The Collected Essays
By Elizabeth Hardwick
Selected by Darryl Pinckney
NYRB Classics. 640 pp. $19.95
Reviewed by John Timpane
Beloved teacher, editor/publisher (cofounder of the New York Review of Books), fiction writer, and literary/cultural critic Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007) was among the brightest stars of her era. In her craft, her belief in the importance of what she did, and what she chose to write about, she had much to say, much to teach.
This book of her essays, selected by friend and colleague Darryl Pinckney, starts with a 1953 review of letters and diaries, and closes with her unforgettable 2003 portrait of Nathanael West (he of Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust). Readers will enjoy her tilts at Melville ("Bartleby in Manhattan" is one of the century's best literary essays), Edith Wharton, and Philip Roth. Essayists could seek for a lifetime and not find a better model.
She is eloquent on women's writing, maybe because she always tries to account for her chosen author's distinctive ethos. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex both thrills and perplexes her; it's fascinating to gauge her supposedly commonsense reservations about the book, written more than 60 years ago, against what has happened since. Her appreciation of Simone Weil, whose work she regards as "prophecy," is an amazing effort to grasp another's pain. She finds Gertrude Stein grumpy, but rightly praises "Melanchtha" from Three Lives as Stein's best work.
Most astonishing are her sweeping, indispensable, bemused considerations of the middle to late 20th century. "Selma, Alabama" deals with the "unexpected," "unthinkable" genius of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In "After Watts" (1966), she ponders the "dull, devastating spiral of failure" throughout our culture.
"Reflections on Fiction" asks an absolutely fascinating question: What have all the upheavals in society meant for writing stories? "So many of the new conditions of life," she writes, "have altered in the most surprising way our sense of the foundations of character, of motivation, of the importance of place and regions." "Sense of the Present" is a masterpiece, and even greater is the enormously thoughtful "Domestic Manners" (1978), in which she writes that the "insecurity of life, the rapid using up of resources, the alienating complexity of every problem . . . can scarcely fail to bewilder and lacerate relations between people in the family, in the streets, among the classes." She is herself most prophetic about the women's movement: "lmost nothing, it turns out, will remain outside its relevance."
This is a great night-table book, to read cover to cover or to dip into, to see what Hardwick thought of Frost, Henry James, or Solzhenitsyn, or to follow a mind reaching out to extend its understanding and ours.