The New York Stories of Elizbeth Hardwick

BOOK: The New York Stories of Elizbeth Hardwick
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ELIZABETH HARDWICK (1916–2007) was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and educated at the University of Kentucky and Columbia University. A recipient of a Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is the author of three novels, a biography of Herman Melville, and four collections of essays. She was a co-founder and advisory editor of
The New York Review of Books
and contributed more than one hundred reviews, articles, reflections, and letters to the magazine. NYRB Classics publishes
Sleepless Nights
, a novel, and
Seduction and Betrayal
, a study of women in literature.

DARRYL PINCKNEY is the author of a novel,
High Cotton
, and, in the Alain Locke Lecture Series,
Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature




Selected and with an introduction by



New York



Biographical Notes



The Temptations of Dr. Hoffmann

Evenings at Home

Yes and No

The Final Conflict

A Season’s Romance

The Oak and the Axe

The Classless Society

The Purchase


The Bookseller

Back Issues

On the Eve

Shot: A New York Story

Copyright and More Information


Elizabeth Hardwick, born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1916, said that if she had to come from the South, she didn’t mind it being the Upper South, because even though a lot of nonsense about the Confederacy could be found in Kentucky as readily as anywhere else, for some reason when she was growing up, coming from a border state made her feel less complicit as a white person in the racial order all around her. She said she was probably as terrified as a black Northerner when in the Deep South, afraid that other white people might read her mind and discover her scorn for the exculpatory stories they in cotton country told themselves. She said that as distressing to her as the urban unrest and her fear of black militants in the 1960s had been, that was preferable to the way things used to be, having to pretend that black people did not exist, looking through them on the street.

And yet she herself could seem so Southern, in the captivating cadences of her speech, the brilliant charm of her manner. Her whole body was engaged when she got into the rhythm of her conversation. She touched her hair; she touched the arm of the person she was talking to; her hands conducted the music of the point she was making. When being ironic, mischievous, she rocked her shoulders like Louis Armstrong. She swayed with laughter — she had a most beautiful smile. She agreed that her dance was intended to disarm, a disguise she could hide behind so that she could get away with letting someone have it, really giving that person the once over for the shortcomings of his or her argument. For Hardwick, the segregated South of her upbringing made for a weak argument, and she was at her most pleasantly cutting when holding forth, as she liked to describe it, about the white Southerner’s pretensions, particularly those associated with the old family silver and what she called the region’s “false Cavalierism.”

Elizabeth, the narrator of Hardwick’s acclaimed autobiographical novel,
Sleepless Nights
, published in 1979, reflects that her mother

had in many ways the nature of an exile, although her wanderings and displacements had been only in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. I never knew anyone so little interested in memory, in ancestors, in records, in sweetened back-glancing sceneries, little adornments of pride. Sometimes she would mention with a puzzled frown
The Annals of Tennessee
, by her grandfather with the same name, but she had never read it.

In Hardwick’s New York home, a copy of
The Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century
, by J.G.M. Ramsey, published in 1853, was stored on a closet shelf, left to hold its own against several volumes on the same shelf that had to do with the history of Robert Lowell’s family and the writing of
Life Studies
, including old Mrs. Lowell’s Jung. Fiction, yes, but also in real life to have come from a poor family was a little less shaming if that family’s roots went back to respectable Scottish Presbyterian stock.

Yet Hardwick regretted that one of her surviving sisters resented that Elizabeth in the novel says her family had been poor. She’d always been careful of their feelings. Hardwick has the narrator in an early short story, “Evenings at Home,” published in 1948, make fun of herself for expecting the worse when she returns to her small-town family after a few years in New York City. After that, worry enough, Hardwick didn’t want to write about her family. She said that some readers of her first novel,
The Ghostly Lover
(1945) — “Think of the Randall Jarrell poem,” she added, “‘Dear Readers, you
too few’” — mistakenly assumed that its main character was a self-portrait, when in actuality she modeled her after the bad girl next door.

Hardwick said she couldn’t write about herself because she wasn’t that interested in herself in that way. She said she also for some reason could not write about those she had cared for the most, except obliquely. Hardwick loved her uncomplaining mother and her father with the sweet singing voice who preferred to fish rather than work as a laborer. Hardwick was the ninth of eleven children; Elizabeth in
Sleepless Nights
says her mother had nine children. “The demands of fiction,” Hardwick said. “Do not speak to me of horses, of the Kentucky Derby,” her narrator interjects. In later life, Hardwick looked forward to settling down with her daughter and her son-in-law over mint juleps in Mrs. Lowell’s chilled silver cups to watch the race on television. Elizabeth in
Sleepless Nights
mentions brothers who worked with horses, but Hardwick doesn’t give her narrator the story of a brother, a professional gambler, whose winnings at the track paid for her graduate-school tuition. He died young.

