Firm Lines

Hermione Lee

  • Bartleby in Manhattan, and Other Essays by Elizabeth Hardwick
    Weidenfeld, 292 pp, £8.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 297 78357 2

Elizabeth Hardwick’s terms for the mind at work are revealing. In an essay called ‘Domestic Manners’ which begins with the question ‘How do we live today?’ she reminds us of the duplicity and elusiveness of styles. Just as they seem to ‘the defining imagination’ to look like solid historical facts, they shift and collapse. In ‘The Sense of the Present’, which does for the contemporary American novel what ‘Domestic Manners’ does for styles, she finds the ‘honourable’ quality of (some) modern fiction to be ‘the intelligence that questions the shape of life at every point’.

Hardwick is a cultural analyst who attends to those moments, figures, books or places in which history seems to be most tellingly ‘displayed’. There is, throughout these essays, an interest in symbolic occasions. Three black convicts come out to sweep the Alabama street where a group of Civil Rights demonstrators is standing. A girl in Professor Adorno’s classroom in Frankfurt takes off all her clothes as he discourses on the dangers of spontaneity. Lee Harvey Oswald is photographed holding up two guns, together with the Daily Worker and the Trotskyite Militant: ‘There he stands in the midst of his iconography.’ It is the job of the ‘defining imagination’ to explain such moments. (Of course there are dangers: Hardwick is caustic at the expense of writers whose symbols are too ‘handy’.)

America has a prestigious tradition of such cultural semiologists. William Carlos Williams’s sifting of the American grain (‘to discover the NEW WORLD ... what it has done to us, its quality, its weight, its prophets, its – horrible temper’), H.L. Mencken’s jocular scrutiny of the American language, Edmund Wilson’s cold eye cast alike on political rhetoric, Depression politics and American sex, Norman Mailer’s exploding and exploiting of American myths, are notable instances. And this hasn’t only been a male preserve: witness the admirable Janet Flanner (New Yorker correspondent from 1925 to 1975), Elizabeth Hardwick’s friend Mary McCarthy, and the Californian novelist and essayist Joan Didion. There is really nothing to compare with it in England, unless one excepts Orwell (who rather resembles Wilson in his analyses of the Depression, of false language and of Kipling). Indeed, the last essay in Bartleby in Manhattan is an attack on an English critic, Peter Conrad, for trying his hand at just this sort of thing.

In these American observers and explainers two characteristics recur. The first is a close attention to the significance of detail (‘no ideas but in things’) which is often left to speak for itself. At the Nuremberg trials of 1945 Janet Flanner watches film of a Warsaw pogrom:

One nude Jew still had his hat, which he modestly held before him. One thin young Jewess, lying on a sidewalk, was helped to her feet by an officer so that she could be knocked down again.

That dryness, necessary when things are too terrible for comment, can turn into an almost amused bafflement at things which are too grotesque for belief. This is the second note very often struck by alienated Americans writing about America. Philip Roth in 1961:

The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meagre imagination.

Joan Didion on California in the Sixties:

We interpret what we see ... We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images ... [But] I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself ... Certain of these images did not fit into any narrative I knew.

Didion allows herself a kind of relish for the bizarre horribleness of American life, and that’s also in the tradition: Edmund Wilson’s diaries are full of it. It’s a likely response when, as Hardwick says of the legacy of the Sixties: ‘Things reveal themselves in an atmosphere of grotesque folly.’ But on the whole it’s not her response. Though the ‘defining imagination’ at work here is dry, rational, realistic (‘sanctioned delusions’, in Adorno’s phrase, are disallowed), it’s also morally strenuous and often emotional. Like one of her heroines, Simone Weil, she believes history matters because it is part of the present: she is involved with her material.

The difficulty for the American analyst is to see things personally. ‘Since film and television have staged everything before it happens, a true event, taking place in the real world, brings to mind the landscape of films.’ In response to this challenge, Hardwick sets herself to describe afresh some of the most over-described American phenomena: the Black Power movement, Billy Graham and the television ministries, the sexual revolution as seen in Trash and The Groupies. She has a talent for spotting transitions and overlaps: how the ‘pastoral’ period of the Civil Rights movement gave way to the urban black militants, how the anarchic youth culture of the Sixties collapsed in the Seventies into quietism, recession, insecurity and intimacy: a ‘narcissist society’, characterised by ‘the demonic acceleration of investments in gurus, encounters, magical healings, diets, transcendencies and transformations that compete, like varieties of aspirin, for the remission of aches of the mind and psyche.’

