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The streets of Manhattan are poetry incarnate in the stories that Elizabeth Hardwick published between 1980 and 1993. Here is the city as tidal flux, with private lives set against the racing seasons, cultural delights, changing fashions. There is a dreamlike attentiveness about these subtly crafted and resolutely informal urban adventures. The narrator, who is sometimes elusive and at other times a participant and even a protagonist, is a woman we imagine as being very much like Hardwick herself. She was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1916, studied at the University of Kentucky and Columbia University, began writing essays and fiction in the 1940s, and eventually achieved a considerable reputation among the loose-knit cohort who were more than happy to be known as the New York intellectuals. She once jokingly told an interviewer that her aim, when she was still in college in Kentucky, “was to be a New York Jewish intellectual.” Remove the “Jewish” and that is exactly what this Southern Protestant woman became, albeit in her own magnificently idiosyncratic fashion. Hardwick was 91 when she died in Manhattan three years ago.

Hardwick’s stories have the potency of metropolitan fairytales. It is the eloquence of certain images, characters, and actions that holds us, while the meanings or morals to be drawn from these adventures remain just beyond our reach. Each of Hardwick’s city dwellers is an inveterate individualist, presented in a few quicksilver strokes. The stories are about a community of individualists, and it is through glimpse after glimpse, each one set down individually, like a stroke of paint on a canvas, that she eventually composes a densely populated cityscape, the New York we know and love. She wrote only five of these little urban odysseys, published them over a period of thirteen years in The New Yorker, Antaeus, and The New York Review of Books, and never collected them.

Four of the stories appeared within a few years of the publication of Sleepless Nights, the 1979 novel with which Hardwick announced her idiosyncratic fictional voice. This is the tough-minded lyrical voice of an American Colette, not the fin-de-siècle Colette of the Claudine novels but the older, seasoned, Proustian Colette of Break of Day. Though much of Sleepless Nights is set in New York City, the book is inward-turning, a memory theater with people and places summoned up in the solitude of an Upper West Side apartment where “every morning [there is] the table with the telephone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door, the birdsong of rough, grinding trucks in the street.” Sleepless Nights, so the narrator explains, is about “tickets, migrations, worries, property, debts, changes of name and changes back once more,” a journey that ranges “from Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, to Europe.”

In the New York stories—and in each scene within each story—we find individual destinies set against the drifting, shifting patterns of city life. The mental weather, familiar from Sleepless Nights, has been externalized. “The city people,” Hardwick announces, “are as strong as athletes and in elevated spiritual condition, too.” These are tales of everyday life, but New York is a heroic landscape, so the most casual events are enlarged. “The Bookseller” opens on an evening in November. Excitement is in the air. “People have stopped going to their country places for the weekend because, it is said, there is too much going on in the city.” On the Upper West Side, “the cafés are steaming, and from the restaurant doors garlic floats toward the hoods of cars waiting for the light.” In another story, this one takes place in December, a scene is set at Fairway Market in the West Seventies, where a writer whose conservative political views are much in demand “stands in the line to buy an apple [and] feels the breath of opinion on his back.” In the blocks between Times Square and the main branch of the New York Public Library, at 42nd and Fifth—which is the setting for yet another tale“there is something hot and tropical about shoddy, dusty, fatigued little business places in which the winter air seems rich with summer flies.” And one evening on the East Side, when the moon over Lexington Avenue is “outclassing every miracle,” the teller of the tale, who lives on the West Side, admires the stores which “were at last closed and where many little shoes and blouses were enchained for the night’s sleep.”

It is wonderful to have these stories gathered together, but The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, as they have been edited by Darryl Pinckney, a writer who was a friend of Hardwick’s, is not the book I had hoped for. Perhaps in an effort to bulk up the volume, the five late stories have been linked with eight earlier pieces of fiction, which are far more conventional in form. Even if these earlier stories, from the 1940s and 1950s, were more accomplished, their mild-mannered naturalism would make a very poor fit with the gorgeously polished idiosyncracies of Hardwick’s mature prose. And if the misfit between early and late work were not disturbing enough, there is the additional strange fact that two of the earlier stores in The New York Stories are not even set in New York.

