Reading Darryl Pinckney’s freewheeling new memoir, Come Back in September, is like being at a particularly fabulous literary party. Wander its book-lined rooms, and in time you meet just about everyone who was anyone in New York in the years – wild and unstoppably creative – between 1973 and 1989. Here is Susan Sontag dancing at a West Village joint called the Cock Ring with Fran Lebowitz, and here is Mary McCarthy writing, indelicately in the eyes of some, of her late friend Hannah Arendt’s feet (“I think she only once had a corn”). Here is the critic William Empson with chewing gum in his ears (intended to drown out the noise of students at the college where he was a visiting professor), and here is the poet John Ashbery pulling hard on a Gauloise as he reads from his new collection (Jacques Derrida was in the audience).
Norman Mailer struts by and so does his arch enemy, Gore Vidal; James Baldwin and Elizabeth Bishop both appear. But the real star of the show – the book’s constant and slightly terrifying presence – is the critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick, Pinckney’s friend of more than three decades and the key that first turned the lock on his exciting New York life. Pinckney, an award-winning novelist, playwright and essayist, has long kept a diary – he began it as a closeted teenager – and for the purposes of writing this book, which he did mostly during the Covid-19 lockdown, he has raided it as one would a well-stocked larder. Though Hardwick’s life has been much picked over since her death in 2007, the biographers and other vultures attracted as much by her marriage to the troubled Pulitzer prize-winning poet Robert Lowell as by her own dazzling output, you’ll never find her more vividly described than in the pages of Come Back in September: her clothes (chic), her cooking (bad), her aphorisms (which struck like bolts of lightning).
Pinckney met Hardwick, then best known for her excoriating essay The Decline of Book Reviewing, in 1973 when he applied to get into her creative writing class at Barnard College, New York. Having signed up successfully – he told her that he and his roommate would kidnap her daughter Harriet, a friend of theirs, if she rejected him – she quickly took a shine to him, inviting him to her home on West 67th Street even when she wasn’t holding a seminar there, and thus, his real literary education began. A student at Columbia, nothing he’d experienced so far came even close to Hardwick’s “evangelism” for books, her sheer dedication to the practice of criticism (with Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers, in 1962 she had helped found the New York Review of Books). But she was seductive in other ways, too. She confided in him, up to a point. Though she claimed to disdain gossip, she would often forget her own rule. The phone would ring, and there she would be, breathless with tales of the latest outrage. He was all ears, of course.
Is his book a kind of love letter? When we talk via video call – he’s in New York, where he lives with the poet James Fenton, his partner since 1990 – he tells me that he never quite lost the feeling he was Hardwick’s student. But yes, there was something else, too. “We connected, and I don’t know why that was,” he says. “I remember leaving her place with books or new names and feeling very… set up; another adventure awaited me when I got back to my room, and it just made me feel more alive. Her home wasn’t the only place I got that feeling. New York was full of stimulation: it was a more anarchic city then. But her house was a place where you were free to think.”
Was he a tiny bit frightened of her? On the page, she’s pretty intimidating. “I’d rather shoot myself than read that again,” she’ll say, presented with her students’ work. Or: “I don’t know why it is that we can read Dostoevsky and then go back and write like idiots.” Having looked at some of Pinckney’s verse, she announces: “You’re the worst poet I’ve ever read. You mustn’t write poetry any more.” But, no: it was excitement that he felt mostly, not awe. “There was no malice in her tone when she was being severe. It was the kind of education that isn’t allowed at the moment – you know, where you get professors who seem mean, but actually they’re only mean to you because you’re the one who’s going to get [ie understand] it.”
The book begins with their first encounter, on a New York pavement – “Professor Hardwick… was on the job, in a short black leather coat and green print scarf, carrying a stiff leather satchel with short handles just wide enough for a certain number of student manuscripts” – and ends with the death of her friend, the novelist Mary McCarthy, in 1989. In between, a lot happens. Most notably, there is the death of Robert Lowell. Hardwick had divorced Lowell in 1972 – he left her for the writer Caroline Blackwood, a member of the Guinness family and the second wife of Lucian Freud – but it was in a taxi outside her door that he collapsed in 1977 (he was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital). “She knew he was gone,” writes Pinckney. “His fingers had fastened over a parcel, Lucian Freud’s portrait of Caroline… Elizabeth told me that she carried that portrait around the hospital’s chaotic corridors.”
Hardwick once told Pinckney, only half-joking, that meeting her was the worst thing that had ever happened to him; she worried that thanks to her, he would try to be too literary a writer, and never manage to make a living. So what was the pre-Hardwick Pinckney like? “Well, one’s past self is a problem,” he says, with a smile. “But yes… I’m from Indianapolis, though my family is from Georgia. We went south sometimes, and we had holidays when we drove to the west coast to see cousins who were very sophisticated, in our view. But Indiana was pretty much all I knew growing up.”
His wasn’t a literary family, but it was firmly middle class. “My father had wanted to be a chemist, but the pharmaceutical companies weren’t hiring blacks at the time, so he ended up a dentist. It was a rather happy childhood, very sort of enclosed. My parents wanted me to know about the world – my father was furious when I dropped African American history – but they didn’t want me to be hurt by it. I think for a lot of parents in the 60s, whether black or white, the world was very new and rather terrifying when it came to what the young could be exposed to, so they were always on guard. I had to get away from Indiana, and the only way I could do that was to go to school [university] in New York.”
