Books of The Times: ‘The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick’ Gives Off a Bright Light

It’s a mistake to boil a writer down to her best lines. No one is the sum of her entries in Bartlett’s or the Goodreads.com quotation vaults. But a critic who can’t mint an original phrase is rarely worth heeding.

To move one’s way through Hardwick’s essays is to bump into brightness on nearly every page. On hypocritical politicians: “Family men, pictured a million times with their first ladies, die in the arms of their second ladies.” Chicago Mayor Richard Daley fretting about underground newspapers during the 1968 Democratic convention is “like a dinosaur choking on bubble gum.” The blank and oversexed young women in a Marge Piercy novel are “like a jar of peanut butter waiting for a thumb.”

About the Watts riots in 1968, she commented: “Helicopters in Southeast Asia turned out to be far easier to provide than the respect the Negro asked for.” (Would that she were here to address Colin Kaepernick and Donald Trump.) She wrote: “the American spirit, the cactus that lives without water.”

This collection is a miscellany, but potent themes emerge. Hardwick took a special interest in the literature of New York City. She was incisive on Wharton and Henry James in New York, and also on the see-saw lives of the novelists and critics of her own generation.

Not all were as lucky as she. “Failure is not funny,” she wrote. “It is cockroaches on the service elevator” and “strings of cracked beads, dirty feathers, an old vaudevillian’s memorable dinner jacket and decades of cast-off books – the dust of ambition from which the eye turns away in misery.”

She took an interest, too, in ancillary forms like letters, journals and interviews. She deplored biography as sensationalist data-dumping. Reviewing Carlos Baker’s life of Ernest Hemingway in 1969, she commented that its author “has an awesome regard for the penny as well as the dollar.”

She added: “We have been told that no man is a hero to his valet. Professor Baker’s method makes valets of us all.”

“The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick” is a welcome book but a strange one. Its title is a misnomer. Hardwick published four books of essays in her lifetime, the most notable of which was “Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature” (1974).

That book is omitted from this volume, Darryl Pinckney writes in his introduction, because it was reissued not long ago by the same publisher, with an introduction by Joan Didion.

This omission makes commercial sense. “The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick” has a better ring than “The Rest of Elizabeth Hardwick.” It does not make much literary sense. It is as if the Library of America were to reissue the complete novels of Toni Morrison absent “Beloved.”

I became aware of Hardwick when I was young and she was old and no longer writing her best work. I undervalued her. This book put me straight. Hardwick was a landmark American critic, with a George Orwell-like gift for candor.

Like Orwell, her cardinal humors were essentially tolerant. Her dudgeon rose only when something vital was at stake. Her essays have novelistic density; they are a thoroughgoing pleasure.

“Literature is a court where personal knowledge keeps you off the jury,” Hardwick declared in a 1953 essay for The Partisan Review. She got to know almost everyone, though, and her intimacy with writers like Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson adds a balsamic tang to her essays on their work.

As Hardwick aged, her work calcified. She liked to fire the big guns, and her later pieces on writers like Melville and James lack the nimbleness of her earlier takes.

To the end, however, she was a word-eater of the old school. She grieved for the way in which fiction was slipping from the public imagination. “Try to find a young person who has read Thackeray or Cooper or, in America, Balzac or Zola,” she wrote in 1969. “The end comes painlessly, silently.”

Partly this slippage was the result, she realized, of society opening up as regards sex and other topics so suddenly that fiction no longer brought the news about our species as it once did. Once upon a time, you needed books to know how to live.

“This aspect of information,” she wrote, “brings to memory the later story by Philip Roth in which a college girl suggests she knows all about contraception because she has read Mary McCarthy.”

“The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick” brings its own kind of news. She was one of literature’s great persuaders. “Making a living is nothing,” she wrote in 1963, in what might have been a credo. “The great difficulty is making a point, making a difference – with words.”

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