In his introduction, Pinckney writes of Hardwick’s “ambivalence about the short stories she published in the 1950s,” explaining that she found “them entirely too conventional in structure and intent.” He concludes that she “was altogether too hard on herself.” My own feeling is that Hardwick was absolutely right. The early stories and two earlier novels—The Ghostly Lover (1945) and The Simple Truth (1955)—have nothing in common with the fiction of Hardwick’s that will live, namely Sleepless Nights and the five late New York stories. Hardwick knew how long it was taking her. In an essay called “George Eliot’s Husband” in 1955, she observed of the great English novelist that “as one grows older this industrious, slowly developing soul becomes dear for a secret reason—for having published her first story at the age of thirty-eight.” Hardwick published her first story before that age, but she did not come of age as a fiction writer until she was around sixty.

The key to Hardwick’s mature fiction cannot be discovered in her earlier fiction—or for that matter in anybody else’s fiction. The case is far more unusual. The unique character of Hardwick’s finest imaginative prose has everything to do with her experience as a non-fiction writer, as a critic and an essayist. Although Sleepless Nights has been called “a novel without a plot,” it would be closer to the truth to say that Hardwick’s fictions are plotted in the same way as her most original essays. She conveys an imaginative or intellectual development through a carefully arranged succession of images, characters, ideas, and speculations. The plots in her fiction do not involve the evolution of character but the movements of the narrator’s imagination. Something happens, but it is happening in the author’s mind.

It is in the informal audacity of her first essay collectionA View of My Own, published in 1962 and never reprinted—that we see the origins of Hardwick’s finest fiction. One essay, “Memoirs, Conversations and Diaries,” opens with Alain and Valéry arriving for a lunch in Paris, shifts to Clive Bell, moves between France and England and different centuries, turns to contemporaries and friends of Hardwick’s such as Randall Jarrell and Katherine Anne Porter, and somehow ends with Tolstoy and Gorky. What holds it all together is the author’s—the narrator’s—meandering, pellucid mind. This is precisely the intelligence that sustains her fiction. In Sleepless Nights, Hardwick takes us on a journey through a woman’s memories. In the New York stories, she takes us on a psychological journey through the streets of the city.

That fiction is the most open and flexible of literary forms is self-evident, and there are a great many novels that include essays or essayistic passages of one sort or another. The originality of Hardwick’s fiction has everything to do with the extent to which a fictional world is entirely subsumed in an essayistic form. Although in the 1970s and 1980s Hardwick often wrote about books and writers in a relatively straightforward manner, her greatest gift, in the work in A View of My Own and in later speculative writings such as “Militant Nudes,” “Wives and Mistresses,” and “The Sense of the Present,” is not for the orderly argument. What Hardwick is looking for is a new way to gather together her steely but disparate impressions and apprehensions. She is looking not for an answer to a question but for a way of approaching a problem, a way of beginning to grapple with some aspect of experience.

Hardwick is hesitant when it comes to drawing conclusions. In Seduction and Betrayal, the collection of essays on women and literature she published in the 1970s, the essential point of the concluding title essay, which is that sex can no longer be the driving force in fiction, is offered quickly, almost casually, as if she felt that to drive any idea home too hard would be an embarrassment. Hardwick’s best writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, involves weaving together an array of perceptions and ideas into a fabric that is strong yet supple. In the story “Back Issues,” we have paragraphs on women’s fashion, on the fading value of old essays in little magazines, on the landscape of the West Forties, on a handsome middle-aged Greek man, and on a relative of his who runs a hotdog stand. George Gissing, Allan Tate, John Berryman, A Winter’s Tale, an old woman doing genealogical research, memories of assignations in slightly sordid hotels: all of this is somehow contained within the quickening pages of “Back Issues.”

