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.

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