YOU MIGHT think The Uncollected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick would be a simple sequel to The Collected Essays edited by Darryl Pinckney—a gleaning of what remained in the field after that rich harvest. Indeed, a selection more representative of Hardwick than Pinckney’s is difficult to imagine. Merely assembling the essays, reviews, introductions, and eulogies he omitted would have been a worthwhile endeavor. It also would have made for a disjointed book, less a companion volume to The Collected than an appendage, incapable of standing on its own.

The thirty-five pieces I have gathered here are meant to make a case for Hardwick as an essayist in the word’s widest, wildest, oldest sense. I don’t think this will provoke much controversy. Readers are aware of Hardwick’s nonfictional forays beyond the bounds of criticism—in “Boston,” “In Maine,” “The Apotheosis of Martin Luther King”—although they may not be aware of how many of these forays she left out of the books published during her lifetime. Most of these Hardwick probably considered too topical or eccentric, or just too short. About one-third of the thirty-five collected here were written for glossy magazines (Vogue, Vanity Fair) where every word was counted, and it is easy to understand why she would not have wanted to juxtapose these pieces with longer essays composed for The New York Review of Books or Partisan Review. Besides, as Pinckney has said, Hardwick “never liked publishing a book.” Her ambition took the form of perfectionism rather than productivity; the quality of the writing she left to hibernate in back issues is proof, among other things, of a genuine, now nearly bygone, modesty.

Not to clutter this portrait of the artist as an essayist, I have excluded all of Hardwick’s reviews of fiction, theater, and movies, and almost all of her prefaces and introductions. In doing so, my intention was to foreground the imaginative prose that perhaps best represents her own definition of the essay as “nothing less than the reflection of all there is: art, personal experience, places, literature, portraiture, politics, science, music, education—and just thought itself in orbit.” To impose some sense of order on “all there is,” I have imitated Hardwick’s habit of grouping her essays into sections—as in the Letters, Lives, and Locations of A View of My Own—though I recognize these sections are relatively arbitrary. Hardwick’s interests, like everyone’s, tend to blend together.

The one introduction I have included, written for Best American Essays, 1986, serves as a kind of keynote. Beginning with one of Hardwick’s characteristic questions (“The essay?”), it proceeds to describe a few features of this most protean form. Essays, Hardwick finds, are “addressed to a public in which some degree of equity exists between the writer and the reader”; they are “about something, something we may not have had reason to study and master, often matters about which we are quite ignorant”; and they make a “contribution to the cultural life.” Formally speaking, they are exercises in style as a vehicle for ideas, with the result that a collection of essays becomes, in her words, “a collection of variations” very much in the musical sense.

The first of the themed sections in this book, “Places, People, Things,” is self-explanatory. “New York City: Crash Course” approaches Hardwick’s adopted home from the air, zigzagging through the boroughs in time and space, from the first Dutch settlers to the Dead Rabbits and Plug Uglies, from Melville at his desk to Captain Kidd on the stand. “Lexington, Kentucky” returns us to the city that was “truly home” (“not just a birthplace”) to Hardwick, before “Puritanical Pleasures” takes us up north to the small town of Castine, Maine, where she spent some forty or so summers. As for people—Hardwick’s preferred subject whatever she happened to be writing—there are émigrés (Einstein, Balanchine, Nabokov), friends (Sontag and Porter), and at least one movie star (Faye Dunaway). The inclusion of “Things,” with its canny assessment of possessions (“a threat to the soul and a solace to the senses”), was irresistible.

“Piety and Politics,” the second section, is more the sort of grouping Hardwick herself might have made. A short meditation on election years sets the tone for these essays on the Union’s abiding love of spectacle and change. “The landscape of America seems often like one of those endangered kingdoms in old sagas,” she writes, in a lucid, visionary prose one can scarcely believe was once printed in Vogue:

Nightly, Grendel steals upon the knights sleeping in the hall and slays the fairest and the weakest alike. The siege, chronic, of change is one that we live with—and so we are never quite sure what has come upon us. Are we in the midst of destruction or renewal? Have we been blessed with something better: or have we, instead, merely a replacement?

Hardwick’s reflections on politicians, criminals, and other popular American figures—George Wallace, Jimmy Carter, the Kennedy and Menendez brothers, O. J. Simpson, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky—are often simultaneously reflections on how the explosion of television altered American life forever, exposing to the public what had previously been private and, in the process, making a mockery of both dignity and shame.

