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  • Desperation, Revenge, and MemoirThe Year in the US
  • Leigh Gilmore (bio)

Elizabeth Hardwick told her students that the only reasons to write were "desperation and revenge." Perhaps surprisingly, neither predominates in Darryl Pinckney's memoir about his former teacher and friend, Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-seventh Street, Manhattan. Although desperation and revenge figure in Pinckney's and Hardwick's descriptions of other people—Hardwick's principle is that gossip is merely "analysis of the absent person"—their more frequent target is time itself. Both seek to salvage bygone worlds in life writing: for Hardwick, the south of her Lexington girlhood in the autobiographical novel Sleepless Nights (1979); for Pinckney, this memoir of the downtown NY scene, his student years, and the literary milieu he and Hardwick inhabited differently. The result is complexly elegiac: a braided memoir of different lives in the same place and time, a portrait of the artist as a young man, and a chronicle of the literary world Hardwick ushered him into.

A major figure in mid-century literary New York, Elizabeth Hardwick was one of a handful of women at the heart of publishing, reviewing, writing, and teaching. Along with her dear friend Barbara Epstein, the editor of Anne Frank's diary who features largely in these pages, they are the "unrepeatable women" who cofounded the New York Review of Books. Born almost forty years after Hardwick, Darryl Pinckney is a gay Black man from the Midwest. When he met Hardwick, he was a Columbia undergraduate and aspiring poet who talked his way into one of her creative writing classes. Hardwick soon redirected him from poetry to prose and began inviting Pinckney to weekly dinners at her apartment. As his education with her expanded beyond the classroom, she shared her work and anxieties about it, loaned him books and sought his opinions on them, and maintained a constant presence in his life, mentoring him through the publication of his major work. When he wrote his first piece for the Review, she went through it line by line with him, pushing him to improve, and sharing in the excruciating and exhilarating effort of writing. [End Page 93]

The memoir braids Pinckney's memories of Hardwick with his coming-of-age in New York's vibrant downtown scene in the 1970s and 1980s. He begins in 1973, with the origin story of their friendship as the first time he made Hardwick laugh, and ends in Berlin in the late 1980s. He intercuts between the two timelines, gracefully juxtaposing visits to Hardwick's book-lined apartment, where she hosts dinner parties and leaps from her "long red velvet sofa" to pull a volume from a shelf and read aloud, with scenes from a boisterous club, where the B-52s are playing and his friends, the writer Lucy Sante, musician Felice Rosser, and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, jostle alongside many others who have fame ahead of them. Through flashbacks and flashforwards, the chronology holds, but only loosely. There are no time stamps to anchor the chapters; instead, historical touchstones conjure an unfolding present in which multiple events have not yet settled into their order of significance. Pinckney also writes of those who will not survive the AIDS epidemic, and observes that to offer a full record of those lives would mean filling the margins of his book with their names: "To recall faces in the Bar before AIDS changed the lives it did not end is to cover the page with parenthetical asides" (349).

Hardwick has enjoyed a revival recently. There is Cathy Curtis's 2021 biography, A Splendid Intelligence; as well as Saskia Hamilton's 2019 The Dolphin Letters, a collection of Hardwick's correspondence with ex-husband Robert Lowell; two posthumous essay collections, one edited by Pinckney; and now Pinckney's memoir. Happily, Lowell does not dominate Pinckney's account of Hardwick's place in American letters. As she told him, "Elizabeth Lowell never wrote a thing" (45). Instead, he offers what the other works cannot: a firsthand account of Hardwick the writer and genius, along with his own engagement with Black writing and culture. And what an account it is. Take...