More often, though, she chooses to define American society not by its prevalent fashions and habits but by its exceptions. Bartleby in Manhattan, as its title suggests, is about those misfits and aliens who force a society to re-examine itself. Her theatre reviews, for example, deal with texts or productions which challenge received American ways of putting on plays. Grotowski’s austere Polish Laboratory Theatre, playing in Greenwich Village, is nicely differentiated from ‘the carnival anarchism of our own experimental theatre’: ‘It is Catholic, authoritarian, pessimistic. Our theatre is Jewish, humanistic, and optimistic.’ Grotowski teaches America about discipline and impersonality, an unpalatable intrusion into a theatre cursed by ‘self-loving earnestness’ and ‘ “serious”, eyes-glinting, next-door realism’. These failings are exemplified in productions of Peter Weiss’s The Investigation (‘Auschwitz in New York’) and of Büchner’s ‘noble and complicated’ play Danton’s Death, where for ‘lack of historical feeling’ a ‘sort of coarse tarpaulin fell over the whole enterprise’. By contrast, Hardwick celebrates Peter Brook’s bare, difficult production of Timon set in a working-class district of Paris: the whole event an epitome of alienness and displacement, which she calls ‘Timon of Paris’.

The theme of displacement is found again in her commentary on the film Reds, which sorts out the ‘real’ history of John Reed and Louise Bryant from Warren Beatty’s ‘romantic celebration’; in her account of Lee Harvey Oswald as a ‘ghostly anachronism’ left over from the Depression years, and in her interest in English visitors to America. It’s apparent in her choices of heroes and heroines, all solitary, intrepid, self-determining figures – Thomas Mann, Simone Weil, Vladimir Nabokov – and it is most eloquently displayed in her essay on Melville’s Bartleby. As in her last volume of essays, Seduction and Betrayal, which had among its female victims and survivors a very persuasive account of Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, Hardwick again makes use of a classic American tale of isolation. Bartleby, the obscure lawyer’s scrivener who ‘prefers not to’ do any copying, or leave the office, or accept dismissal from his baffled, well-intentioned employer, is seen as the perfect epitome of ‘Manhattanism’, of the ‘undomesticity’ of New York. But he is also the perfect alien, not at all ‘at home’ in Manhattan, refusing its deal of Consumption and its worship of business. More profoundly, he negates all our (and the lawyer’s) normal expectations of character and plot.

Bartleby is not ‘thinking’ or experiencing or longing or remembering. All one can say is that he is a master of language, of perfect expressiveness. He is style ... He is not a character as we know them in life with their bundling bustle of details, their suits and ties and felt hats, their love affairs surreptitious or binding, family albums, psychological justifications dragging like a little wagon along the highway of experience ... He is indeed only words ... One might for a moment sink into the abyss and imagine that instead of prefer not he had said: ‘I don’t want to’ or ‘I don’t feel like it.’ No, it is unthinkable, a vulgarisation, adding truculence, idleness, foolishness, adding indeed ‘character’ and altering a sublimity of definition.

The passage, with its witty energy and attention to language, displays both the qualities and the dangers of Hardwick’s manner. She is a brilliant analyst of vocabulary, excellent on the ‘folk poetry’ of Sixties groupies (‘If you’re having trouble with your prick, don’t take it out on me’), or on ‘the hopeless pursuit of the descriptive language of sensation’ in modern American fiction (‘solemn scenes of gasping and thrusting’), or on the bizarre conjunctions of the language of the Bible and the language of Billy Graham, where ‘the gorgeous utterances of the Scriptures live amidst the indolent preacher-diction in a barbarous union, illicit and shameless.’ Her own style can be wonderfully dry, as here, on the American reviewers of Danton’s Death: ‘Many men of the press go to the classics all nude and fresh and seem to greet each play as if it were written yesterday on Central Park West ... One reviewer remarked that it would help to know something about the French revolution, but he did not explain what it was that held the knowledge at bay.’ With this caustic precision there is an admirable elegance and fluency. Literary connections are skilfully made, such as the linking of Dinah’s preaching in Adam Bede with Martin Luther King’s ministry, or the comparison of Louise Bryant with Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. She has a light hand with telling anecdotes (Prince Lvov’s visit to the Tsar when his regime was collapsing, to find ‘a jolly, sprightly fellow in a raspberry coloured shirt’) and with swift characterisations: ‘Ernest Ayley, a dreadful and menacing faith healer. This dumpy little primitive in a wig specialises in screams and awful slaps to the head of sick Christians.’ No wonder that she admires Simone Weil’s vocabulary for its ‘expression of distinctions’.

