The first-ever collection of essays from across Elizabeth Hardwick's illustrious writing career, including works not seen in print for decades.
Elizabeth Hardwick wrote during the golden age of the American literary essay. For Hardwick, the essay was an imaginative endeavor, a serious form, criticism worthy of the literature in question. In the essays collected here she covers civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s, describes places where she lived and locations she visited, and writes about the foundations of American literature—Melville, James, Wharton—and the changes in American fiction, though her reading is wide and international. She contemplates writers’ lives—women writers, rebels, Americans abroad—and the literary afterlife of biographies, letters, and diaries. Selected and with an introduction by Darryl Pinckney, the Collected Essays gathers more than fifty essays for a fifty-year retrospective of Hardwick’s work from 1953 to 2003. “For Hardwick,” writes Pinckney, “the poetry and novels of America hold the nation’s history.” Here is an exhilarating chronicle of that history.
This fine, revealing career retrospective showcases the late Hardwick, a novelist and cofounder of the New York Review of Books, honing her favorite form, the literary review, to razor-sharp precision. Pinckney, her onetime student, has chosen certain essays, notably reflections on the civil rights era, to illustrate her work as a journalist; other pieces are meditations on place, both close to home (Maine) and far away (Brazil). But the bulk and best of the selections are considerations of literary greats, including Elizabeth Bishop, Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, and Edith Wharton. Reading straight through the chronologically ordered collection demonstrates Hardwick's development as an essayist. The early essays are witty, arch, and detached, attempts by an urban sophisticate at remaining unseduced by cultural trends such as new journalism. As Hardwick matures, her confident declarations begin to ring truer, her impressive grasp of the literary canon seems more thoughtful and less ornamental, and her insights grow in accuracy, humor, and heart. Curiously, while carefully and beautifully crafted, Hardwick's essays read more like accumulations of beautiful sentences than cohesive wholes, and rarely add up to a lasting impression. Nevertheless, this book contains ample examples of literary criticism that might be imitated or even matched but not surpassed in its style, insight, and genuine love for literature.