Sleepless Nights
, Hardwick’s themes derive from her unlikely beginnings and her lucky escape, and the guilt that she noticed when young the difference between herself and her family, and had judged them for it. But her narrator is primarily an observer of others. Hardwick said that she could not account for herself as a character, or maybe she could explain herself all too easily, already a Communist as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky, the radical politics having been encouraged by her father’s sympathies as a sensitive working man. Hardwick spoke with some relief that she had been on the anti-Stalinist Left, but even before the Moscow trials of 1938 the Communist party line that the Black Belt in the South constituted a separate nation showed her that the Comitern had no grasp of political reality in the United States.

Hardwick liked to say that her ambition when she graduated from college in 1939 was to become a New York Jewish intellectual, one of the champions of literary modernism. She took the Greyhound bus North to the Taft Hotel at Times Square and got her American edition of
Finnegans Wake
, hot off the press. It amused her to remember how fashionable as a field of study T.S. Eliot had made John Donne and the seventeenth century when she entered the PhD program at Columbia University in 1940, a memory she put into a late short story, “The Bookseller.” Unlike the narrator of “Evenings at Home” who has been away from home for a while, Hardwick made the train journey South every summer to endure weeks of restlessness, until in 1944 she went home to tell her parents that she was quitting school to become a writer. Her mother asked if that meant she wasn’t going to be a teacher after all.

That same year Hardwick published her first short story, in
The New Mexico Quarterly Review
. The work provided her with what she called the validation of seeing her name in print. It was followed by two short stories in
Harper’s Bazaar
. These early efforts were enough to get her a contract that took her, if not back to Manhattan, then at least to her sister’s on Staten Island, where she finished her first novel in one sweltering summer.
The Ghostly Lover
brought her to the attention of Philip Rahv, who, along with William Phillips, edited
Partisan Review
. To be associated with the leading journal of radical politics and intellectual culture in the 1940s gave her an identity. Rahv was drawn to Hardwick’s skepticism, her slashing questions, and she found a freedom of voice in the essay form that she did not at the time feel in fiction.

Partisan Review
, Hardwick met Mary McCarthy. The two writers became close very quickly, and soon their intellectual challenges and their bright-red lipsticks were the terror of Greenwich Village cocktail parties. They were younger and prettier than most of the white Communist women on the scene back then. While Hardwick didn’t worry that in a review she might repeat what others thought, when it came to the writing of fiction, she felt so much in the shadow of the older and already famous McCarthy that her biggest problem some days, she said, was in just trying to stake out territory in the contemporary woman’s experience that her friend hadn’t already covered in short stories of dazzling confidence.

Hardwick’s subject in “Evenings at Home” and in another effort for
Partisan Review
, written around the same time, “Yes and No,” is escape, the exile, that migration from the small town to the big city, and not just any big city. New York City at its most intriguing was to Hardwick a gathering of refugees, such as the distinguished theologian who had fled Nazi Germany in her first story to appear in
Partisan Review
, “The Temptations of Dr. Hoffmann.” She was fascinated by a city populated by seekers, everyone with a story, a reason he or she had to get away, if only from Brooklyn. Even McCarthy was from someplace else, way out West, and Hardwick recalled that when she first knew her it seemed terribly literary and sophisticated, almost an unfair psychological advantage for McCarthy as a writer, that she and her brother were orphans, that their parents had been carried off by the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

However, she loved Hart Crane for his letters home to his pair of little parents or his little pair of parents, as she put it. She forgave Thomas Wolfe the excesses of
Time and the River
, small-town boy carried away by remembering that he was. The South, to her, was small-town America, like most of the Midwest.

There is something false and perverse in my playing the observer, I who have lived here as long as anyone. Still these bright streets do not belong to me and I feel, not like someone who chose to move away, but as if I had been, as the expression goes, “run out of town.”

(“Evenings at Home”)

The only thing she really loved about small-town America was Main Street, the lighted place of drugstores and display windows where one went to dream of getting away.

To see her first serious love for the ordinary brute he is gives Hardwick’s young woman in “Evenings at Home” a lively sense of shame. The narrator of “Yes and No” is fluent with apologies to the image of the loyal but dull man she never considered good enough to marry. The graduate student befriended by the tense exile family in “The Temptations of Dr. Hoffmann” has been introduced to them by a divinity student from home whom she despises. Remembrance of the inappropriate man — territory in fiction where Hardwick could perhaps stake a modest claim. The difference between her and McCarthy is that the potential for degradation in such a situation is not an occasion for comedy.

For Hardwick, a woman’s escape from the small town includes nearly having settled down with the wrong guy and therefore lived someone else’s life. The intellectual life her young women narrators believe they were meant for is clear in their tone, but Hardwick makes them careful to mock their own aspirations. Her shrewdness of style is already apparent in these early stories, but she abandoned the strong personality of her first-person voice in fiction for three decades.

BOOK: The New York Stories of Elizbeth Hardwick
9.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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