Reviews — From the December 2017 issue

The Cost of Living

Elizabeth Hardwick’s political conscience

Discussed in this essay:

The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, edited by Darryl Pinckney. NYRB Classics. 640 pages. $19.95.

Elizabeth Hardwick was drawn to the stifled shriek of the psyche in a world ruled by force. She saw how force works: how it stomps, cuts, beats, kills — and coddles, tickles, dances, flirts, holding out its bitter pleasures and dreary consolations to the striving, the deluded, and the weak. “The weak have the purest sense of history,” she once wrote. “Anything can happen.” But Hardwick is merely remembered, when she’s remembered, as a stylist, a glamorous irrelevance fashioning her slanted prose. It’s a tempting image; the prose is luminous. Novels, stories, reportage, criticism — every Hardwick artifact is instantly distinguished by her insistence on elaborate syntax, her sentences pitted with controlled eccentricities and sly blurs of phrasing. An unnamed South American writer strides into an essay from 1963:

His fingernails and his careful, neat dress tell you of all the polish, the care, the melancholy mending done at home by mothers and sisters. This man was one of those whom struggle had drained dry. He had arrived, by hideously hard work, at an overwhelming pedantry, a bachelorish violence of self-control. The pedantry of scarcity.

“The pedantry of scarcity”: the phrase is clipped but elliptical; the abstractions startle when juxtaposed. But what is the “violence” here, which taints the spirit and stalks its “self-control”?

Photograph of Elizabeth Hardwick by Inge Morath
© The Inge Morath Foundation/Magnum Photos

It’s all like this: sentences swiveling to probe and devour themselves, reveling in the bleary astonishment of experience. The first page of Sleepless Nights, Hardwick’s last, best, and most autobiographical novel, calmly presents its task as “this work of transformed and even distorted memory” — and the final page proclaims that this distortion, the act of pitching life into prose, packs a hazardous thrill: “Sweet to be pierced by daggers at the end of paragraphs.”

Many have been pierced. Wayne Koestenbaum’s collection My 1980s contains an essay titled “Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sentences,” and Brian Dillon has written a brilliantly sensitive study of a single one. Susan Sontag pronounced her the “queen of adjectives” — a salute to how Hardwick’s modifiers grip and twist their referents to release some flashing trickle of implication: “bachelorish violence,” “melancholy mending.” This is the stuff of fact, thought, sensation, arguments grinningly disciplined by style.

A new volume, The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, augments her reputation by proving what that style could do: not simply assess literary texts or narrate the story of the self but grasp the relentlessness of collective existence. We see her charge at the world, armed with the perspicuity and compassion of her analysis, arriving at insights that together make up a mural of her age. Literary reputations are established and revised: Hardwick is a deft interpreter of letters and memoirs, listening closely for what’s muzzled, masked, deferred. (She thinks that Hart Crane may actually have lived quite happily! And that Byron’s lovers are “afflicted with the wrinkles of class arrogance.”) Jagged ruptures in culture — like the sexual revolution — are scrupulously judged: “The body, the young one at least, is a class moving into the forefront of history.” Civil rights, Vietnam, the new left, and second-wave feminism rumble through the book like tanks.

Ten years after her death, this book brings together literary commentary, reporting, and social criticism — often for The New York Review of Books, which she helped found in 1963 — to place Hardwick not simply in her clique or her generation but in her world: the tense, slashing, insurgent world of postwar American arrogance and crisis.

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