Boswell to Johnson

At the heart of Darryl Pinckney’s memoir is a portrait of the essayist and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick, by whom Pinckney was taught at Columbia in the 1970s – or “Professor Hardwick”, as he still calls her, long after she has become a friend. The result is almost a biography by stealth of Hardwick as mentor, writer and gossip. Her “soft appearance made the tough things she said even funnier.” She is magnetized by literary success and mistaken in public for a different kind of star. When asked by a waiter if she is an actress, she responds: “I have a supporting role in the continuing farce of my life.” It’s a proof of Hardwick’s authority, and of Pinckney’s willingness to learn from it, that he sees the humor in her verdict on his poetry: “You’re the worst poet I’ve ever read. You mustn’t write poetry any more. She teaches Pinckney not only how to write, but how to be a writer. “It’s immoral to be indifferent to what you put on the page,” she says. “Making a living is nothing,” one of her essays begins. “The great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.”

Come back in September is studded with her thoughts on literature, her verdicts, castigations and enthusiasms. Pinckney tries to capture Hardwick’s spirit and discernment, attempts that have something of James Boswell about them, but mostly he wants to avoid the fate of other life writers: “She said [the poet Allen] Tate could have an affair with her for his biography if it meant that much to him. Another, Eileen Simpson, is concerned with capturing the essence of Berryman, Lowell and others, and Hardwick is affronted: “To get how complex these people were you would have to be Dostoevsky”. “Maybe I should go back to reading books for myself”, Pinckney’s older sister says when she hears him pass off another borrowed opinion.

But Hardwick is the example Pinckney needs; he quotes Alfred North Whitehead (“You cannot learn unless you fall in love with the source of learning”) and Hardwick, with her urbanity and wit, is easy to fall for. If Pinckney’s politics don’t always align with hers (Robert Lowell called her the “old campaigner”), their arguments are at least productive and her commitment is a lesson to youth. Writing, for Hardwick, was “an act of self-rescue”, Pinckney says in his account of Sleepless Nights (1979), the great novel written seven years after the end of her marriage to Lowell. She did not believe in revenge on the page but in endurance, and, rather than answer Lowell’s felonious use of her correspondence in the poems that formed The Dolphin (1973), Hardwick all but erased him from her novel. Her great love was literature itself: “Elizabeth said that reading was such a wonderful thing that to have made a life around the experience was almost criminal it was so fortunate.” Another time she tells her hometown friend Harry that “everything I am I owe to sitting on that broken bed up in my room and reading”. The love was never unconditional. Bad books, bad lines, even from her apprentices, were taken personally – “I’d rather shoot myself than read that again” – and not a “bad book” was permitted to remain in her many-shelved Manhattan apartment.

Pinckney, too, is formed by the books he reads. One has a strong sense of his desire to “know more than I did”, and of the guidance of Hardwick and her circle – her co-editor at the New York Review of Books Barbara Epstein, the increasingly famous Susan Sontag and the conversely ailing Mary McCarthy. He starts writing criticism at Hardwick’s prompting, having decided that he has read enough and that it is time to participate, but is coerced into writing on Black subjects and runs into trouble when he brings white writers’ methodologies to bear on them. His status as a black, gay, male outsider in this mostly white, matriarchal world of letters is handled with style and a little sharpness, his education not without cost. Nor does he always feel at home: “I belong to every writer I read, at least for a while … aware which of those writers saw me”. In one striking scene he encounters Lowell, on a visit from England, at Hardwick’s home, and finds himself cast in the role of bag carrier, channeling the Melville of “Benito Cereno” (which Lowell adapted for the stage). “I was saucy for a reaction to Babu… The American captain boards the Spanish ship and doesn’t realize that the unctuous black servant is actually the chief slave rebel. But Lowell knew perfectly well who I was.

Pinckney’s formative years weren’t just spent at Hardwick’s table. According to Joan Didion, Hardwick’s method in Sleepless Nights was “that of the anthropologist”, capturing not only personalities but more social structures, all lost ways of life. Pinckney’s own, here, bears traces of that approach, especially when he charts the vibrant New York underground scene in which he feels, at times, like a “fellow traveller”: “you’re not part of youth culture”, one of his friends tells him. Yet he moves with the influence. Keith Haring, Nan Goldin and Jean-Michel Basquiat are among the “500” who seem to be turning on to the new bars, records and exhibitions in the 1970s and 1980s. He is droll, too, about the “Homintern”, Auden’s term for the word-of-mouth network that highlighted gay work and artists in a period of seismic change: the years “before we believed in the plague” and after, as Aids took a hold in Manhattan, and across the US, and the world.

“Only writers have the possibility of autobiography” (Hardwick, again). But Pinkney has achieved something more complicated than the genre normally allows. Towards the end of Come back in Septemberthe direct use of journals from the author’s time in Germany in the late 1980s, a period when he was still bookworming and writing for the Review, but striking out on his own, away from “intimidating” New York, reinserts him into the central figure of his own story. It’s an elliptical manoeuvre, at once candid and crafty, somewhat reminiscent of Hardwick wondering whether to use “I” or “She” in Sleepless Nights. By giving us this attentive portrait of a great teacher alongside an account of his formation, Darryl Pinckney finds a way of capturing an age and an approach that feels both vital and distant. Here is the commitment to writing – “to be worthy of sitting on certain shelves” – and the obsession with literature that ruled Hardwick’s life, and still governs his.

Declan Ryan‘s first collection of poems, Crisis Actorwill be published next year

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