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The Writing Life

SIGHT-READINGS: American Fictions.\o7 By Elizabeth Hardwick (Random House: 288 pp., $26)\f7

September 20, 1998|SUSIE LINFIELD | Susie Linfield teaches in the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University and is a contributing writer to Book Review

Elizabeth Hardwick takes her time. In an essay on Carl Sandburg, she spends almost 17 pages discussing Vachel Lindsay and Edgar Lee Masters before turning to her ostensible subject. When writing book reviews, she's in no apparent hurry to engage the book under consideration, which may be because the real subject under consideration is her own critical faculty, her view of the world and of literature's relationship to it. In a writer less astute and engaging, this meandering style would be annoying and self-indulgent. But Hardwick is astute and engaging, so reading her ruminations on virtually any subject is a delight.

Her new collection, "Sight-Readings," includes essays on such disparate writers as Henry James, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Bishop and Nadine Gordimer. But many of the pieces concentrate on the top guns of postwar American fiction, including John Cheever, John Updike, Philip Roth, Joan Didion, Richard Ford and Norman Mailer. She discusses several biographies, too, virtually all of which she loathes. In fact, she regards the vogue for fact-filled, scandal-stuffed biographies--with their "exhaustive, definitive coziness"--with unrelieved scorn and describes practitioners of the form as "the quick in pursuit of the dead."

Of Joan Givner's life of Katherine Anne Porter, Hardwick writes, "Garrulousness and a certain untidiness in 1932 are excavated and rebuked in 1982, showing at least one of the dangers of living. The celebrated do not understand that they are chatting away in a bugged universe," and she mocks Givner's belief in "the presumed umbilical attachment of life and fiction." Sandburg's 1991 biographer, Penelope Niven, who waded through the "great haystack" of the poet's papers, is likened to a "celestial Xerox machine" churning out "details that consciousness erases overnight."

Hardwick is also decidedly unimpressed by so-called oral histories or oral literature, be they those of Studs Terkel, Peter Manso (biographer of Norman Mailer) or Mailer himself (in "The Executioner's Song"). "It is often the task of the historian and the imaginative writer to discover the silences behind speech, the silences that produced the romantic text of James Agee's 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,' " Hardwick writes. "Instead, what we have here is a sort of decomposed creativity, a recycling similar to that of the obsolete ragman who turned old clothes into paper." (Indeed, after reading this new collection, only a fearless or foolhardy writer would embark on a biography of Hardwick herself--which may be part of her point.)

Hardwick's unsentimental view of the often tangled relationship between love and marriage--somewhat reminiscent of Doris Lessing's--emerges like a subterranean theme throughout these essays. (Hardwick's long marriage to the poet Robert Lowell was famously difficult; I will leave it to far braver souls, however, to ascertain how, or even whether, that union influenced her writing.) She notes that her friend Mary McCarthy "has written in her memoirs of her detestation of [Edmund] Wilson's body and soul, information provided by her decision to become his wife." She describes Porter as "a woman who was not made for marriage and thus married four times" and observes: "She never liked the constant presence of her husbands or lovers and did not like, she soon found out, to be alone--a dilemma in one shape or another common to most of mankind."

Hardwick reports that Wilson was influenced by, among other works, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, with its "[s]obriety, terseness, lucidity, and precision--and, indeed, his own compositions are wonderful in clarity, balance, movement, language, always at hand to express the large capacity of his mind and experience." This is an excellent summation of Hardwick's own style and strengths. Yet there is a certain frustrating, overly subdued tone--an indirection, a lack of passion uncharacteristic of Hardwick's previous work--that sometimes emerges in these essays.

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