Hairsplitting readers will protest that four of the thirteen tales in the collection are not set in New York. No matter—the thematic logic is still irresistible. The city always had a special claim on the author’s imagination, long before she arrived there. "As a Southerner," she once confessed, "I had in my earliest youth determined to come to New York, and it has been, with interruptions, my home for most of my adult life." An exile of sorts, she felt exceedingly comfortable in the Valhalla of displaced people that was postwar New York. Yet she also saw the city’s jittery impermanence—its compulsive need to wipe the slate clean and start again—as an obstacle for the fiction writer. "Manhattan," she would later write, "is not altogether felicitous for fiction. It is not a city of memory, not a family city…. Its skyscrapers and bleak, rotting tenements are a gift for photographic consumption, but for the fictional imagination the city’s inchoate density is a special challenge."

None of which deterred Hardwick in the first of these stories, "The Temptations of Dr. Hoffmann" (1946). The narrator, like the author, is a Southerner who has established a fragile beachhead in Manhattan, living in one of those furnished rooms whose "left-over, dim, vanquished" occupants Hardwick would later recall in the autobiographical hybrid Sleepless Nights. Lonely, and less than captivated by her studies, the narrator becomes friendly with Dr. Hoffmann—a German émigré and theologian whose fresh-faced disciples like to congregate in his apartment. Surrounded by these "ordinary boys who would later be in the Presbyterian pulpits throughout America," the good doctor is in fact quite bored. Perhaps that is why he welcomes the narrator, a self-described "village atheist," into his household.

The stage is set for a clash, or at least a close encounter, between faith and faithlessness. Yet this is a story in which nothing happens. The narrator, having smuggled herself into the Hoffmann ménage like a surveillance camera, records a number of domestic disputes between the theologian and his wife and daughter. She tells us, too, about her encounters with a young man from her Kentucky hometown, now a seminary student and one of Hoffmann’s eager ecclesiastical beavers. But again, the only thing we come to understand about the narrator and Dr. Hoffmann is that she can’t understand him: "I lacked specific details of his experience and even if I had known him forever I could never have felt certain of my abstraction."

* * *

This seems less like the utterance of an unreliable narrator and more like a veiled cri de coeur on the author’s part. Hardwick, then 30, simply hadn’t figured out what to do with fiction. An obvious model would have been Mary McCarthy, a close friend of the era with whom she shared numerous literary tastes, a fading attachment to the Communist Party and several high-profile love interests. But McCarthy was too successful, having already hit the big time with The Company She Keeps (1942). And anyway, Hardwick had little stomach for the sexual shenanigans and anthropological zest that were her friend’s stock in trade. Staking out her own, comparatively buttoned-up turf, she seemed to be groping her way forward. Only once in her tale of Hoffmann do we get a glimpse of the impish author in her classic mode, when she notes that her church back home

was very lax on social questions and prided itself, I thought, on being too sophisticated to condemn horse racing from the pulpit and on the fact that the minister was more likely to be stirred to eloquence by Lloyd C. Douglas’s latest book than by hellfire and damnation. We left the delineation of the vivid results of enmity with God to the crude Baptists.

"Evenings at Home," published two years later, finds Hardwick in more commanding form. This is partly because the story involves a trip back to Kentucky, whose social terrain the author already knows to her fingertips. But she has also discovered that plot—the library paste, the very adhesive of conventional storytelling—interests her far less than a specific situation, a dilemma, a state of mind. Like the narrator of "The Temptations of Dr. Hoffmann," but with much more skill and sparkle, Hardwick insinuates herself into a scene and quickly locates its paradoxical sweet spot. In this case, it is the contrast between the received wisdom about her Southern family (mostly borrowed from second-tier Faulkner and Tobacco Road) and the more humdrum reality: "My family situation is distinguished by only one eccentricity—it is entirely healthy and normal. This truth is utterly disarming; nothing I have felt in years has disturbed me so profoundly as this terrible fact."

