During his time as a young editorial assistant at Harper and Row, in the late 1970s, Darryl Pinckney had this exchange with poet and critic Sterling Brown:
—Fran tells me you’re entranced by a lady whose last name begins with the initial H and ends with K. Now what are you doing with that cracker?
—She’s not a cracker.
—She was married to one.
—Robert Lowell was not a cracker.
The lady to whom Brown is referring is Elizabeth Hardwick (1916–2007). Hardwick was in her mid-fifties and a towering presence in American letters when Pinckney, an undergraduate at Columbia, took the course she was teaching at Barnard and was indeed entranced. The two began the rich, unclassifiable relationship that is at the center of a new memoir, Come Back in September, which is both entranced and entrancing.
He was Black and gay. She was a white Kentuckian and by birth and manners could be credibly called a lady. Her ex-husband, Robert Lowell, had survived a period of childish enthusiasm for the Southern Agrarians, like the Kentucky-born poet Allen Tate, who was an unrepentant white supremacist. Hardwick was a vocal member of the anti-Stalinist Left, and Lowell had gone to jail as a conscientious objector. But most of the position taking and the living down of youthful follies, the legendary betrayals and mental breakdowns, had happened before Pinckney came on the scene. They are not Pinckney’s subject. Matters of identity and political commitment don’t seem to have been paramount to his relationship with Hardwick. As he looks back on it, that relationship was about how he became the novelist, playwright, and essayist that he is, which is to say it was about the writing life.
Is there a writing life than can safely dispense with categories of identity and commitment, categories that count so obscurely but irresistibly in how we live now? Is there an unambiguous “either/or” between the aesthetic life and the ethical life, to use the terms Elif Batuman salvaged from Kierkegaard? Probably not. Pinckney certainly does not snub sexuality or race even if neither preoccupies him here. And the style of being in Hardwick’s smoky, boozy, strenuously tasteful circle that he re-creates has its own ethical resonance.
Narratively speaking, the fact that Pinckney is from an educated, solidly middle-class family means that like any number of past fictional protagonists, he confronts familial resistance when he gives up on the BA and throws himself into the chancier project of becoming a writer. His father is a pillar of the Indianapolis NAACP. For the son, protest would not signify rebellion. Instead, we see Pinckney as an outsider trying to get in—into the literary establishment—and it’s impossible not to root for him. All the more so because we frequently catch him, as Hardwick’s assistant, clocking long hours in the factotum, paper-sorting and coffee-fetching stage of literary apprenticeship while also trying to write a novel.
Readers will perhaps also root for him because he is chronicling that period of wildly promiscuous pre-maturity when, whether or not you feel you might be in training to be an artist, the next thing you read or hear or see seems capable of turning your life around. It’s a stage of life (hold on to it if you can), but it also supplies much of the allure of the society to which Pinckney is trying to win admission. It’s the brighter side of snobbery. That society—roughly, the society of the New York Review of Books, of which Hardwick was a cofounder—exists at some remove from the druggy late-night world of bars and bands to which Pinckney’s self-explorations lead when he’s off the clock. Going back and forth between two worlds gives an edge to everything he says about both. They can seem incompatible. The counterculture demands sleepless nights that put a lot of pressure on daytime obligations. (Given the brilliantly illuminated details of dialogue, dress, and furniture ornamenting the narrative, it looks like Pinckney must have spent more hours keeping up his journals than the memoir’s pace of recorded events would seem to make possible.) But the two worlds are not mutually exclusive. Both are devoted to art, rely on abundant chemical enhancement, and have their unwritten rules for admission. Bohemia, though not devoted to the pursuit of fame and fortune, also features characters who, while living in squalor, seem to have mysterious access to game-changing sums of money.
Money, like time, is spent lavishly on Pinckney’s watch. Hardwick does not ignore the overlap between literary society and well-heeled society. “Elizabeth had no desire to write a memoir about the literary side of her life or the high life in New York, whatever that was. —The rich, their rich dishes, and frequently poor characters, she said.” If she dies now, she observes, her daughter (Pinckney’s friend Harriet) will be rich. (Harriet opens social doors for him and at one point accuses him of being an “ass-kisser.”) Hardwick writes in a letter: “here in New York all ‘great artists’ are rich as well as famous.” Robert Silvers, larger-than-life editor of the New York Review of Books, who is married to a rich woman, is reported as denying that he’s “a kept man.” It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that money has something to do with the self-assurance needed to opine with uninhibited malice or independence. Now it might be called entitlement. When Hardwick was writing for the Partisan Review, early in her career, the confidence was supplied in large part by the sense that every editorial judgment was crucial to a more-than-literary movement. Around 1970, when Pinckney picks up her story and to some extent that of the New York Review of Books, the excitement of nonconformist taste making is still in the air, but its raison d’être seems to have shifted.
