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Queen Elizabeth the First

Elizabeth Hardwick, who was born in Kentucky in 1916, attended the University of Kentucky (and early on decided, as she famously put it, to become a New York Jewish intellectual), worked very hard at her fiction. Her short stories caused her transports of creative angst, and her three novels, The Ghostly Lover (1945), The Simple Truth (1955), and Sleepless Nights (1979), each progressively better than the last, were painstakingly achieved. And the work is visible, especially in Sleepless Nights, the culmination of her fiction.

The problem is that the work shouldn’t be visible, as she knew herself. “The novels are beautiful,” she wrote:

…the language is rich and pure, and you are always with her, aware of genius, of gifts extraordinary and original. Our emotions are moved, at least some of our emotions are moved, often powerfully. And yet in a sense her novels aren’t interesting. This is the paradox of her work, part of the risk of setting a goal in fiction, of having an idea about it, an abstracting idea.

That was about the fiction of Virginia Woolf, and maybe there was secret hope in what she was writing, since we remember and revere the novels of Virginia Woolf no matter what all the critics in the world might say about them. This particular critic had hinted that they were “all chorus and no plot” and hinted that this wasn’t always a satisfying thing, but it was ultimately useless; “Exegesis about Virginia Woolf is a trap; the fictions are circular and the critic spins in a drum of tautology.”

It’s hard to guess, in 2012, whether a randomly chosen reader will be more familiar with those three Hardwick novels, with their steamy, overheated prose and lugubrious characters (leaning so close to “all chorus and no plot,” if by ‘plot’ we mean, as she did, ‘meaningful plot’), or with Hardwick’s critical writing, so luminous and sharp and unafraid. Hardwick herself may have affected neutrality on the subject; she frequently told interviewers that she poured every bit as much artistic energy into her essays as she did into her fiction. It’s permissible to doubt her. A person may write her first novel in a storm of long-shaped passions (although, at age 39?), but somebody only writes three novels if they not only consider themselves a novelist but want others to consider them one too. And she had a vivid awareness of the doom stalking such a dream:

The notion of a large or small masterpiece lying about unnoticed – a Vermeer in the hayloft – has always stirred men’s hearts. To be attacked or to be ignored offer at least certain surprising possibilities for the future; the work may be dramatically discovered or excitingly defended, reclaimed. The common and lowly fate of most books is shabby gentility. They are more or less accepted, amiably received – nearly everyone is kind about effort and genial in the face of a completed task – and then they are set aside, misplaced, quietly and firmly left out, utterly forgotten, as the bleak phrase has it. This is the dust.

It’s the pattern set by Boston’s wayward son Edgar Allen Poe and almost universally maintained by the American belles lettres crowd ever since: the assaults on Parnassus, however successful (or not), fuel the day-trades down in the valleys of man. We must patiently countenance the two dreary novels of Henry Adams, because he gave us The Education; we pretend to find independent worth in that novel Lionel Trilling was so proud of; we pay the grim gate-toll of Susan Sontag’s fiction. Poe was template and exception, his fiction being every bit as gaudily effective as his book-criticism is groundbreakingly brilliant, but such combinations of Jacob and Esau have been rare indeed after him, no matter how many writers fancy themselves such an exception. Gore Vidal fancied himself such, but we can wonder if it’s true – any random five pages out of United States is sure to entertain more than the whole of Empire. And who now reads Memoirs of Hecate County (without a mind-frame of irony, or camp) if any of Edmund Wilson’s epic nonfiction is within reach?

Elizabeth Hardwick may have hoped she would be one of those exceptions. They happen; there is always the chance of a Randall Jarrell creating Pictures from an Institution or a Wilfrid Sheed writing Max Jamison. But the whole time Hardwick was working on her fiction and perhaps dreaming of being remembered for it, she was also working the other side of the aisle, doing book-criticism – at first for the money, and then much later, for the sheer complicated pleasure it gave her. She never reported any conflict of interest, no divided loyalties of the type John Updike and John Cheever sometimes confessed. And only at the beginning did she worry about the age-old characterization of critics as writers born of failure. “They who write ill, and they who ne’er durst write,/Turn critics out of mere revenge and spite” – so wrote Dryden, but he knew it wasn’t always true, since he himself was both master playwright and great critic – he just wanted to vent spleen about his own critics. And such venting could be conversely blind: George Moore could comment, “The lot of critics is to be remembered for what they failed to understand,” but he displayed precious little understanding in the book reviews he himself wrote for money.

The division of her labors never worried her because she never did anything without sincere, involved passion, and she trusted in that to shield her from accusations (her own, mainly) of triviality or dross. Although she could master the outward vocabulary if she needed, she never approached anything merely as a critic. “We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves.” That never happened to Elizabeth Hardwick; she avoided the drum of tautology by grappling with her subjects – and by showing her readers the struggle even before she knew if she would win. That naked openness to the works she encounters, that ability to surrender certainty without surrendering standards, lives in every word she wrote about the arts, and she was the first American critic to achieve it so completely. It’s possible the stresses of her personal life (the long years of her marriage to her dreadful husband, the poet Robert Lowell) helped her to refine this here-yet-not balancing act, but its rough shape is there from the beginning.