A satirical but deadly serious piece proposing a male celibacy amendment to round out Republican lawmakers’ antiabortion platform—“a sort of balancing of the human budget”—leads in to “Feminine Principle,” the third section, which chronicles Hardwick’s engagement with feminism from what Robert Lowell called the “tranquilized fifties” through the early seventies, when Hardwick’s life was transformed by her divorce from Lowell and the magazines she was writing for were filled to the gills with talk of “liberation.”* These are extraordinary essays, the majority of which were composed in the same years as the literary criticism contained in Seduction and Betrayal (and the correspondence contained in The Dolphin Letters). They make clear how different Hardwick’s reaction to second-wave feminism was from some of her coevals, such as her close friend Mary McCarthy, who once called feminism “bad for women in its self-pity, shrillness, and greed.” Hardwick, for her part, was not at all dismissive either of the fight for equal pay or of the sight of naked babies riding “papooselike on the backs of mother and father and friend”; the women’s movement she found “quite serious” in all its facets. Yet she found the loosening of contracts between people, and the resultant pressure on the fragile individual, unsettling. If liberation was a sign of social progress, it was also, frequently, a source of personal pain. “One of the purposes of a more conscious and independent existence for women,” Hardwick wrote in 1973, “is to relieve them of their conviction that they will always be safe.”

The “Readings” section of this book might have gone on for hundreds of pages if I had let in reviews and introductions. I limited it instead to three of Hardwick’s essays on the subject of reading and the cultural assumptions we bring to this “almost free pleasure.” One gets a sense from these pieces of some of the lesser-known figures in her personal canon (Kay Boyle, Elizabeth Madox Roberts) as well as her admirable unwillingness to insist, to anyone already reading, on the importance of reading.

The last section, “Musings,” is frankly miscellaneous. Here are Hardwick’s thoughts on opera, summer, Southern food, and Christmas music, opening with a very funny medley of quotations from her summer reading. If there is a theme in these pieces, it may be Hardwick’s lifelong interest in what valuable elements of the past—about which she harbored few sentimental notions—had been sacrificed to bring the present into being. “Parsifal “finds in the experience of attending a four-plus-hour performance of Wagner’s opera profound insights into the loss of time that has come with material progress, and “Notes on Leonardo and the Future of the Past,” about popping in to an exhibition of Da Vinci’s inventions in 1966, may be one of the most farseeing of Hardwick’s uncollected writings. Its skepticism about “miracles of technology” that don’t pay off in “happiness, leisure, and health” emerges from its own postwar, pre-internet era. But it speaks directly to the miracles we grapple with today.

Hardwick often speaks directly to us. Her compassion and fair-mindedness have something to do with this, as does the poise of her prose, its repudiation of generalities and jargon. Like Virginia Woolf before her, she deliberately addressed herself not to critics or scholars but to common readers—those mythical creatures whom even critics and scholars may incarnate, if they can ease the death grip of their expertise.

This collection emphasizes the variety of Hardwick’s writing, but it also testifies to her writing’s remarkable consistency. Whether visiting subjects taken up for a single occasion (Dunaway, grits soufflé) or revisiting subjects taken on before (Katherine Anne Porter, the coast of Maine), Hardwick never hurries. She is never simplistic for the sake of convenience or hyperbolic for the sake of being heard. She is sublime at describing a deliveryman’s high-top hairstyle, circa 1990, as well as the age-old beauties of the nocturnal fabric over Mount Monadnock: “a storm of stars in the heavens, a pattern of gorgeous gleaming dots on the dark blue silk of the sky, all spreading down like a huge soft cloak to the edge of the field.” Always, she shows herself alert to the conditions of the poor, the exploitation of women and workers and people of color, the coarse-grained language of the powerful—and, always, she communicates this alertness in a graceful, idiosyncratic style that owes more to reactionary De Quincey and Whiggish Macaulay than to any of her contemporaries.

If someone ever gets around to compiling another anthology of English prose chosen for its distinguished style, Hardwick should have a prominent place within it. The shape of her sentences, the wisdom of her elisions, the unexpectedness of her adjectives, are utterly unique. A few of Hardwick’s favorite words (“accommodation,” “astonishment”) and favorite quotations (“What I always thought the finest thing in the theater . . . is the chandelier”) turn up more than once in these pages. But even these chance repetitions are charming—and telling, too. Whatever Hardwick approaches, she approaches as herself. Is there a more civilized companion on this barbarous road?


* It’s worth noting that the one time Hardwick quotes Lowell in print (in “The Heart of the Seasons”), she misquotes him, writing “Heaven is something with a girl in summer” for “All life’s grandeur / is something with a girl in summer.” Considering her enduring affection for Lowell and his work, I’d call this a sign of familiarity, rather than indifference.



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