Michael Dirda reviews Darryl Pinckney’s ‘Come Back in September’
Normally these are novels – especially fast-paced fiction, thrillers and mysteries – but not always. Witness “Come back in Septemberby Darryl Pinckney, subtitled “A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan”. This address belonged to the brilliant Elizabeth Hardwick – she is pictured on the cover of the book – who in the 1970s guided twenty-something Pinckney through the upper echelons of Manhattan literary and intellectual life. This memoir of that apprenticeship—by one of our most distinguished writers on African-American culture, literature, and history—provides a “you are there” account of those exciting years.
Born in 1916, Hardwick fled Lexington, Ky., for New York, where she contributed essays to the almost legendary Partisan Review, wrote novels, stories and reviews, and for 20 years was married to poet Robert Lowell. When Pinckney enrolled in Hardwick’s writing class at Barnard, she was recently divorced from Lowell, but she was still a major contributor to the magazine they both helped found, the New York Review of Books.
Because Pinckney, now in his late 60s, kept detailed diaries in his youth, he was able to recreate conversations with “Lizzie”, as she was known to intimates, while providing incisive vignettes of the journal’s co-editors, Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, as well as anecdotes about the superstar critic of the time, Susan Sontag. Writer Mary McCarthy, philosopher Hannah Arendt, journalist Murray Kempton, poets June Jordan and Sterling Brown, composer Virgil Thomson and novelists James Baldwin and Norman Mailer have smaller but stage-stealing roles.
At first, the structure of “Come Back in September” may seem a bit confusing. Like James Joyce, Pinckney introduces speech with a dash instead of using quotation marks. He also uses parentheses to highlight his current comments or the insightful observations of his longtime partner, English poet James Fenton (also a NYRB regular). Also, while largely a joyous book, Pinckney faithfully notes, in a touching gesture of commemoration, the many friends of the 1970s who died of AIDS.
After all, Hardwick’s mentee didn’t just hang out on West 67th Street. He also frequented the clubs, drank in downtown and uptown bars, listened to the B-52s and other high-tech bands, did drugs and lived the whirlwind, adrenaline-charged life of young people. artists. His closest friend was essayist Lucy Sante (at the time Luc Sante), and their inner circle included a whimsical painter called Samo, better known today as Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Pinckney worked at a second-hand bookstore to pay the bills and devoured the “The pure and the impure“everything he could find on Bloomsbury, the journals of the ultra-cosmopolitan Count Kessler, Melville’s”Billy Boudd(“the saddest thing I have ever read”), the poetry of Rimbaud, the novels of Henry James and the work of many black writers. Wherever he went, Pinckney recalled, “I carried books, emblems of my guild.”
For a long time, he hid his homosexuality from his parents, pillars of the Indiana chapter of the NAACP. Admirable and brilliant, they expected a lot from their bookish son. Once it looked like Pinckney wouldn’t be able to finish his BA, leading his mother to protest that he would then be “the first person in the family since slavery not to have a college degree.”
Following the unexpected heart attack that killed Robert Lowell at age 60 in 1977, Hardwick was left in shock and grief. By then she had more or less forgiven Lowell for the harm caused by his use of her private letters in the Pulitzer Prize-winning poems”The dolphin.” It even looked like the couple might reunite, but instead Pinckney was enlisted for the sad task of cataloging and organizing the late poet’s files and papers.
Even before that, however, he had begun writing reviews of black-topic essays for the Review. Thinking back, he almost shudders at the intensity of Silvers’ verbatim editing: “He was so well prepared when he spoke to you, he seemed to know as much about your subject as you do. Still, Pinckney found solace when told that “Susan Sontag freaked out at the sight of her annotated manuscripts”. While Sontag’s ideas were always brilliant, “she just didn’t have an ear,” Elizabeth said. And getting the sentences right mattered deeply to Hardwick: “It’s immoral to be indifferent to what you put on the page.”
Certainly, no reader will be indifferent to the gossip of “Come Back in September”. Once, critic George Steiner and pianist Charles Rosen, also a scholar of art, music history, and literature, both wrote articles about German-Jewish literary theorist Walter Benjamin. “Steiner sat annoyed throughout a dinner party because Rosen didn’t recognize his recent essay on Benjamin. When dinner was over, he called him. Rosen said he didn’t mention it. because it was terrible.
Hardwick happily comments, “I am happily impressed with Charles Rosen.”
Another time, Pinckney recalled that “actress Suzanne Fletcher told me that when she was studying literature at Reid Hall” – Columbia’s summer school in Paris – “her tutoring with Helene Cixous consisted of crying silently in his office for an hour every week.” At a dinner party honoring Alice B. Toklas, writer Katherine Anne Porter whispered to Hardwick, “Honey, if I looked like that, I’d kill myself. Silvers and Epstein often behaved like a married couple in an Edward Albee play: ‘They threw galleys, they slammed books, but nothing was printed unless they both agreed at the end.” Because he spent so much time with the radically chic, Pinckney feared that “contemporary black literature would move on the barge downstream as I waved from the plantation pier.”
This is a good example of the wry humor of memoirs. Elsewhere, Pinckney tells us that Lizzie “was so full of praise for my parents that I sometimes worried she was about to call them race credits.” Yet Hardwick could also be funny: Speaking to an idolatrous audience, she noted that “people often start by announcing that what they are about to read is from a larger work. Well, I tell you, it comes from a much smaller job.
This work wasSleepless nights”, a vaguely autobiographical novel with which she struggles during the first third of Pinckney’s memoir. Published in 1979, it was widely reviewed and enthusiastically praised, although a young reviewer from the Chronicle of Higher Education described it as less a novel than a “series of poetic vignettes” and “a delicately work “. I think I would be less flowery today.
Hardwick, who died in 2007, always maintained that she owed everything in her life to reading. So when Pinckney speculates about Lizzie’s audience and why she wrote her books and essays, her friend Barbara Epstein is able to answer her with precision: “Elizabeth Hardwick wrote to honor the literature she loved. Darryl Pinckney too.
A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 432 pages. $32
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