Criticism that doesn’t personally care about what it’s reviewing maddened her. This was the origin of the great cri de guerre she unleashed in a famous 1959 essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” in which she excoriated that anodyne bastion, The New York Times Book Review. (To the end of her life, she never accepted that the Book Review might serve a diabolically useful purpose by being so bland). Concepts divorced from people irritated her everywhere – a rolling, genially disdainful review of evangelist Billy Graham’s latest book would be moving along smoothly until it snagged on precisely that point:

Current evangelism is as far as one can go in the pursuit of faith without works. Graham has brought to perfection the notion of a global parish, that is, no parish at all. He is relieved of the need to make private visits, to gather boxes of old clothes in the church basement, to perform weddings, bury the dead, to encourage rummage sales and pie-suppers. Not only is he relieved, but the saved are also, if they like, outside the demands of works in community with others. With their salvation kits, they are like patients making a single visit to a clinic and who are thereby recorded in the cure statistics. The commitment does not require one to attend Mass or to go about ringing doorbells, selling The Watchtower, refusing blood transfusions and military service, making hasty recalculations of the procrastinating Day of Judgment.

It was the price of doing business, as she knew. Newspapers and magazines have sponsors, advertisers, friends and enemies – the paymasters she courted (and who courted her) had paymasters of their own. “In a country like ours where there will necessarily be so much journalism, so much support of the popular, the successful,” she wrote, “we are complacently grateful when we find the genuine among the acceptable.”

She gradually created a critical voice that could be entirely, beguilingly honest right around the contours of that pragmatic world (or say rather she gradually figured out how to pitch her own voice past such obstacles), and in essay after essay, she said things that had never been said before. She could step out of her way for a good quip – about Robert Frost she said he “was his own stereotype” – or a good line – also about Frost: “He was to be the most gregarious of lonely men, the most loquacious of taciturn Vermonters, the most ambitious of honest Yankees.” And she didn’t hesitate to knock over pedestals, often subjecting literary icons to some of the baldest language they’d experienced yet in the 20th century, as in a typically lyrical 1975 digression about Thomas Mann:

He was never young. Youth fascinated him as the acute, fateful moment, not only the moment of sexuality but of revelation of the threatening shape of personal destiny. Youth announces the drama of differences, complementarities, dissents; the leap into the anxiety of swirling and life-giving ambivalences. The over-sensitive may not last. Typhoid, lung disease and malicious fevers are like the temptations of Eros – they kill the special.

But in addition to assessments that ran counter to public opinion, there was a growing stream of assessments that ran counter to her own private opinions. More and more often, especially as she grew comfortable with her voice, she would allow herself to be surprised right out in the open, to make unpredictable connections, to admit allusions that seemed random and then figure out why they weren’t. Like all intellectuals of her generation, she had been raised to disdain the centrality of literary figures like Edna St. Vincent Millay. But when Hardwick came to review the poet’s letters in 1953, a warming ambivalence enters in:

… after reading them you hesitate to know what you thought you knew about this poet. Can this be that sensational young woman of legend who burnt the candle, built the house on sand, kissed so many lips? More than once you find yourself thinking of quite another enduring American type, Jo in Little Women, the resourceful, sensitive, devoted girl, bobbing her hair, not to be a flapper, but to pay for Father’s illness. These letters are very charming, although not in the sense one would care much to read them if they were not by Edna Millay, or at least by someone, for they haven’t that sort of power which can be enjoyed apart from a beforehand interest in the writer.

That frank last bit about Millay’s fame being the animating reason to read her letters is only amplified elsewhere in Hardwick’s writing. She’s happy to call a novel worthless as art and move right on to examining its sociological importance, and she admits what surely every one of her readers is thinking when she says she waded through all the volume’s of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography in anticipation of Virginia Woolf’s suicide note. In a 1954 essay, she takes the measure of David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd, so thorougly in one paragraph that not only is the rest of her review redundant, but so too, in a different sense, are all the subsequent Riesman evaluations by other writers:

It is hard to know how to judge a thinker whose intellectual positions are so profoundly modified by “psychology,” who treats his own opinions as if they were those of a character in a novel he was writing. Or again, standing in the center of the stage, watching the audience assemble, he waits for the feel of the thing and then chooses his rubbery mask, comic one way, tragic upside down. Solid success, effective therapy, animated delivery – all of this is achieved, but frequently at the expense of some of the brilliance that undoubtedly might be there otherwise. Riesman has genuine vitality and, of course, remarkable gifts. But if you make yourself honey the flies will eat you.

