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.”
Pinckney’s wasn’t a literary family, but it was firmly middle class. 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.”
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. “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.”
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