In 1959, Elizabeth Hardwick published an essay in Harper’s Magazine called “The Decline of Book Reviewing.” She announces where she’s going in the title, but just look at how eloquently and humorously she persuades us to her side:
A genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it unpraised. Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory. Everyone is found to have “filled a need,” and is to be “thanked” for something and to be excused for “minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.”
A few years later, she and three others, including Harper’s editor Robert B. Silvers, started The New York Review of Books. For the next forty years, Hardwick’s work appeared frequently in the magazine. It’s fitting that the magazine’s publishing wing in NYRB Classics has brought out a gigantic collection (600 pages!) of Hardwick’s essays, which feel as relevant and fresh and inspiring today as I can imagine they ever were.
I find the quote above magical for a variety of reasons that fall on both sides of the substance and style line, and that magic is present everywhere in this volume’s 55 essays. Not only does she carry that skill forward, but she also displays the kind of criticism she pleads for: incisive, insightful criticism, without reducing the criticism on account of the author’s feelings.
She was a particularly biting critic of biographies, a genre she seems attracted to but which hardly ever satisfied her. For example, here she is on Carlos Baker’s biography of Ernest Hemingway:
It is a form of book-making that rests upon only one major claim of the author: his access to the raw material. The genre rises out of a vast collection of papers, letters, interviews, and junk, and is itself, in the end, still an accumulation, sorted, labeled, and dated, but only an accumulation, a heap. In a hoarding spirit it has an awesome regard for the penny as well as the dollar.
What a biting remark, reducing at least this particular type of exhaustive but, to her, unimaginative biography to a “form of book-making” that, in its hoarding of information, “has an awesome regard for the penny as well as the dollar.”
Again, rather than simply criticize and move on, she offers the alternative she’d like to see, particularly as it regards the complexity of a life and the questions that, even if they cannot be answered, should be brought up:
What was there in American life that Hemingway needed to get away from? His acceptance of Spanish culture must mean something about him. He said his mother was a bitch who drove his father to suicide. And his own suicide? Would it be facile to connect it with his father’s, when it came upon him so much later and accompanied so many other physical torments? Perhaps it came not from his youth but from his skull fractures, those injuries he, or the life he led, was prone to. Why did he drink so much? No one could give an answer to all this. What one wants is to feel the questions somewhere in the shadows.
This is not the only biography she looks at. Here she is on Katherine Anne Porter’s biography:
Biographers, the quick in pursuit of the dead, research, organize, fill in, contradict, and make in this way a sort of completed picture puzzle with all the scramble turned into a blue eye and the parts of the right leg fitted together. They also make a consistent fiction, the fiction being the arrangement, artful or clumsy, of the documents.
This is a solid collection from start to finish. She writes about many authors and works I care about — William James (“Religion: sometime an embarrassment to James’s reasonable admirers. His nuts and cranks, his mediums and table-tappers, his faith healers and receivers of communications from the dead — all are greeted by James with the purest, melting latitudinarianism, a nearly disreputable amiability, a broadness of tolerance and fascination like that of a priest at a jam session.”); Joan Didion (“Joan Didion’s novels are not consoling, nor are they notably attuned to the reader’s expectations, even though they are fast paced, witty, inventive, and interesting in plot. Still, they twist and turn, shift focus and point of view, deviations that are perhaps the price or the reward that comes from an obsessive attraction to the disjunctive and paradoxical in American national policy and to the somnolent, careless decisions made in private life.”); and Philip Roth (“American Pastoral is Philip Roth’s twentieth work of fiction — an accretion of creative energy, a yearly, or almost, place at the starting line of a marathon. But his is a one-man spring with the signatures, the gestures, the deep breathing, and the repetitiveness, sometimes, of an obsessive talent.”).
Her own energy, creative and critical, didn’t seem to dissipate. Even when I disagreed with her, I found myself charged by her jolts, and I am glad that I personally have several more essays in this collection to keep me going!