Michael Derda previews Daryl Pinkney’s ‘Come Back in September’

Suspension

Francis Bacon famously said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and others to be chewed and digested.” He won’t get any arguments from me, but the great philosopher and essayist left a fourth category: some books we simply devour, unable to stop reading.

These are usually novels – especially fast-paced novels, thrillers and puzzles – but not always. Watch Come September, by Daryl Pinckney, titled Literary Education at West Sixty Seventh Street, Manhattan. That title belonged to the brilliant Elizabeth Hardwicke – depicted on the book cover – who, in the 1970s, led the twenty-something Pinkney through the upper echelons of Manhattan’s 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, Hardwicke fled from Lexington, Kentucky, to New York, where she contributed articles to the semi-legendary Partisan Review, wrote novels, stories, and criticism, 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 remains a large contributor to the magazine they helped found, The New York Review of Books.

Review: With Robert Lowell and his circle

Since Pinckney, now in his late 60s, kept detailed diaries of his younger days, he was able to recreate conversations with “Lizzie,” as she was known to confidants, while providing insightful quotes to the magazine’s co-editors, Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, as well as tales of the era’s paranormal critic, Susan Sontag. The small but scene-stealing portions go to a woman from writers Mary McCarthy, philosopher Hannah Arendt, journalist Murray Compton, poets John Jordan and Sterling Brown, composer Virgil Thompson, and novelists James Baldwin and Norman Mailer.

At first, the structure of “Come Back in September” might seem a bit puzzling. Like James Joyce, Pinckney introduces speech with a dash rather than using quotes. He also uses parentheses to pass on his current comments or related notes by his longtime partner, English poet James Fenton (also a regular member of the NYRB). Moreover, although this is a fairly interesting book, Pinckney honestly notes, in a poignant gesture of remembrance, several friends from the 1970s who died of AIDS.

After all, Hardwicke’s pupil wasn’t just hanging out at West 67th Street. He was also clubbing, drinking at bars downtown and uptown, listening to B-52s and other cutting-edge bands, taking drugs, and living the action-packed youthful artistic life of his. His closest friend was essayist Lucy Santi (in those days Luke Santi), and he was among their nude A mood painter named Samo, better known today as Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Pinckney was working at a used bookstore to pay the bills and devour “The Pure and the Impure” of Colette, everything he could find about Bloomsbury, Count Kessler’s highly cosmopolitan memoir, Melville’s “Billy Bad” (“The saddest thing for me” I ever read went on”), the poetry of Rimbaud, the novels of Henry James and the works of several black writers. Wherever he went, Pinkney recalls, “I carried books and my guild crests.”

For a long time, he hid his homosexuality from his parents, who are pillars of the Indiana branch of the NAACP. They were lovable and successful, and they expected a lot from their bookish son. Once, it seemed as though Pinckney might never complete a bachelor’s degree, leading his mother to express his belief that he would be “the first person in the family since slavery not to earn a college degree.”

After the unexpected heart attack that killed Robert Lowell at the age of 60 in 1977, Hardwicke plunged into shock and grief. By then, she had more or less forgiven Lowell for the hurt caused by his use of her private messages in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dolphin” poems. It looked as if the couple might get together, but instead Pinckney was recruited to do the sad task of cataloging and organizing the late poet’s files and papers.

Even before that, though, he had started writing article reviews on black subjects for review. Thinking back, he almost shivered from the severity of Silvers’ text editing: “He was just as ready when he spoke to you, and he seemed to know as much about your subject as you did.” However, Pinckney found reassurance when she was told that “Susan Sontag is afraid to see her signature manuscripts.” While Sontag’s thoughts were always great, Elizabeth said, “She had no ear.” And getting the sentences right was very important to Hardwicke: “It is unethical to be indifferent to what you put on the page.”

An intimate look at the scandal that tore apart the literary couple

Surely, no reader will be indifferent to the famous stories of “Come Back in September”. Once, critic Georg Steiner and pianist Charles Rosen, who was also a scholar of art, history of music, and literature, wrote essays on German-Jewish literary theorist Walter Benjamin. “Steiner sat annoyed throughout dinner because Rosen didn’t acknowledge his last article about Benjamin. At the end of dinner, he called out to him. Rosen said he didn’t mention it because it was terrible.”

Hardwicke gleefully comments, “I am delighted with the awe of Charles Rosen.”

Again, Pinkney recalls that “actress Susan Fletcher told me that when she studied literature at Red Hole”—Columbia Summer School in Paris—”her education lesson with Helen Sixus consisted of the two crying silently in her office for an hour each week.” At a dinner honoring Alice B. Silvers and Epstein often acted as a married couple in a play by Edward Albee: “They threw galleys, critiqued books, but nothing was printed unless they finally agreed to it.” Because he was spending so much time with radical elegance, Pinckney was concerned that “contemporary black literature was moving on a barge down the river as I waved off the farm dock.”

Tired of a book, I set off for New York, where … I bought more books

This is a good example of the funny humor of the diary. Elsewhere Pinkney tells us that Lizzie “He was so full of praise for my parents that at times I worried that she was about to call them racing credits.” However, Hardwicke can also be funny: in addressing a pagan audience, she notes that “people often begin by declaring that what they are about to read comes from a larger work. Well, I tell you, this is from a much smaller work.”

This work was Sleepless Nights, a loosely autobiographical novel with which he struggles during the first third of Pinckney’s memoir. Published in 1979, it has been widely reviewed and praised, although one young reviewer for the Chronicle of Higher Education called it less novel than a “series of short poetic essays” and “a finely worked cameo.” I think I’ll be less flowery today.

Hardwicke, who passed away in 2007, has always maintained that she owes everything in her life to reading. So, when Pinckney speculated about Lizzie’s audience and why she wrote her books and articles, her friend Barbara Epstein was able to answer him accurately: “Elizabeth Hardwicke wrote to honor the literature she was interested in.” So does Daryl Pinkney.

Literary education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan

Farrar, Strauss and Giroud. 432 pages $32

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