Although Elizabeth Hardwick is the author of two highly praised novels--one of them, Sleepless Nights
, a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award--she is primarily known as a critic. Yet that word, with its contemporary whiff of consumer advocacy, doesn't quite fit the bill either. Hardwick never practices the literary equivalent of quality control, never bestows her stamp of approval on the likes of Henry James or Elizabeth Bishop. Instead she creates brilliant, unpredictable narratives
, in which books and their authors are the main characters.
In Sight-Readings, her fourth collection of essays, Hardwick trains her superbly idiosyncratic eye on a procession of American writers. Rolling out the red carpet for Henry James, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Margaret Fuller, or Richard Ford, she dares us not to read her pick hits. Of course, this wittiest of critics is willing to administer the occasional cudgel, decrying the nonstop fornication in John Updike's novels or the "infernal indiscretion" of Vachel Lindsay's poetry. But even her most acerbic pronouncements, like this one about incessant word-tinkerer Gertrude Stein, tell us something valuable: "When she is not tinkering, we can see her like a peasant assaulting the chicken for Sunday dinner. She would wring the neck of her words." And Hardwick's digressions are invariably gifts, essayistic windfalls. Discussing Edith Wharton's rather tony vision of Manhattan, for example, she writes: "New York, with its statistical sensationalism, is a shallow vessel for memory since it lives in a continuous present, making it difficult to recall the shape of the loss deplored, whether it be the gray tin of the newsstand or the narrow closet for the neighborhood's dry cleaning, there and gone over a vacation." As a summation of the city's self-perpetuating amnesia, you couldn't do better than that. It should be emblazoned, in tiny letters, on the back of each and every subway token. --James Marcus
From Publishers Weekly
Hardwick's latest roundup of literary essays is a gallery of startling portraits. She presents novelist Edith Wharton as a freewheeling social historian who used New York City as a frame of reference in her dissection of American society's heartlessness and predatory sexuality. Peering behind New England protofeminist Margaret Fuller's "dramatic and romantic presentation of herself," Hardwick finds an eccentric full of mannerisms, a "profoundly urban," unlikely convert to Transcendentalism, "which nearly turned her into a fool." Whether she is plumbing Joan Didion's roots in the American West, John Updike's learned obsession with sexuality, Katherine Anne Porter's flagrant fabrications about her past or John Cheever's alcoholism and "gentrification" of his concealed homosexual lusts, the eminent critic and novelist combines passionate engagement with her subjects and a conversational style informed by prodigious scholarship. In her close readings of Henry James, Philip Roth, Djuna Barnes, Vachel Lindsay, Gertrude Stein and Edgar Lee Masters, Hardwick succeeds in her abiding goal of relating literature to life, making these lapidary essays (most of which appeared in the New York Review of Books) into uncanny reconnoiterings of the American psyche.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.