The New York stories are not narrative so much as exposition, not the storyteller relating events but the fortune-teller displaying on her table an array of cards, each with its individual meaning, the meanings when taken together suggesting a situation, maybe even a destiny. In “Cross-town,” the storyteller, visiting old friends from Kentucky who have moved to New York, finds herself thinking about a nineteenth-century banquet in a New York restaurant, and about Rachmaninoff, Victor Serge’s The Conquered City, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and a fine but unfashionable painter friend and his wife. What holds it all together is the author’s search for the nature of New Yorkfor what she once referred to in an essay as “the present landscape in which an astonishing number of people still live.”

But the writing is also held together by the novelistic exactitude of the descriptions, the telling angle at which each element is regarded. The couple of pages in “Cross-town” about her painter friend, the distinguished artist who has not done as well as he was expected to do, are startling, an immaculate exercise in the power of the realistic detail. “On Monday mornings,” we are told, “the wife goes down to the basement with her laundry and sits through the cycles of washing and drying with a nodding patience.” Meanwhile, her husband “with some abashment takes the shopping cart out of the closet and goes off with a list to the supermarket.” The abashment and the shopping cart are very good; the fact that the shopping cart comes “out of the closet” makes it unforgettable. This aging childless couple speak of saving money by moving all year round to their country place, but, so Hardwick reports, “it would not do, no, even though they are little engaged in the city’s art affairs.”

Darryl Pinckney comments that these stories published in the 1980s are “by now set in a vanished landscape.” I do not agree. No matter how much great cities change, they also retain some essential character. And this, or so I believe, is one of Hardwick’s central ideas. Her portrait of New York City, this opulent crazy quilt, is a timeless rendering of a constantly changing city. Her characters are both particular and archetypal. Ackermann, the neo-conservative intellectual who lives on the East Side, is the not-so-great great man. He is on the West Side to visit his sister Miriam, who is recovering from pneumonia and whose life “is a large canvas of nymphs and satyrs, matrons and courtiers.” Miriam is sloppy, demanding, needy but self-reliant, and her conversation about her circle of friends “is an innocent, diffused commentary like something coming through earphones.” Ackermann cannot bear her guiles and evasions. Yet he is equally devious, albeit in a ready-for-prime-time way. It turns out that Ackermann’s conservatism is based in a whim, or at least something close to it. He was in Miami in 1972, “at the time of the Republican Convention,” outside the Fontainebleau Hotel, watching “the delegates and their families, modest Republicans, unworldly and very boring, he thought.” And then, as he was standing there, a female protester rushed up to the hotel and undressed, and “Ackermann decided at that moment to vote for Nixon. He published his intention and thus his new life…began.”

But there is more to Ackermann. “On the Eve” turns out to be a love story about Ackermann’s truncated affair with Joanna, a woman of decidedly liberal beliefs, a “minor heiress” for whom he will certainly not consider leaving his wife, “a sociologist and a commentator on the affairs of women.” And yet he still has that “green patch of feeling for Joanna.” And as his wife is away, lecturing in Sweden, Ackermann’s mind turns to Joanna. He makes a late night excursion to try and find Joanna—he believes she may be working with the homeless in Penn Station—but there is no Joanna. In spite of his swaggering reputation he finds himself alone and bereft, heading home through “a midnight Thirty-Fourth street. A marauding emptiness; shaved heads of dummies in Macy’s windows.”