There is another side to Hardwick’s writing, though, which is lusher and less impressive. The essay on Brazil relies too much on impressionistic evocation (‘the histrionic jungle’, ‘the brilliant, irredeemable landscape’ etc). A good deal of writerly writing, a trace of over-susceptibility to modish New York cultural icons (Adorno, Grotowski, Brook, Lévi-Strauss, Philip Rieff – sometimes it begins to sound like a conversation in Woody Allen’s Manhattan) and an occasional irritability: these are the minor flaws. The attack on Peter Conrad’s Imagining America is splendidly cross, but she does misquote him (‘hedonistic abandon’ for ‘abandoned hedonism’ and other smaller slips) and at times wilfully misunderstands him. Conrad’s clever generalisations about English responses to America are too often based, as Hardwick says, on high-handed (and humourless) extrapolations. Trollope’s rueful, comic defence of English vegetables becomes, in Conrad’s version, ‘furious’ and ‘enraged’; the trio of dots at the end of Rupert Brooke’s comment on handsome Americans are described as ‘yearning’ dots. But her distrust of such methods is not always justified. Auden’s death in a hotel room in Vienna is described by Conrad as happening ‘with callous, merciful American efficiency’. The exasperated Hardwick asks: ‘Why callous, why merciful, why American?’ Well, because, as Conrad has just explained, England seems to Auden the place for cosy nursing and doddering decline, America for anonymity and accidents. An unexpected death in a hotel room is callous, but might also be merciful. The point is clear, if artificial.

Hardwick’s more serious hostility to Conrad arises over his lack of deference to great writers. He talks as if the ‘extraordinary talents’ of Lawrence, Isherwood, Auden, Huxley, ‘were blank pages waiting to be scrawled on’ by the American experience. She is particularly incensed by his ‘swift execution’ of Auden, carried out, she says, with ‘abusive, galling hysteria’. By contrast to what is certainly a chilling and gossipy account of Auden’s personal habits, she quotes Geoffrey Grigson’s ‘beautiful tribute’ to Auden’s ‘great poetry’ in which we find ‘explicit recipes for being human’.

Grigson might seem an odd model for benevolence, but it is appropriate that Hardwick’s book ends with this quotation. Being human, as opposed to being clever (or as well as being clever), is her concern. She herself does not respond to the ‘scrawl’ of American experience with clinical neutrality or horrified glee. A firm moral line is being taken: distaste for the ‘sexual information business’ of the Seventies (‘scrofulous enterprises’), anxiety at the ‘pitiless and pathological’ youth culture of the Sixties, a sad recognition that ‘so many promising young people of the Eighties are reluctant to have children. Great ones get their due: there is ‘awe and love’ for Thomas Mann, a eulogy on Simone Weil’s ‘rare and noble’ life, praise for Melville’s ‘profoundly moving tragedy’. Moral tendencies are recognised: a legacy of asceticism, for instance, in all the ‘fornications’ and randomness of modern fiction. Novels still seem to end with ‘accidents, illness or death’. ‘Free as we are ... there is a lingering puritanism somewhere, a mechanical accountability that links transgression with loss and death.’

Her humane sagacity is at its most sympathetic in the essay on ‘Wives and Mistresses’. This continues the interest in betrayed, repressed or misrepresented companions of great writers found in Seduction and Betrayal, with its fine reconsiderations of Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle. The wife’s point of view, as she says there in her piece on Zelda Fitzgerald, ‘gives a peculiar vision, a different lighting to the stage’. We know from her novel Sleepless Nights (1979), which touches intimately on ‘the torment of personal relations’, from Lowell’s The Dolphin (1973), which uses her letters to him after he left her for Caroline Blackwood in 1970, and now from Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick’s own experience of loving, living with, and being left by a great writer. But, as she says of Jane Carlyle, ‘the tone of her letters is guarded and her feelings are always masked by the wit and the good breeding and pride that made a direct plea for sympathy impossible.’ Her personal bitterness – and, as is apparent in Hamilton’s biography, her heroic generosity and toughness – lie beneath these brilliant accounts of Lady Byron (arrogant and devious), Countess Tolstoy (‘devoted one minute, embattled the next’), and Pasternak’s jealous mistress Olga Ivinskaya. But they are not allowed to surface: only the dryest of comments implies the point of view: ‘Olga’s jealousy of Mrs Pasternak is not mitigated by her own reports of Pasternak’s discreditable animadversions on Zinaida, who died in 1966 and thus was not an impediment to discourteous description.’

The tone of voice, at once austere and impassioned, is idiosyncratic. If she is like anyone else, she is more like the Southern ‘Fugitives’, with whom Lowell was closely involved – Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom – than she is like fashionable writers of a later time such as McCarthy or Didion. I am reminded especially of the letters of Flannery O’Connor, who was a friend of the Lowells in the Fifties. Both women have a fierce, intelligent, disciplined, Southern Catholic distaste for sentimentality, lies, Northern liberalism and decadence. Flannery O’Connor used to call Elizabeth Hardwick ‘a Kentucky girl and a mighty fine writer’. And Hardwick says in Sleepless Nights: ‘Kentucky: that is certainly part of it.’ A trace of alien Southernness persists in this most New York of New York writers, making her, too, something of a Bartleby in Manhattan.