In the prose stylist’s indelible writing, so many right notes the wrong notes don’t matter.
The Uncollected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, by Elizabeth Hardwick, edited by Alex Andriesse, New York Review Books, 283 pages, $18.95
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Elizabeth Hardwick did, in fact, fuck around. Her widely acknowledged authority suggests a policy of not fucking around and yet, as The Uncollected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick demonstrates, she got where she got with her sentences because she was unafraid of thwarting sense and clarity at every turn. If you feel a critique of Hardwick developing, you’re only halfway right. I say this: call off the editors and let more writers trip over themselves. The gems and the dirt are of one earth. We’ll never get another Hardwick without giving her a shitload of room.
The Uncollected includes thirty-five pieces from a variety of magazines, with a few prefaces added and all reviews excluded. (The Collected Essays, from 2017, gathered fifty-five articles, most about writers.) Editor Alex Andriesse writes that he wanted to “make a case for Hardwick as an essayist in the word’s widest, wildest, oldest sense,” and he succeeded. He also posits that Hardwick’s “ambition took the form of perfectionism rather than productivity,” an idea this book contradicts. I cannot see The Hardwick Sentence as anything but a spiritual leap toward fuller expression, perfection not applicable. Hardwick took a Biblical position on syntax, pointing her clauses at thoughts several lines back, or at some larger idea implied by the second of eight clauses. When she got it right, there was a care and moral weight to her prose that few could even abut.
In a piece on President Carter from 1976, Hardwick ends a roomy disquisition on his spiritual practice with a kicker that compares Carter to Reagan and Ford. The Southerner speaks in a way they cannot: “Love—isn’t there something Southern in the word, in the oval shape of it?” The Republicans wouldn’t dare say it, because “they are elocutionists of the negative, ardent in warning, fervent in surgery, secular in their commercial diction.” Fabulous, but hang on—“fervent in surgery”? Is “surgery” being deputized here as the form of an action verb? Were these two Republicans generally fervent? Or is the “surgery” some aspect of governing? The mood feels right, so we go on. “It is not love he inspires, but hope,” Hardwick writes. “And even the hope that attends him cannot yet entirely break free from its rooting in the arid soil of mere comparison.” This is a dense and nutritious terminus, blending support and critique in one sentence. Carter was the best available choice but not the best absolutely, and Hardwick knew it. Right before this, we get: “Carter, uniting love and some, actually much, of his opponents’ shudders at libertinage, is a mysterious figure, charismatic in his ascent rather than in his person.” She wants us to slow down, fine, to unpack “shudders at libertinage,” which seems to mean prudery? I love the sideways praise of “charismatic in his ascent,” but this libertinage bit is, as the Russians say, playing piano with your tits out. We gain little at the synonym fair here.
You see how many words it takes up to do this kind of police work, and it feels both nerdy and prurient to hold someone to their own standards. But Hardwick was ruthless, and so should we be with her. Her short pieces for Vogue, as far as I can tell, were done hungover with her eyes closed. Her 1976 riff on elections mentions Grendel and Kant and Hazlitt and Benjamin Franklin but none of the people on the ballot. The range of quality on show is extreme. “The American Woman as Snow Queen,” published in Commentary in 1951, is a disconnected series of irritations set off by the idea of American women and Europe, both of which induce incoherence. “When to Cast Out, Give Up, Let Go,” the most astonishing essay here, written for Mademoiselle in 1973, is a loving breakdown of emotional sobriety, a categorization Hardwick would probably argue with.
The payouts, when honored, are sizable. In “Mr. America,” Hardwick’s 1968 essay on George Wallace (a “mean man”), she concludes that his “hatred of Negroes and their liberal allies” is a “displacement” that will either fail or “take on new life in some unforeseen, wretched, and appropriate transformation.” Which is what happened, so, points for elegance and vision. Two pages earlier, though, Hardwick manages to cram two unsupported assertions into a single sentence about Wallace’s supporters: “These whites are as badly educated as the blacks, but amazingly unaware of it.” Not even a “seemingly” to soften the blow of the sweeping hand! How afraid of Hardwick were her editors?
The opening essay, about essays, from the introduction to The Best American Essays, 1986, is not really about essays in general but about Hardwick’s essays in particular. She is quoting William Gass here on Emerson, but forgive me for making my own Hardwickian leap. I think we know of what she speaks! “The essay, in Mr. Gass’s view, is a great meadow of style and personal manner, freed from the need for defense except that provided by an individual intelligence and sparkle.” And if we find that, what will we do? “We consent to watch a mind at work, without agreement often, but only for pleasure.” The multitude of sins, active and dormant both, finding harborage within this plush judgment! Later, Hardwick keeps it tight: “A collection of essays is a collection of variations.” Let’s grab that and twist, with affection. A Hardwick essay is a collection of variations, and once we accept the sparkle and pleasure of those varying sentences, Hardwick’s work loses its starchy folds and lays flat. Some pistachios don’t open! Don’t be so greedy! Are we not fed?
“New York City: Crash Course” (1990) is worth, by my own Biblical math, roughly 45 dollars. She tells us in the opening essay that “expertise” (sub in “reporting” if you’re feeling bitchy) is an “acquisition promoted by usefulness” but “less cogent to the essay than passion.” There is a fair amount of expert history in these two sentences about two centuries of New York, even if Hardwick wants us to look for passion: “Van Rensselaer, Schuyler, and Schermerhorn, names with a somewhat heraldic resonance, supplanted the Oneida and the Algonquin. And were themselves supplanted in the porous atmosphere of New York which will, by a vivacious regicide, crown more kings and queens in a year than history knows of.” You can go where you want this week, but you will find no livelier two-word phrase about New York than “vivacious regicide.”
That’s the thing—Hardwick struck out more than her acolytes will admit but, like Babe Ruth, hit it out of the park so many times that counting feels miserly. I have yet to come across a Hardwick collection that didn’t burn itself into my head. Couldn’t be me, objecting to a bunch of misfires and denying myself the best description ever of Manhattan’s financial district workers, “trim from the rigors of the conference call, nervous and powerful on their steeds, lances drawn, rulers of principalities in the Hamptons or in Beverly Hills.” Did she go on? Reader, she did. “Should they be thrown from their horses they will be bathed in unguents, the precious oils of severance pay and bankruptcy bonuses, settlements.” Will I ever hear of an unguent and not picture a disgraced Goldman Sachs bombardier shopping at Sephora with a gift card from God?
Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer from New York.