To Get It Was the Gift of Life

‘Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan’ by Darryl Pinckney



THE FRENCH, ELIZABETH Hardwick wrote, “have a nearly manic facility and energy” for the art of homage. The literary guest of the French table rushes off, perhaps leaves early, to transcribe the night’s witticisms. So copious is this national record keeping that a meeting between artists can be viewed from multiple perspectives, like sculpture in the round. Not so, Hardwick argues, in the United States, where literary idolatry is considered toadying and effete and the appraisal of an artist is meant to be objective rather than knowing. In place of the subservient homage or the indulgent diary, the red-blooded Yank turns to a roman-à-clef. Here, one is freed of the niceties of truth and granted the properly individualist status of artist-in-one’s-own-right rather than hanger-on.

Hardwick was writing in the Partisan Review in 1953. At the time, she did not anticipate the cult of personality that would develop around her contemporaries at the Partisan Review and later at The New York Review of Books, which Hardwick helped found—the seemingly inexhaustible stream of diaries, letter, and reminiscences which continue to fête and disparage Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, and Hannah Arendt, among others from her circle.

Published gossip about Hardwick herself tended to focus on her relationship to the poet Robert Lowell. Their decades-long marriage survived Lowell’s near-yearly hospitalizations for bipolar disorder and his affairs, which Hardwick viewed as symptomatic. It finally ended when Lowell took up with an English writer and heiress, abandoning wife and daughter in New York. The Dolphin, Lowell’s poetic account of the abandonment, relied on manipulated quotes from Hardwick’s frantic cross-Atlantic letters and won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize, his second. Hardwick took something like revenge in the 1979 Sleepless Nights, an autobiographical masterpiece, devastating in its near-complete omission of Lowell.

Hardwick had been divorced for only a year when a queer Black kid from Indiana landed in her writing class at Barnard. Darryl Pinckney was, she announced, “the worst poet I’ve ever read.” But soon enough, he was coming over for Sunday dinner. Their lonelinesses were complementary; Pinckney became for Hardwick something between a child, a protégée, and a secretary. He borrowed her books, unloaded her dishwasher, drank her wine. He sat on the couch and chatted with Susan Sontag and Barbara Epstein, the editor of The New York Review of Books and Hardwick’s neighbor and friend. Apparently, he took notes.

Come Back in September is Pinckney’s new memoir of this period. For those of us with a toadying and effete interest in midcentury intellectual life, the book is worth reading for the gossip alone. There are deaths, betrayals, many instances of being socially “cut.” We learn that Sartre and de Beauvoir scheduled sex, Coretta Scott King got Song of Solomon removed from a library, Barbara Epstein pulled Anne Frank’s diary out of a slush pile, Mary McCarthy disliked gay lit but married a probably gay man, Bob Silvers ghosted Henry Kissinger, Susan Sontag was thought among the set to be a not terribly good writer, and everyone hated Lillian Hellman.

Around Elizabeth . . . Pinckney could try out opinions, “be unfair or wrong . . . in the privacy of her tutelage.” Hardwick did not hesitate to say stupid things of her own.”

Intertwined with memories of these established intellectuals are those of Pinckney’s own generation, not long for obscurity. We see Manhattan in the 1970s, before it was made funereal by AIDS and culturally irrelevant by rising rent. Pinckney does drugs with Harold Brookner and Lucy Sante, runs into William Burroughs and Ntozake Shange at parties, wakes up on floors in the morning and tries to write. Everyone’s in a band or breaking up or throwing things or moving to London, and they all just happen to be rooming with Jim Jarmusch or Jean-Michel Basquiat. The ensemble is large, the details extraneous and sometimes indulgent.

Pinckney writes about being made to feel Black during a period when he thought deracination a “state to aspire to.” The poet Sterling Brown, a distant relation who appears for the occasional prickly phone call, says what Pinckney’s parents and sisters will not quite: “Man, you are so influenced by those white intellectuals. You need to get away from them.” In the next scene, a white woman in a diner shifts her bags “out of range,” as Pinckney drily puts it, “of my snatch-and-run experience.” The stack of books he carries makes him no less Black in her eyes.

Meanwhile, Pinckney grows more distant from his parents in Indianapolis—a father who proselytizes for the NAACP in men’s bathrooms, a mother who worries that her son will be the first person in the family since slavery not to graduate college. Pinckney removes the “homo titles” from his bookshelf before his parents’ visit. He keeps up with his sister’s hospitalizations for psychosis via the dreaded Sunday phone call. He doesn’t tell his parents when he goes to rehab.

Pinckney with Hardwick in her home on West Sixty-Seventh Street.
Photo by Dominique Nabo.

PINCKNEY’S CAREER WAS set in motion by Hardwick’s class; in the years since, it has revolved around the Review. Silvers and Epstein published him fresh out of college, and he has since written for the Review more than one hundred pieces. Some of the greatest of these compose his latest essay collection, Busted in New York. His preoccupation with intellectual history, and especially its feuds and coups, is also a preoccupation of the Review, though Pinckney tends to focus on the Black intellectual scene. When he went to rehab, the Review paid for it. When he went to Berlin, Sontag introduced him to James Fenton, the man with whom he was to spend his life. (The two of them, having worked on a remodel for years, have just put their home on the market for a Harlem-record-setting price.) When Hardwick died, she left him thousands of books.

Anxiety over this debt motivates and betters Pinckney’s memoir. It is touching to watch an unusually wise and egoless writer reproduce his anxious adoration toward someone who never stopped being mythic, even when she disappointed him. “Either we got it or we didn’t,” he writes of Hardwick reading aloud in class. “But it was clear from the way she struck her breastbone that, for her, to get it was the gift of life.” Pinckney worries about the presumption of even writing his book. He quotes Hardwick’s unsparing judgment of a memoirist who wrongly thought himself equal to his subject; he quotes friends disparaging the biographical form; he points out, whenever possible, his own youthful ignorance and lack of tact.

The Pinckney-Hardwick relationship, whatever its generational and racial divide, was      not a timid one. Around Elizabeth, as he grew to call her, Pinckney could try out opinions, “be unfair or wrong . . . in the privacy of her tutelage.” Hardwick did not hesitate to say stupid things of her own:

But [Elizabeth] wouldn’t want [her daughter] to marry a black man, because of the problems the children would have.

I said miscegenation didn’t bother white America when black women were not given a choice.

She said I was more of a racist than she was, because I only liked white boys.

I would have let her put the dagger away, but she said white women with black men were inferior Desdemona types and black men with white women weren’t serious.

Pinckney does not excuse Hardwick’s racism—or elsewhere, her homophobia—but he takes no pleasure in being the bigger person. “I learned from books that that in which we were to find so much of ourselves also excluded so much of the selves we most cared for.” This is a wistful concession for someone who, as the book makes clear, believes that life is mostly reading.

Hardwick wrote as she taught, by “quotation and aside, citation and remark, stone down the well and echo.” Come Back is written in the same manner, an homage even in style. The book, constructed from diaries, is clever in its enjambment of many voices—young Darryl; old Darryl; comments made to old Darryl in his study by James; contemporary corrections from friends; horrifically frequent parenthetical asides that so-and-so will go on to die of AIDS. Pinckney, like Hardwick, assumes you will get his references. If not, it is your job to read seriously until you do. Both of them favor worked-over prose, the jump from A to C; they are not embarrassed by artistry. “She wrote to honor the fiction she cared about,” Pinckney has said of Hardwick. In Come Back, he writes to honor the people who made his writing life possible. The Acknowledgments here are redundant.

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