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Elizabeth Hardwick

By Richard Howard

There are three novels by her, only two, really, The Ghostly Lover and The Simple Truth, inceptional entertaining sleuthings of an inspired gossip, a woman who observed that “I’d rather talk about other people, or as we gossips like to say, character analysis”; the third is her masterpiece, that fiction of 1979 which her various publishers have enjoyed calling a novel, though only Philip Roth among the fanatics of Sleepless Nights (Sontag, Didion, McCarthy) has insisted on the book’s genre as a refuge for his enthusiasm.

And there are four books (A View of my Own, Seduction and Betrayal, Bartleby in Manhattan, and Sight-Readings) of what we flinch, again, from calling criticism, such a reductive term for the kind of wisdom, of pleasure, of voiced essays centered on reading. (And just before silence, a book which joins Olson’s Call Me Ishmael to make the other best book on Melville, each less than 100 pages.) But not always centered on reading. In her first book of essays “on literature and society,” she warns us, by calling it A View of My Own, of the dangers (for readers) of a literary vocation as implicit as this: the portrait (Robert Silvers published it in Harper’s before the NYRB was even a gleam in Jason Epstein’s eye) of the city of Boston, “a place defective, out of date, vain and lazy. But if you’re not in a hurry it has a secret appeal.” In 20 pages she does what neither Tocqueville nor Fanny Trollope could do for an American city, and not only in 1962. Just a couple of years ago Elizabeth Hardwick did it again: in “New York City: Crash Course” she wrote what I should have considered impossible—in 10 pages a life study (thank you, Cal) of this place notorious for its defeat of analysis, of description. Here is the sound of how she does it, the third paragraph of the first page, a rhapsody on “the beautiful word Shelter”:

Will you not come with me to the Shelter on this icy evening, dear, old homeless one, stuffed into your bag of rags and surrounded by up-standing pieces of cardboard, making as it were a sort of private room on the frieze of concrete near a corner or before a storefront? No, you fucking little rat-faced volunteer on vacation from the country club of Wellesley College or piling up credit at the Fordham School of Social Work. I’ll die before I’ll take my bag upon bag of nameless litter, my mangy head, my own, my leprous legs, purple, scabbed and swollen, my numbed, crooked fingers, myself, to the City Shelter, or flophouse, whatever you call it.

It pains me not to read you the next paragraph and the next, but fortunately for my pain as for my pleasure, every reader in this hall knows already that Elizabeth Hardwick was the finest prose writer in America in the eighty some years we had her with us, and that her books of what she called essays and that book of her own life viewed from outside which she called Sleepless Nights are monuments of unaging… intellect, yes, but intellect made wisdom by folly and passion and love of the language that alone achieves those things.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 9, 2008.

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