About her oddly parallel opposite number in American letters, Mary McCarthy, she gives a summary in 1961 that so effectively hovers between tribute and attack that the very differences between the two things seem to melt away:

And yet how difficult it is to define the image of this writer. If it is popular fame to figure somehow in the scheme of persons who have not had the time to examine the actual claims of of the famous person, then she has popular fame as well as genuine literary distinction. Perhaps to the world her image is composed of the clear eyes of the Cecil Beaton photographs, the strong profile, the steady gaze; and it is certainly made of the candor about Sex in her novels and stories and the “attacks” on gods like Tennessee Williams. This is all very unexpected. There is charm and vigor and almost violent holding of special opinions.

The sheer virtuosity of that “this is all very unexpected” isn’t achieved by many writers in a generation.

As the well-known story goes, in 1962 she helped to dream up The New York Review of Books in collaboration with her husband and their friends Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein (ironically, to fill the void a newspaper strike had created by suspending publication of The New York Times Book Review). She was all but useless on the business-side of things, but she helped the fledgling periodical in its early years by flooding it with her prose (including once or twice under fanciful pseudonyms). Here she was finally free of the polite tyranny of paymasters and the nerveless fingers of well-meaning editors, but in truth she had already freed herself of such things, creating a critical diction all her own that tended to get the respect it deserved. She wrote openly of reading other people’s reviews, commented on something V. S. Pritchett had just written in The New Statesman or Frank Kermode in Encounter, reveled in the critical conversation she’d spent her entire life dreamed of joining. And that literary chat extended back in time as well. In 1955 she could feelingly write about George Eliot that “It was agony not to be able to appeal in a simple, feminine way,” and she could describe Eliot’s world in terms no less applicable to the life she made for herself in Iowa City, or Boston, or New York:

She and her husband, Lewes not Cross, are inconceivable as anything except what they were, two writers, brilliant and utterly literary. They led a literary life from morning to midnight, working, reading, correcting proofs, traveling, entertaining, receiving and writing letters, planning literary projects, worrying, doubting their powers, experiencing a delicious hypochondria.

That ability to enter into the world of the book before her was New Criticism raised to the level of art; when Hardwick undertook to review a book, she took everything about it personally (Irish critic Denis Donoghue once remarked that it would never have occurred to her to do otherwise). Thus she could call John Malcolm Brinnin’s book Dylan Thomas in America “as flat and true as a calendar” and yet intensely identify with the nightmares it was relating:

In Brinnin’s book it is always, in feeling at least, the dead, anguished middle of a drunken night. The despair, the wonder and the helplessness start the book and lead up to the grim, apoplectic end. There is no pretense that it was fun.

(Of course, sometimes this very personal involvement in a subject clouded her judgement, as in her infamous 1959 essay on Boston, in which the miserable state of her personal life at the time led her to slander the greatest city in America with terms like “defective,” “out-of-date,” “vain,” and “lazy,” full of “devious parochialisms, irrelevant snobberies,” and “a bemused exaggeration of one’s own productions.” People will say all kinds of things when they’re unhappy.)

But mostly, she didn’t allow anything she wrote to reach an audience until she had thought it down to its floor joists and shaped it to perfection. Whether it was a single quick phrase (like her characterization of the poor people of 1960s Harlem exhibiting “the boredom of the exile, the relentlessly exhausting dissipation of the idle”) or one of her beautiful show-piece paragraphs, like the one on the aging Bernard Berenson she had met at his Italian villa:

What endurance and genius had kept alive would go along smoothly, buzzing like the lawn mowers in front of the White House, with the efficient routine of public domesticity. Institutionalized, the villa would soon remind one of those inns taken over by a conquering army. Its occupants will have been chosen and assigned. All those hundreds upon hundreds of guests of the past – the surly writers and old ladies from Boston, the dons, the pansies, the actresses, the historians – won’t be coming back to gossip, in a whisper in the halls, about how fortunes were made, to sneak into Florence to get drunk at the Excelsior, and to see the unique Berenson, leading his curious life. At the end, the Pope sent his blessing.

There’s been no sweeter or sadder part of preparing this essay than having her company again – on buses, in hospital waiting rooms, on the sofa with dogs she would have called – exaggerating her drawl for effect – “perfect little derlings.” It wasn’t having her conversation – not so much – no horsey, explosive laughter and no sudden squalls of shyness either – but in so many ways it was better, purefied in the way her essays always purefied her thoughts, making them longer, more resilient, even more beautifully crafted for states unborn and accents yet unknown. Those essays are like insects caught in amber, their living fretting swapped out for less mortal materials, mere relevance transmuted into permanence. Holding an old paperback of A View of My Own or Bartleby in Manhattan, cover cracking, ’70s pulp pages turning a frail dirty yellow, is like holding an everlasting private talk, the burbling, glittering book-talk that was the staff and shelter of her whole life – a private talk while the hurrying crowds on the subway platform surged by, a quiet space to smile at her same old antics, or to marvel at the way you can watch her pushing herself in her own essays, always with one distrusting glance reserved for her own certainties, always curious to see where her own contentions would lead her.

All of those essays deserve a big fat new Library of America volume (or the deluxe electronic equivalent of the future) – maybe with a companion volume for the novels. Just in case.

____
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.

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