The last of the stories, “Shot,” is about the death of a cleaning woman named Zona, shot by a thief in the backseat of the car service she takes from her jobs in Manhattan back home to the Bronx or Queensthe truth is the people she works for don’t know exactly where she lives. Hardwick devoted some beautiful pages in Sleepless Nights to the lives of cleaning women, but in “Shot” the subject is not so much the “tall, very thin” Zona as it is her nephew Carlos, who visits her various employers in Manhattan, trying to raise the money for Zona’s funeral in Alabama. We meet the people who hire a cleaning woman: a gay decorator who barely has a clientele; a cultivated but disappointed man who has worked for years in a distinguished print shop on Madison Avenue, a show owned by a distinguished dealer, a Jewish refugee from Germany; and a woman, Cynthia, a flautist, now divorced, but with a townhouse on the Upper East Side, living a slightly chaotic and exceedingly comfortable existence.

Initially, Cynthia seems to be one of those vague liberal spirits, unwilling to confront the yawning gap in expectations and opportunities that separates her from the poor. She invites Zona’s nephew into her home as if he were a friend. She speaks of Zona as if she had been a friend, although Cynthia clearly had little sense of how Zona lived. “I consider it very brave of Zona to set foot into my jungle,” she tells Carlos. “An army couldn’t handle it.” Cynthia’s finances, we are informed, “were more than a little murky.” And yet it is Cynthia who takes Zona’s nephew Carlos to the bank—he has no way to cash a check—and withdraws “a thousand dollars in fifties and twenties” so that Zona can be buried in “the grass and myrtle of the cemetery lying in the Alabama autumn.” When we last see Cynthia, she is still rather uncertain about her act of generosity, musing, “Nothing for Planned Parenthood this year. But no matter, no matter.” Joseph, who works in the print shop, has given Carlos two hundred dollars. As for Tony, the decorator, not only is he penniless, he is also a casual racist. All he can think to say of Zona’s death is that “they love funerals.” Hardwick leaves that “they” hanging in the air. Her point, if the story can be said to have a point, is that the hardness and the generosity exist simultaneously, that they are both woven into the fabric of the city.

Hardwick’s fiction is deeply, resolutely unconventional, with the exactitudes of nineteenth-century realism shredded, collaged, recomposed. In its dauntlessly experimental spirit, her work suggests the enthusiasm for the modernist adventure in the arts that was embraced by Partisan Review in its early days; and of course Hardwick, although too young to be a part of the first years of PR, was a regular contributor in the 1940s and 1950s. As things turned out, the New York intellectuals were less sympathetic to experimentation in the literary arts than one might have been led to expect. They loved the idea that a novelist could speak to a large audience, and their ideal was Bellow’s fictions, works of miraculous quality that had the additional attraction of prospering on the bestseller lists.

Hardwick was close friends with Mary McCarthy—Sleepless Nights is dedicated to her and to Hardwick’s daughter—who was herself a bestselling author, writing a prose that would have been perfectly acceptable in the nineteenth century. Among the herd of independent minds that Harold Rosenberg half-mockingly associated with the New York intellectuals, Hardwick was a truly independent imagination, with an inventive sense of literary form that is in some respects closer to Paul Goodman, another PR oddball, than to Rahv or McCarthy. I suppose the argument can be made that the poetry in Hardwick’s prose owes something to her long marriage to Robert Lowell, as well as to her friendships with a number of other poets. But Hardwick rarely wrote about poetry, and it is perhaps a misconception to imagine that poetic prose has its roots in verse.

The beauties of Sleepless Nights and the late New York stories arise not from the force of words arranged in a musical line but from the sense of images, characters, and ideas exactingly shaped, with the words always serving the image, the character, the idea. What is astonishing is how perfectly each paragraph in Hardwick’s fictions holds in the mind. Coming back to these stories—coming back to pages I have not read in decades—I find in memory they have remained crystal clear. The used book dealer in his shop on the Upper West Side, the neoconservative buying his apple at Fairway, the middle-aged couple who have moved to Manhattan from Louisville, the woman who pays for Zona’s funeral: they take their place in the great New York story, along with Bellow’s Tommy Wilhelm, the painter and singer in Willa Cather’s “Coming Aphrodite,” the heartbroken heiress in Washington Square, and Melville’s Bartleby.

Jed Perl is art critic for The New Republic.