* * *

The other issue in play is the troubled commerce between women and men, which Hardwick would continue to explore for the rest of her career. She was never a doctrinaire feminist in the bra-burning mold, and in a 1953 review of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex she ridiculed the author’s argument that women were slaves to procreation while men got to swan around writing poems, painting pictures and running for public office. "There is an annihilating nothingness in these undertakings," she shot back, "by comparison with which the production of one stupid, lazy, lying child is an event of some importance." On the other hand, she was acutely aware that in most of society’s bargains, women got the short end of the stick, and that many were all too eager to grasp it.

Still, for Hardwick, these were personal rather than political matters. In Sleepless Nights, the author (or her fictional proxy) declares, "I have always, all of my life, been looking for help from a man." Most of the female characters in The New York Stories follow suit, or just barely suppress this heat-seeking, misery-making instinct. So the narrator in "Evenings at Home" must face not only her refreshingly normal family but the man she almost married. "What happened between us? No, no, merciful stars, not that!" she exclaims, in an outburst of propriety that must have made McCarthy roll her eyes. Still, her escape was a narrow one:

I looked up the dark street in the direction of his house and thought, suppose, great heavens, that I had married him…. The thought of the risk I had taken chilled me to the bone. I might at this moment have been asleep in his house, my stupid head pressed against his chest, touching the stony curve of his chin.

By the time she produced "The Oak and the Axe" and "A Season’s Romance," both of which date from 1956, Hardwick had become a much more supple, even sleek purveyor of what she ambivalently recognized as New Yorker fiction. (Six of the stories in this collection, including the latter two, appeared in the magazine.) "A Season’s Romance" takes a leaf from Edith Wharton, whose avoidance of "lush sentiments and moralizing tears" always appealed to Hardwick. Here she manages a similar feat in this tale of a female art historian and her mother exploiting a deep-pocketed suitor.

The man is a cheerful sucker. The women are predatory. Yet the daughter, Adele Wayland (whose very name sounds like a certain other Wharton character), is predatory in the same way as Lily Bart. As Hardwick tells us, with alternating currents of irony and empathy: "Adele’s life could accurately be termed ‘hard.’ She and her mother were inscrutable facts of social history, a mongrel blend of genuine deprivation and genuine loftiness of manner, training, and expectation." Of course the story ends badly, although not quite as badly as Lily Bart’s. The suitor, "puffy and blond, with his alimony [and] his sharp-nosed sons who went to military school," decamps for Dallas—where mother and daughter fear to tread. In the final paragraphs, they are poised for a slide down the social slope, although they are likely to dig in their heels before they hit the bottom.

Between these stories and "Cross-town" (1980), there is a gap of more than two decades. Hardwick had, during these years, more than enough to occupy her: she wrote the essays collected in two classic volumes, published Sleepless Nights, helped to launch The New York Review of Books and willingly nursed her husband, Robert Lowell, through a series of catastrophic breakdowns. Yet the final pieces in the collection, which also include "The Bookseller" (1980), "Back Issues" (1981), "On the Eve" (1983) and "Shot: A New York Story" (1993), are also its strongest. Hardwick’s prose—elegant, pointillistic and somehow sketchy and baroque at the same time, like Tiepolo drawing on a dinner napkin—is in full flower. And she has finally resolved the tension between her fiction and nonfiction by fusing the two. Her mature essays, in Cynthia Ozick’s phrase, "have plots," while her mature stories float along in clouds of rumination.

It’s hard to choose among these treasures. But surely "Back Issues" deserves some pride of place, if only because it closes the circle that began with Hardwick’s first story in The New Mexico Quarterly Review. The back issues are old quarterlies, through which the narrator is rummaging at the New York Public Library. The yellowing pages are, she notes, "memorials to the thoughts of many therein. More hours of these lives were spent on book reviews than on lovemaking or even on making a living…. Poems and stories, politics, reversals and discoveries, individually packed by hand and some, as they say, moving faster than others." The comparison to five-and-dime merchandise that simply will not move, sounds belittling. So does the author’s evocation of an ink-and-paper necropolis. But Hardwick couldn’t be more tongue-in-cheek: the musty, fusty, perfect-bound pages represent life, are life, and (to borrow one of her pet locutions) they go on and on and on.

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