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.