Susan Sontag is quoted in praise of writing that is celebratory rather than combative. That’s not quite accurate about the New York Review of Books—many of the judgments we hear of in that circle are not celebratory at all. But combativeness is not the house style. What’s appreciated most are individual acts of appreciation or depreciation. To be combative would mean exposing on what grounds the evaluation is happening, and perhaps disputing them. In this time and place, the grounds of evaluation are most often dissembled, as if it would be in bad taste or simply boring to let them show. It is a tradition, of course, to identify the aesthetic life with individual acts of discernment that refuse to bend themselves to any general rule. But there’s a price to be paid for the commitment to the particular. Particularity, elevated to a methodology of appraisal, makes it hard either to feel part of a movement or to be seriously analytic.
Memoirs are not required to be seriously analytic, of course, and this one isn’t. A trained reader of novels might nonetheless crave more analysis, say, of the bond between Pinckney and Hardwick, what was in it for each of them, so to speak, and what that says about literary success. Pinckney does not say much either about how he wanted to live his sexual identity or about what becoming a writer meant to him, and one can speculate that further analysis of Hardwick would help answer both questions.
Hardwick’s smoky, boozy, strenuously tasteful circle had its own ethical resonance.
One of the book’s many pleasures is the pleasure of gossip. Hardwick dreamed, endearingly, that Virginia Woolf was telling her, “You’ve had it rather easy.” It is good to know that Barbara Epstein, coeditor of the New York Review of Books, found Sontag self-important and thought she “had no ear.” Often the cattiness, however questionable, is very quotable, as when Auden calls Norman Podhoretz “God’s gift to anti-Semitism,” or when someone says, “Sylvia Miles would go to the opening of a refrigerator.”
Name dropping often takes the form of giving first names only. This leaves the reader waiting for the other name to drop. “He agreed that Susan’s essay on Canetti in the new issue of the Review was good and I said the Updike on Nabokov was only okay, but Luc hadn’t tried it.” This claim to intimacy with the great and glorious invites parody. But there is some payoff for those who care that Susan’s last name is Sontag and Luc’s (now Lucy’s) is Sante, and even for those who don’t. Early on in the memoir gossip is defined as “just analysis of the absent person.” Then the adjective “tender” is added: gossip is “tender analysis of the absent person.” Some of the gossip is not tender at all, but it is too edifying to pass up, like the anecdote of F. Scott Fitzgerald, at a party in the south of France, mistaking Claude McKay for the butler. Edifying, and also captivating, in part because Pinckney manages to write in such a magnanimous spirit about pretty much everyone, absent or present. For those in quest of moral lessons, one is to be found here.
Tenderness is also relevant to his recent piece in The Nation (March 7, 2022) devoted to the very combative Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro” and its “romanticization of the psychopath.” Word has it, Pinckney says, that because of the word “Negro” in that essay’s title, the entire posthumous collection that included it was canceled by Random House, Mailer’s publisher, and had to be published by a less prestigious press. Without extolling or even quite defending Mailer, about whose writing he seems lukewarm, Pinckney objects to the cancellation of what is obviously an important historical document, and he restores the vitality to Mailer’s contentious dialogue with James Baldwin over Black masculinity. Pinckney’s bohemian youth lives on in his tenderness for Mailer, and that is good to see. But what he wants most passionately to protect from cancellation is Mailer’s ambition as an artist. Like Frederick Douglass, Mailer could not have accomplished what he did had he not thought of himself as exceptional, Pinckney argues, and had he not thought of “the status of art as sacrosanct, and that of the artist as belonging to an elect.” Not every defense of standards can be dismissed as snobbery.
Millennials in Beattieland
Pinckney is a bit of a contrarian, especially on matters of race. This has something to do with “the fear of macho blackness in my homo head,” as he puts it, which leaves him not unwilling to stay “deracinated.” He quotes Arendt’s unsettling line to Baldwin: “The lovely qualities we attribute to the oppressed don’t survive liberation, ‘not even for five minutes.’” In the Hardwick circle displays of independence in the formulating of judgments were not discouraged. But Pinckney is well aware of the danger that clinging too tightly to his independence could eventually turn him into an instrument of the Right, like George Schuyler. The rhythm of his narration, set by a steady drumbeat of AIDS deaths, the then unknown fate of so many of his fellow artists, is a kind of prophylaxis against any such misfortune.
Vivian Gornick once suggested that as a thinker Hardwick was too indefinite. It’s true that, though she could be eloquent about the existential solitude of women, Hardwick was not much interested in abstract thought of the sort that animated the friendship of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy. Part of Hardwick’s overwhelming charm for Pinckney seems to have been the room her indefiniteness made for hospitality to others, which is to say the generosity of judgment it enabled. “It couldn’t be taught,” she wrote, “to love writers, their works, their ideas.” One might object that to love them all is not to love any of them well enough. But that lavished love meant she was not quick to call any writer a cracker, or the equivalent thereof. Neither is Pinckney. Both knelt before the same altar, the altar of good writing. Who is to say how much of a sacrifice on that altar would be too much? “More hours of these lives,” Hardwick wrote, “were spent on book reviews than on lovemaking or even making a living.”
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.