He wasn’t out to his parents, but at Columbia, he could be himself. “People didn’t care that you were gay, or black. They didn’t even ask questions about it, so you just ran with them. They seemed very sophisticated kids to me. They’d read things I’d never heard of, and they were rather political. I’d been political myself; I was on a Free Angela Davis committee [Davis, the black activist, was imprisoned in 1970 after guns belonging to her were used in an armed takeover of a courtroom; she was later acquitted of all charges]. But they’d read the Communist Manifesto in the fifth grade! It was immediately exciting, and a great relief because all the anxiety of hiding just fell away. You know, a lot of the black militancy was very macho and, for me, an extension of bullying. I think one of the reasons I was happy to be a Marxist was because the bullying there was not physical.”
In those days, for better or worse, university teaching was different to the way it is now. Pedagogy was a form of seduction. “Elizabeth wasn’t the only professor we hung out with,” he says. “There was a different generational relationship. Our teachers were heroes to us.” The literary culture was also quite different: “[A lot of writing now is just] a sort of child’s drawing: blue sky at the top, maybe green or brown at the bottom, and a sort of blank in the middle. I came of age in a culture that had so many more rooms in it. One’s ambition wasn’t to write a bestseller. The ambition was to write something… great. We were asked to have very high ambitions because those teaching us had very high ambitions, and spoke openly about it.”
Only men talked of the so-called great American novel, but this hardly mattered. “Second wave feminism had a real, immediate impact, certainly in New York. Literature by women was avant garde.” Above all, criticism was still thought vital: “People used to knock themselves out over essays, a very distinguished form.” He wonders now if part of his motive for writing Come Back in September wasn’t to try to work out what has been lost. “Fine writing is kind of suspect these days,” he says.
He is appalled by the rise of sensitivity readers and trigger warnings; identity politics, he believes, is forcing people into culs-de-sac from which it may be extremely difficult ever to back out. “I find myself in lots of books,” he says. “They don’t have to be by a gay, black man of a certain age for that to happen. What makes James Baldwin riveting is not that he’s black and gay; it’s that he’s a genius. I’m not for censorship of any kind. If a book offends you, don’t buy it.”
Publishers have, he believes, been infected by something that began on university campuses; in the grip of theory, both have been weakened as places for experimentation. “It’s a sort of suppression. I don’t want to be the guy who’s saying: when I was young, things were better. But I do find this real sharp repudiation [of ideas and of people] in the name of progress to be a form of cowardice.
“There’s no way a student should be in charge of the classroom. I don’t believe in safe environments. I don’t believe in triggers – and anyway, you’re supposed to be triggered. I do believe in respect, and calling people what they want to be called. But I don’t believe in a freedom that comes at the price of someone else’s; in saying ‘it’s my turn to be master now’. I don’t like to reach for analogies like the Cultural Revolution. But we live in a time where there is such hostility towards expertise. It’s a form of policing thought… this atmosphere of correction.”
Is he afraid of cancel culture himself? He doesn’t believe he’s famous enough to attract the attention of the moralisers. But even if he were, he wouldn’t allow himself to be held hostage by Twitter. “Who are these phantom junior staff [at publishing houses] who would get so upset they would walk out?” His smiling disdain for publishers that allow themselves to be distracted by such threats is magnificent. “I find it disgusting and rather inferior,” he says, softly.
This sounds, to my ears, like a line straight out of Hardwick. But whether it does or it doesn’t, he no longer hears her voice in his head when he’s writing. “I don’t sound like her any more. Sometimes, editing this book, I would think: that’s a long sentence! But I didn’t do much to my journal entries other than to leave stuff out. I flinch at the sound of [the young] me, sometimes, but it’s just the rush of having seen Elizabeth Hardwick or Susan Sontag.”
In recent years, Hardwick has come to be thought of as long suffering – largely, I suppose, because of her relationship with Lowell. Pinckney’s version of her, however, stands at an angle to this. “I was very surprised to come across her saying, in my diary, that Lowell was mad [he had bipolar disorder and was often hospitalised], because after his death, the one thing she really minded was people concentrating on how crazy he was rather than on how hard he worked.” Lowell, Pinckney notes, only married excellent writers: Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, Caroline Blackwood. In their commitment to their work, and in their talent, he and Hardwick were firm equals.
His book ends in 1989, but Hardwick lived on for 18 years, dying at the age of 91. What happened to their relationship? Did they go on being friends? It’s complicated. “After I met James and moved to England, she was furious.” Why? “Well, it was England…” Hardwick didn’t share the anglophilia of her friend Robert Silvers, perhaps because it was in England that Lowell had lived with Blackwood. “She was very nervous when she met James, but afterwards she said: well, he’s as comfortable as an old shoe. You know, she and he had some real disagreements over poetry, and they were personal because poetry was personal then.” In this period of his life, Pinckney wasn’t writing or publishing much – he was too busy enjoying what he calls, with a huge smile, “James-land”, a fascinating and delightful realm that continues to make him very happy – and this disappointed her, he believes.
A gap in their understanding opened up. He liked her biography of Herman Melville, published when she was 84. But when she became interested in watching trials on TV – it struck her that while murder always has a motive in literature, it hardly ever does in real life – it was difficult. He was in Oxfordshire (Fenton was the Oxford professor of poetry). “At the end, she was in a wheelchair. She was mischievous, but I sort of figured out that she wasn’t really reading any more. I knew it wouldn’t be much longer then.”
Even more than it is about friendship, Come Back in September is about the transformative value of reading. Before our video call ends, I wonder aloud which of the books that Hardwick pressed on him he would now press on me, or any other reader. He thinks for a minute. “I came to [the poet] Elizabeth Bishop through her, so I would say any Elizabeth Bishop. But I don’t think she ever recommended a bad book. I trusted her, and while I was working on this memoir, I realised how much I still miss her.” If Hardwick was occasionally tricky, she was always worth it: “To know her was the luck of my youth.”
Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan by Darryl Pinckney is published by Quercus (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
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